Language is that special blessing that sets us apart from other creatures on this planet. I’m not just talking about reading here … We are information junkies, it’s true. But language is capable of much more than mere information. It is the stuff of our dreams, our stories, and of course our age-old songs. Poetry is much more ancient than science, and its wisdom reaches different places than science.
So what does language have to do with spiritual life? Well, everything. What we call things directly influences how we experience them. People have all kinds of their own reasons for rejecting church – for feeling “spiritual, but not religious” – but I know that for many, the traditional language in church is a turn-off. And one of the biggest turn-offs, spiritually or intellectually, is God the Guy in the Sky. God as “He.” We might feel limited by language at times … but let’s remember that we may also be liberated by language.
News flash: God is not a Guy in the Sky. God is not “our father.”
What we mean is, God can be like our father.
We have to be careful that we don’t ever think that we know what God is… and yes, we have permission to be playful and creative when we try to think about what God is like. The Bible has given us an enduring metaphor for our Creator: God the Father. It has also given us many other images, but they never got nearly the same press through the centuries. People everywhere in every time have used all kinds of words for God, expressing the richness of our imaginings and intuitions and pictures of the divine.
“Our Father who art in heaven” is not a bad image for God. We may appropriately pray to the supreme fatherliness of God. Fatherliness is a virtue, it is a blessing and a gift. It’s a great adjective. But God is not “he.” God is not the Guy in the Sky, Father of the world. God is like a father of the world.
Maybe we know that, intellectually. We can say, God is like an ocean. God is subtle, like breath... God is like a father. Those are similes, as you’ll remember from Grade 5 Language Arts. If we turned them into metaphors, they would sound something like the hymn that says … “Breathe on me, Breath of God.”
The metaphor is Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne (the Psalms). The metaphor is Our Father who art in heaven (the prayer of Jesus). That’s a poetic image, that is not a description.
For all our lives -- in church, in the Bible, hey, in movies and TV, everybody says God is a he! (If he looks like George Burns or Morgan Freeman, maybe that ain’t so bad!) So even if we know that isn’t literal, it’s just difficult to not talk about “Him” when we’re talking about God. Even when we know a personal pronoun belongs to an individual, a person.
Hmm. Dilemma. Some may say, what difference does it make, if we all understand that we don’t mean it literally? Well, maybe none … as long as talking about God’s good creation, and Her steadfast love, and Her righteous judgement at the end-times sounds just as good to you. Our Mother who art in heaven. Is She your help and your strength, is She a lamp unto your feet? Great, then we’re already there.
But of course, even changing the personal pronoun creates the same problem. A mere man (or woman) does not belong where the Ultimate and Absolute, the Ground of Being and the Mystery of Life dwells in our hearts.
Now we need our metaphors, don’t get me wrong. …“Show, don’t tell” is the writer’s number one rule. Metaphors and similes can help show us something intellectual, or abstract, or unfamiliar. The good ones, as any English teacher will tell you, deliver a little shock of unlikely connection. One of my favourites comes from a master, Leonard Cohen: “a garland of fresh-cut tears.”
So, God as father can be a great metaphor, as we contemplate fatherliness perfected. But some human experiences of “father” may be less than perfect, something other than loving and steadfast. Martin Luther, for example, was a monk who dedicated his whole life to prayer and biblical scholarship. Yet, he felt so unworthy for much of his life because a “righteous” father (like his own) was in his experience punishing, stern, judgmental and fault-finding. He struggled for years to understand grace! He finally solved his dilemma (and many of ours) when he broke through to a different definition of righteousness.
It’s true, the Bible spends an awful lot of time calling God “He.” Jesus himself gave us the prayer, “Our Father…” The Psalms are overflowing with him’s and he’s. Should that make it a fact, is that proof that God is like, this guy with body parts … in the sky? On a throne? No.
It does demonstrate the power of that particular metaphor, it suggests a Creator of fatherly and powerful attributes. What’s more concrete and universal than a family image? But it only works if we enjoy it as a metaphor. The problem is when we stop being amazed and enlightened by this clever or original comparison with something else … and start hearing not a comparison but an equation. “God the Father” after many centuries starts to sound like God is actually a father. What does that do to “God?” Fatherliness stops being understood as an aspect of God, and starts sounding like the shape and extent of God.
There are still many people like Luther who might have good reason to cringe at the idea of a “fatherly” God. They need to know also that God shows us the perfection of many other attributes – mothering, companionship, nature, communion.
The Bible (not to mention ancient and modern sources in other traditions) does provide other ways to imagine God. Our Father who art in heaven is only one impression of God. Here’s another.
Upon my bed at night
I sought him whom my soul loves;
I sought him, but found him not;
I called him, but he gave no answer.
‘I will rise now and go about the city,
in the streets and in the squares;
I will seek him whom my soul loves.’
I sought him, but found him not.
The sentinels found me,
as they went about in the city.
‘Have you seen him whom my soul loves?’
Scarcely had I passed them,
when I found him whom my soul loves.
I held him, and would not let him go
until I brought him into my mother’s house,
and into the chamber of her that conceived me.
I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem,
by the gazelles or the wild does:
do not stir up or awaken love
until it is ready!
[The Song of Solomon 3.1-5 NRSV]
There are some things our culture has traditionally focused on as “biblical,” and other things completely ignored in the stereotypical understandings of faith. “The Song of Songs” from the Old Testament might be one of the latter.
The Bible has many voices, and when we neglect their diversity, we dim the illumination we might find there. We risk forgetting that these are all only impressions of godly experience – not statistics about God.
God as lover? God as a soul-mate, a companion, even a spouse, on the human journey of growth and discovery? Does this not ring true at some times, in some circumstances? Consider the glory of being alive, of feeling all your senses tingling, or of being overwhelmed with something you cannot contain – an epiphany, or a wave of tears: those can be God moments.
God is like all these things, because God IS all these things – but not limited to one of them. For Christians … faith does have a human face, in our brother, Jesus the Christ. But God was also known to our Hebrew ancestors in a pillar of fire. God was known to the biblical poet in a lover’s skin. God may be known to you in your child’s eyes.
“Our Father who art in heaven” is not a required password for knowing grace, or for being loved as God has loved us. The Holy Spirit is unpredictable, creative, subtle and sometimes overwhelming. It tells you, You are not alone, and you are made of beauty and wonder… and it will tell you in the language that your own heart knows.
I wish you grace and peace today, in unexpected shapes.
And please, thank God for whatever true fatherliness has blessed you in your life. Happy Father’s Day.