… or, the art of choosing words carefully when we speak of God.
One of the most fascinating conversations I have had in recent years was about what to call God. We were writing our prayer, which is a response to the Lord’s Prayer. Although it is the term Jesus himself used, we really didn’t feel comfortable with using the term translated into English as ‘Our Father.’
I suspect that, when we hear the word ‘God’, each of us conjures up a different image. It might be negative or positive, one that either we have had since childhood or which has developed over the years, and it might be visual or otherwise, depending on how our mind works.
For those familiar with Christian language there is an ocean of imagery to draw on. For a start we describe God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit (or Trinity). We hear the prologue of John’s Gospel which tells us that, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Jesus called God “Abba”, meaning Father, and in the letters of John at the end of the Bible we read that “God is love.”
But strip away all that Biblical foreknowledge and what do we have? I would like to suggest that the most famous image of God is Michelangelo’s in the Sistene Chapel at the Vatican. In his ‘Creation of Adam’ painting, God is a depicted as a white haired, bearded man, loosely robed in a Romanesque toga, frowning as he reaches out from his heavenly cocoon to not-quite-touch Adam. Such an image hardly correlates to a creative, loving God who, through the Word, gives shape and meaning to life.
The members of Hug Cullompton who participated in the six week process of creating the Hug Prayer agonised for many hours, days and weeks over how we would address the divine creative power who is entirely beyond us and yet in our midst. In the end we settled for ‘Divine Embrace’, because no noun seemed adequate. The only option left was to use a term that summed up our collective experience of him/her/it.
It might seem this post is about language, but actually it is an attempt to raise a far deeper and more profound issue we in the church face: not only how we articulate the shared concepts which have shaped our understanding of the world and the one whom we believe created it, but the very concepts themselves.
I know very few Christians who, when shown the picture of Michelangelo’s picture of God, think it’s an accurate depiction of what God is like. And yet, the way in which many Christians name, address and speak of God gives the impression to the outsider that the God we believe in is imperialistic, judgemental and very, very male.
So what are we to do? Should we abandon all those terms we have grown up using, and which roll off our tongues comfortably? Should those who pray addressing God as “heavenly Father,” be told they can no longer do so?
Of course not. I would not dream of robbing anyone of the essential elements of their faith and the way in which they name it.
But we do have to realise that such terminology could be alienating to others who have already considered and rejected the image of God as a white haired, bearded man, loosely robed in a Romanesque toga, frowning as he reaches out from his heavenly cocoon to not-quite-touch humanity. Using terms such as ‘Lord’, ‘Master’ and ‘heavenly Father’ with them could be positively unhelpful.
Language is a powerful thing. Terminology comes with a lifetime’s back-story, rendering the phrase “sticks and stones might break my bones but names will never hurt me” null and void. Let us choose it carefully, lest we unwittingly turn away those who most need to experience God’s ‘Divine Embrace’ for themselves.