God Language

Many individuals and congregations experience differences — and even tension — around our images and language about God. This issue arises most often in relation to the gender identity of our words and images referring to God. Some experience exclusively masculine imagery for God to be sexist and hurtful, while others experience feminine imagery to be unorthodox and discomforting. So should we change the language in our public worship or not? The question seems volatile, but with care our differences can become a door to deeper understanding.

Theologically, we are always on thin ice when we think we know what to call God. The Hebrews knew that, and so they never said "Yahweh." They said "You-Know-Who." They said, "He-Who-Should-Not-Be-Named." They said, "The LORD." In our matter-of-fact way, we compress the infinity and deny the mystery of God when we think we know God's name — even when we think God is a "he." Moses asked directly and got no clear answer. God said, "There is no name for me. I am Being itself. I have ho 'handle.' I simply AM." In fact, God says explicitly: "Don't have any graven images of me. Don't start seeing me in one way alone."

All God language is euphemistic and metaphorical. So none of our names or images of God are completely right. All of them say something about God, even if they are contradictory: God is Three, and God is One. God is a great warrior, but also a sacrificial victim. God is Word and God is Silence. God is both Father and Son. Jesus is both the Lamb of God and also the Great Shepherd. God is both Father and Mother. The image of the Holy Trinity suggests that part of God's nature is that God is this, and also the opposite of this, and also none of the above. A variety of images of God remind us that God is infinite.

Differing images are important for a second reason. Ultimately, God is not some object that we can talk about in the third person. God is always and infinitely present, and it is impossible to talk ABOUT God without talking TO God — which is what God wants: our relationship. The only really faithful name for God is "Thou." All the rest of our language for God ought to be clumsy and remind us that as long as we are talking about God and not to God, we don't know what we're talking about. Our different names and images for God can remind us that God is present.

A variety of God-images are also valuable because our images of God are not only theological statements; they are also personal expressions of faith. Our names and images of God express our relationship with God. Every time we name God, we are sharing our faith. Every time we experience someone else's name for God, we hear his/her testimony; and even if his/her story is different from ours, our own faith is enriched. One person may cringe to think of God as "Mother," but it may draw another closer to God. We can't enforce or prohibit the use of any particular name or image of God, because we can't dictate someone else's experience of or relationship with God. As with anyone's testimony, what we can do is simply listen and open our hearts. Different images of God can help us value one another's faith.

I think this means some practical things for our congregations:

  1. Leaders need to establish the ground rules: Everybody's God language is appropriate. People's God language signifies a relationship that you can't interfere with. You can raise questions and offer additional perspectives, but you can't dictate. You can't prohibit anybody from using any language about God. Whether they want to call God "Jehovah" or "Big Dog," you can't judge the validity of how that name connects them with God. People just need to get used to that.
  2. Pastors and other leaders should give attention to teaching people what the church's traditional images mean and what they don't mean. For instance, the "fatherhood" of God is about relationship, not biology. Our people won't know how to reflect theologically about these things — instead of just reacting emotionally — unless we give them the tools.
  3. Pastors and other worship leaders should expose people to a variety of images of God, both familiar and new, both comforting and provocative. People should regularly hear God referred to in public worship with images that are male, female, and gender neutral. In a worship service the choir may sing an anthem with thickly sexist, male-dominated language, while the prayers are full of feminine imagery. People can sing their own words, with their personal substitutions, if they wish. People should be encouraged to take responsibility for their own faith.
  4. None of this will deepen people's faith; and some of it will just confuse them, unless we talk about it. In sermons, in Sunday school classes, in other settings, wherever we can, we need to talk about these issues! Create an environment in which everyone's perspective is honored. Invite people to share their faith. What are people's images of God? What do various biblical names and images mean? How do certain names and images help them connect with God? Are there aspects of God to which our language has blinded us? Are there new images that help us draw nearer to God? The point is not who is "right" or "wrong," but that we are all seeking.

The frustration over conflicting images need not be defeating. It can invite us to deeper faith, community, and worship.

Steve Garnaas-Holmes is pastor of Bow Mills United Methodist Church in Bow, New Hampshire. He is the author/composer of the hymn "Spirit of God," 2117 in The Faith We Sing.

Copyright © 2006 Steve Garnaas-Holmes. Used by permission.

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