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Friday, December 30, 2005

speaking of god

A couple of blogs that I read have recently had discussions about Bible translations, and the different ways the translators handle the task of finding the right English word for the Hebrew or Greek text.

It got me thinking about the different words we use when speaking of God. It's not always easy to find the right words, because no human language is rich enough to adequately express who God is. No word or phrase can define God without giving a distorted image. So we often use paradoxical phrases: One God, three persons. Transcendent and immanent. God of justice and of grace. Christ is fully God and fully human. God is omnipotent but gives us free will.

It is only when we hold these seemingly contradictory ideas in tension that we begin to grasp the richness of God's nature. If we let one side of the equation dominate, not only will we get a skewed perception of God, but also we will run into problems talking with others about God -- especially if their perception is skewed in a different direction.

Marcus Borg, in The God We Never Knew, chose the word "panentheism" to describe his image of God. He uses the word in opposition to "supernatural theism," the belief he had grown up with, that God was somewhere "out there" but not "right here" involved in our lives. Borg makes a good point in rejecting the notion of a distant God, but perhaps the term "panentheism" (literally, "everything is in God" swings too far the other direction. God is not just "right here" but also beyond. Borg stresses in his book that he believes in a God who is both transcendent and immanent, but again this shows how difficult it is to find a word or phrase to capture the full picture.

Paul Tillich wrestled with this problem in his book Dynamics of Faith. After first defining faith as "ultimate concern," and then stating that only symbolic language can express the ultimate, Tillich says:

God is the fundamental symbol for what concerns us ultimately. Again it would be completely wrong to ask: So God is nothing more than a symbol? Because the next question has to be: A symbol for what? And then the answer would be: For God! God is symbol for God. This means that in the notion of God we must distinguish two elements: the element of ultimacy, which is a matter of immediate experience and not symbolic in itself, and the element of concreteness, which is taken from our ordinary experience and symbolically applied to God.

English was not Tillich's native language. Perhaps, though, his words would be just as obscure if it were. It's not an easy concept to define. Still, I think he makes an important point in distinguishing "two elements" in the "notion of God," which I understand (rightly or wrongly) to be 1) God as God, and 2) our limited understanding or limited vocabulary about God.

I've noticed this in conversations with my wife. She comes from a Baptist and non-denominational background, while I come from a United Methodist background (with a dollop of Lutheranism from college). Sometimes our vocabulary is so different that I wonder if we really belong to the same religion. But if we take the time to understand what each other is saying, we often find that we have the same core beliefs despite our outward differences.

In the end, it seems to me that that's what really matters when speaking of God. It's not about telling others that their language is wrong. It's getting to the core beliefs that are the source of the words. Often we may find that underneath there is more harmony than it appears from the surface.


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