I just came across something that really enhanced my awareness about the power of the language that is used in the way people talk about “God.” Obviously our language about “God” can never capture or describe who “God” is because “God” is an utter mystery unable to be defined by ideas or captured by words. On the other hand, human beings communicate with one another through the use of language and symbols and so, of course, we will talk about “God” in images that are familiar to us.
I have often thought about how our language about “God” generally reflects something of how a culture or society understands themselves. In a very real sense people fashion “God” into their own image; hence a nation ruled by a powerful monarch will undoubtedly talk about “God” as a mighty King.
In my reading yesterday I was also struck by the fact that our God language does not only reflect a culture, it also influences a culture. God-language has a powerful effect over the way people think about themselves.
In her book, The Dance of a Dissident Daughter, Sue Monk Kidd makes a very persuasive argument that the predominantly “male” language that is used in talking about “God” strongly influences the way in which women think about themselves and it influences how women are treated in society:
The core symbols we use for God
represent what we take to be the highest good.
These symbols or images shape our worldview, our ethical system
and our social practice –how we relate to one another.
If the key symbol for God is that of a male king,
we become a culture that values and enthrones men and masculinity.
There is something infinitely sad about little girls
who grow up understanding (usually unconsciously) that
if God is male, it’s because male is the most valuable thing to be.
This belief resonates in a thousand hidden different ways
in the lives of girl children and female adults
While the language we use about “God” is never a description of who “God” is, the language we use is a powerful cultural force and this language needs to be used very carefully and thoughtfully.
I am reminded of something Episcopal priest, Barbara Brown Taylor, once observed:
The supreme challenge
is to see God’s image in one that’s not in our own image,
for only then can we see past the reflection in the mirror
to the “God” we did not make up.
I find great wisdom in this observation - when I talk about and think about “God” if the “God” I think about looks like me and mine, I probably need to look beyond that reflection in the mirror and expand my images and ideas.
Sue Monk Kidd argues that we need more feminine images of “God” to counterbalance all the male language, and I certainly agree with her; but I also think that images of “God” that are less anthropomorphic might also help us to look beyond the reflection in the mirror.
Instead of talking about “God” as “Heavenly Father” or a “Divine Mother,” I often prefer to think of “God” as a rushing wind, a gentle breath or a burning flame (all of which are found in the Bible). And when I talk about “God” I often use words like “Abiding Holy Presence,” a “Force of Love” or the “Energy that weaves the universe together.”
The truth is that, when it comes to “God” nowadays out here in my desert home, I find myself not using any words at all. I sit in the emptiness and experience the fullness of presence - words get in the way.