An Excerpt from God Of Our Silent Tears, Ch. 7. Now available for order on line through Cathedral Bookstore and Amazon. http://www.godofoursilenttears.com/#et_page_802
I cannot believe that the inscrutable universe turns on an axis of suffering;
somewhere the strange beauty of the world must rest upon pure joy!
– Louise Bogan
There are things you cannot reach. But
you can reach out to them, and all day long.
The wind, the bird flying away. The idea of God.
And it can keep you as busy as anything else, and happier. . . .
Mary Oliver, “Where Does The Temple Begin,
Where Does It End?”
- THE ART OF GOD-TALK
We have made important headway by repudiating the image of God that makes the problem of evil intractable and blocks our way to a God who could do us some good. We have done necessary groundwork by saying a few things about what God is like. But the way we have been describing God is still woefully inadequate. It has been a list of adjectives, not a real image of God. It has been too abstract, just a cold naming of characteristics. We can know all these things about God without really knowing God at all. Popular Christian writer Robert Farrar Capon says:
. . . [T]he first word in theology has to be not about God,
but about the way we use words. Specifically, it has to be a
firm warning that no words of ours can ever be trusted to mean
the same thing when predicated of ourselves and God. Not even
the florid ones with Greek and Latin roots. True enough, God is
merciful and God is good, and you may make him out to be as
omnipresent, immutable and omniscient as you please. But never
think for a minute that you have anything more than the faintest
clue what it’s actually like for him to be all those things.[i]
Talking about God is tricky. It requires a special language – language that can suggest something about the extraordinary truth of God, but not reduce it to something so simple we dare to presume we have got God figured out. Remember Augustine, “If you understand it, it isn’t God.”[ii] We have made good headway, but we have not yet come to a way of talking about God, a way of imagining God, that is particularly helpful when it comes to suffering. There is such a way of talking about God, a way of imagining God that can sustain us instead of oppress us.
Joseph Campbell taught that the deepest, most important truths cannot be expressed directly. They cannot be described or explained in a straightforward way. The deepest, most important truths can at best be suggested, pointed toward, by stories and metaphors. Accordingly, the language of Christianity is not a literal description of God. It is a kind of divine poetry with God between the lines. The characteristics of God in Chapter 6 are all true and helpful to a degree – but they fall short of the image of God that is the heart of Christianity – the Holy Trinity.
In the next chapter, we will see why the Trinity is the key to understanding God’s relationship with our suffering. But first, we need to understand a few things about the way we use language to talk about God. God is not ordinary so God-language cannot be ordinary either. If we try to use God-language as if it were ordinary language, we will find ourselves in an utter muddle and the beauty of this image will elude us.
1. Analogy, Metaphor, and Paradox
The Tao that can be named is not the Tao.
Tao Te Ching
(A)ny God of whom an image can be made is shown thereby not to be the God of Israel.
Robert W. Jensen in The Triune Identity, explaining the Second Commandment
Doctrines describe God, not literally but poetically – theologians use the word “analogically.” It has to do with the nature of God and the limits of language. We cannot put into words anything that is not first inside our minds. We cannot express in words everything we can conceive in our minds. Indeed, we cannot even find words for all the things we sense and intuit. God is vastly more than we can conceive. Trying to speak of God is almost an exercise in futility. Ludwig Wittgenstein[iii] suggested that we should therefore “remain silent.” Jacques Derrida[iv] said we cannot speak about God, only to God. The God we can define with doctrines is not God. Yet, for several reasons, we have to speak about God:
First, the experience of God compels us to speak. It is our nature to speak of what we experience; and we do experience glimpses of God. T. S. Eliot’s term was “hints and guesses.” Like Jeremiah, we must speak of God. “If I say, ‘I will not mention him or speak any more in his name,’ there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones. I am weary with holding it in. I cannot.”[v]
Second, we are symbol-making creatures. Even ordinary experience calls for interpretation, and we interpret our world through symbols, including the ultimate symbol, “God,” representing the source, destiny, meaning, and order of all our experience.[vi] By speaking of God, we strive to make sense of our lives and deepen our understanding. It is like making art. We grow in the process. Thought, reflection, and conversation enrich our experience by interpreting it.
Third, language about God sets the stage for us to experience God in ways we couldn’t experience God without the language. Cambridge theologian, Nicolas Lash, says that traditional images shape our current religious experience.[vii] Rene Dupre’ argues that we cannot have a religious experience until a symbol exists to open the door to that experience.[viii] We interpret ordinary experience in religious terms, and those terms establish the foundation for future religious experience. Traditional images and concepts of God provide a structure of meaning. Without those images and models, we wouldn’t be able to take in, grasp, and interpret even our own experience. For example, Tibetans rarely have visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary because she is not part of their tradition. Conversely, Western Christians are not apt to have visions of Dakinis (dancing feminine spirits in Tantric Buddhism). Religious language, our symbol system, shapes and interprets experiences, which might otherwise go unnoticed.
Finally, we need language about God so we can talk to each other about our deepest values, so our religion will not be a private speculation, but a spiritual table at which a community can gather to support and sustain one another. Sigmund Freud disparaged religion by calling it a collective neurosis. But the psychoanalyst, Eric Fromm, retorted to Freud that neurosis was a private religion. Fromm is probably right. Religion becomes problematic when it is not rooted in community, and community is possible only with language. A faith community must devise a shared language of faith. Holy Scripture, rituals, and doctrines exist to give us a common language for sharing our religious experience.
Our dilemma is that we cannot speak about God, but we must speak about God. Rilke wrote,
I want to utter you. I want to portray you
not with lapis or gold, but with colors made of apple bark.
There is no image I could invent
that your presence would not eclipse.
The Christian way of dealing with the unspeakable reality of God – speaking only in metaphors -- is very old. It is implicit in St. Paul, St. John the Evangelist, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Augustine. Dionysius the Areopagite made it explicit in the 6th Century. In his Treatise On The Divine Names, Dionysius set out an approach to theological language that has been the rule ever since. According to Dionysius, we cannot make any direct affirmative statements about God. God is simply beyond the reach of our language. It is impossible to say God is this or God is that. We can speak of God only by analogy, saying God is in some respect like this or like that. A medieval council of the Church affirmed that principle.[ix] St. Thomas Aquinas endorsed it again. It persists today in the teachings of modern theologians such as Karl Rahner. The rule that we speak of God only by analogy is a settled, basic principle of Christian thought.[x]
But analogy does not mean two things are the same. It means they are somewhat alike and somewhat different.[xi] For example, God is like a rock in that he is steadfast and dependable, but unlike a rock in that he is not hard, unresponsive, silicon-based, and insensate. Moreover, in the case of God, Dionysius says, God is always more unlike than like whatever we are comparing God to. Whatever we say about God is more wrong than it is right. We need to say it anyway, but we need to speak reverently and humbly, acknowledging that we are stammering about something utterly beyond us.
Making statements about God is called the via affirmativa. Denying those statements is called the via negativa. The via affirmativa and the via negativa work together. We hold our claims about God in tension between saying God is sort of like this, but not really like this. God is love, but not like in a romance novel. God is just, but not like a human judge.
If we keep in mind that all our speech about God is analogical and not directly descriptive, it will save us from confusions that sometimes befuddle even good theologians when they get too caught up in their own imagery. A metaphor or image of God is intended to tell us something true about God. It will also invariably tell us something false. We must be careful to follow two rules: (1) Do not extend the metaphor beyond its true point to include the false one. (2) Do not discard the metaphor just because there is a false point that can be drawn from it. For example, when we call God “Father” we mean that God is our source and that God cares for us as a parent does. We do not mean that God is male.[xii]
In addition to being analogical, the things we say about God are almost always paradoxical. Christian truth is often expressed as paradox, two claims that are logically contradictory, but both true. Paradox serves three purposes. First, it keeps us honest, keeps us from conclusively and absolutely saying things about God that are not quite right. Second, it keeps us reverent, prevents us from thinking we have God figured out. Third, it keeps our minds open because we cannot get them closed around a paradox. One of the great dangers in religion is fixed concepts about God. It is all too easy to close our minds around them. Any such concept would be an idol. Paradox keeps our hearts and minds open to the mystery.
[i] Robert Farrar Capon, Hunting the Divine Fox: Images And Mystery In Christian Faith (New York: Seabury Press, 1985) p. 7.
[ii] Augustine, Sermons 52, Ch. 1, no. 16.
[iii] 20th Century German linguistic philosopher.
[iv] Late 20th Century French deconstructionist philosopher.
[v] Jeremiah 21: 9.
[vi] Karl Rahner, at 45-51.
[vii] Nicholas Lash, Easter In Ordinary (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986), particularly at pp 57-58 where Lash responds to William James’ claim that authentic religious experience must be private and untainted by institutional or traditional faith, “Our ‘private’ experience is never entirely ‘naked’ . . . The symbolic, linguistic, affective resources available to us are given by prior experience, and by the culture, the traditions, the structures, institutions, and relationships that bring us to birth and give us such identity as we have. . . The innocent, naked, newborn ‘ego’ is a figment of the philosophical imagination.
[viii] “There is no religious experience prior to religious symbolization.” Louis Dupre’, Symbols Of The Sacred (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000) p. 6.
[ix] The Second Lateran Council.
[x] The idea that all speech about God is “analogous language” or metaphorical language is not just Dionysius’ quirky idea. In 1215 C. E., the Fourth Lateran Council instituted Dionysius’ teachings about God talk as official Church doctrine. Great theologians from St. Thomas Aquinas to Karl Rahner have reaffirmed that language about God can only be analogy.
[xi] Alister McGrath describes analogy and metaphor as separate ways of describing God. However, they are the same in the one respect that concerns us here. Both mean that God is somewhat like the image we use, and somewhat different. Alister McGrath, Christian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2001) pp. 253-257.
[xii] Alister McGrath, pp. 253.