The Challenge in Talking about God

In my last blog posting, “The Wrath of God, the Agony of God,” I wrote freely of God having emotions like anger and compassion. To some readers, this may have smacked of a simplistic theology. Am I assuming that God is just a super-super-human being? Does not a higher theology demand that we recognize that God is not like us?

This is the problem of anthropomorphism. This is a scholarly term for the practice of attributing human motivations, characteristics, or behavior to inanimate objects, animals, or natural phenomena…or to the divine.

The Bible is full of anthropomorphisms in its speech about God. We are told that God walked in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the evening (Genesis 3:8), that the Lord came down to see the city and tower that human beings were building at Babel (Genesis 11:5). The psalmist calls upon us to seek the face of the Lord (Psalm 27:8-9). In another psalm we hear the lament that the right hand of the Most High has changed (Psalm 77:10).

We could go on and on with multiple examples. We can add to the mix all the talk about God as Father, Shepherd, and King.

Then anthropomorphism seems to get worse when we find the Bible using male pronouns (he, him, his) to talk about God. Is not a patriarchal bias built into the Bible’s terminology? Would it not be better to talk about God in non-gender terms?

This all has very practical implications for how we translate the Bible, how we address God in worship and prayer, and how we talk about God in Christian preaching, teaching, and hymns.

If we follow the objections to anthropomorphism to an extreme, we are forced to admit that we cannot positively talk about or to God. All we can do is sit in God’s presence in silence.

Religious people might benefit greatly from spending more time sitting in God’s presence in contemplative silence. But I want to defend the practice of talking about God in the language of human personality, for I believe an important principle is at stake.

When I use the language of human personality in talking about God, I in no way assert that God is nothing more than a human being blown up to gigantic proportions. I fully accept that witness of the Bible that God transcends all of the processes of nature and all of our concepts for understanding God.

No Biblical passage expresses that insight better than Isaiah 55:8-9, where the prophet speaks this word from God:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.

But the fact that the God we meet in the Bible transcends human understanding or being does not mean the God we meet in the Bible is an impersonal it. That may be the God of the philosophers. The ancient Greek philosophers, like Aristotle, thought of the divine as the unmoved mover, but certainly did not think that that mover was moved by inner emotions. Perfection was changeless and impassive. And the Force so invoked in the Star Wars trilogy seems to have no hint of personality. It remains a power, but an impersonal power.

This is not, however, the God we encounter in the Bible. We might say, that the God of the Bible is not an It, but a Who. The God of the Bible is a someone who speaks to us, who calls to us, who judges us, who awaits us, and who loves us. God may transcend the characteristics of human personality and relationships, but God is certainly not someone who is less than the realities of human personhood.

How in fact can the sublimity of human personhood have evolved out of an impersonal force?

Anthropomorphic language recognizes this important truth about God. Human language does not have the capability of fully describing God, anymore than human reason has the capability to comprehend God. So we use the linguistic tools we have to talk about God in personal terms recognizing that our language will always fall short of God’s reality.

This is especially true, I believe, in the use of male pronouns in talking about God. In no way do I believe that God is inherently male. God transcends gender. But human language gives us no tools for talking about personality apart from the gender distinctions that we know as human creatures. How is it possible to be fully personal without being male or female? We human beings do not know.

I continue to use male pronouns in speaking about God in my sermons, teaching, and writing. In doing so, I show my bias towards theological conservatism. I grew up in an era when speaking of God in male gender language was the fully accepted way of speaking of God. The tradition claimed its sanction from the very linguistic usage of the Bible. And so that continues to be my personal style for talking about God.

I think we owe a great debt, however, to feminist theology for showing us the great dangers involved in so speaking. To speak of God as “she” may be permissible, but only if we recognize that speaking of God in female pronouns is no more accurate in talking about a genderless God than are the male pronouns.

What I am not ready to accept is any language for speaking of God that compromises with the inherently personal character of the God we worship and serve. For the God I meet in the Bible is someone who calls us into committed relationship with God’s own self as well as with other human beings and with non-human nature. We undercut the very essence of the gospel (that God so loved the world…) if we conceive of God as an uncaring and unfeeling It.

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