Whatever your views on evolution and the origins of the human species, you’ll probably agree with me that one of the main characteristics that sets humans apart from any other species is our capacity for rational thought. And this capacity is closely linked to our ability to communicate using language. (Indeed, without language we would certainly not be able to express our thoughts; whether we could even think in such a sophisticated way without language is debatable.)
As a member of the human race and a daily user of language, however, you’d probably also agree with me that language, as powerful as it is, is fraught with difficulty. It seems that, no matter how much care we take in communicating what we think, there’s always room for misinterpretation and misunderstanding.
In a recent blog post, my theologian friend Michael Hardin puts it like this:
What if language is not divine? What if language is a purely human phenomenon? What if language is not neutral, but is a bent, broken and distorted means of communication? Is it not the case that we are constantly being misinterpreted or that we find ourselves explaining ourselves to others in simple conversations? Language is not straightforward is it?
The very least one can say is that language is imperfect. Even with the best of intentions and the greatest of efforts at clarity, misunderstanding is rife. In fact, in line with Michael’s linked article, I think we can go further still.
We humans are prone to think in a way that judges and separates people into in groups and out groups – with ourselves, of course, usually in the in group and our enemies and those we do not care for or value in the out group. We define ourselves over against others. And we tend to excuse behaviours in ourselves and the groups with which we identify that we would condemn out of hand in those we consider other than us. This kind of thinking – most of it non-conscious – seems to have been deeply entrenched in us ever since the Garden.
Given how closely language is associated with thinking, it follows that our language is also subject to the same non-conscious tendencies. We use language to structure the world according to our innermost thoughts and perceptions. As we think, so too do we speak.
This is particularly problematic when it comes to talking about God.
First, we’re faced with the problem of the inadequacy of language. How do black-and-white characters on a page (or sound waves transmitted from our mouth to another’s ears) begin to convey God’s divine majesty, love and power? Even the most imaginative and evocative metaphors fall short of the task. But, the inevitable insufficiency of language aside, a still greater problem awaits us.
As I outlined a few paragraphs ago, the language we use has evolved to express the skewed way in which we think. And so, when we use it to describe even a being as wholly good and perfect as God, our descriptions are tainted in ways of which we are rarely aware.
For example, I spoke of the challenges of using human language to convey God’s love and power. Because of the way we’re programmed to think about such things, we often do violence to the character of God by forcing him to fit the contours of words whose meanings are largely pre-determined, often at subconscious levels.
Take the word love – surely one of the highest, most noble words in the English language. From the Apostle Paul to Shakespeare and beyond, love has been the impetus for endless creative expression. It seems quite right and safe to think of God as a God of love.
But we need to realise that our conception of even something as wonderful and laudable as love is structurally tainted. Most of our experience of love – whether given or received – tends to be limited and conditional in nature, so that even when we think about the perfect love of God, deep in the recesses of our hearts lurks the suspicion that that even this love will run out on us, that what is today a source of comfort and delight will transmute into judgement and condemnation if we fail to live up to its requirements.
So, whether we’re aware of it or not, as soon as we think about the love of God, and as soon as we use the word “love”, we risk colouring God in a way that distorts his essential character.
The same can be said of our notion of power. That God is supremely powerful seems obvious beyond question, so we happily speak of God’s power. But we do so without realising that power has a terrible and special place in the human psyche and experience: it’s often what defines the relationship between the privileged and the downtrodden, between the abuser and the abused. We tend to think power is good when it’s exercised in our interest and not so good when it’s used against us. Above all, power is what shapes and orders the world; and it does so by making people conform to its well.
Describing God as powerful, then, while accurate on one level, is also problematic, for such a description carries deep within it the notions of coercion and force. Indeed, these notions are so ingrained in our worldview that we struggle to see why they’re even a problem.
What the problem boils down to is this: in using our words to describe God, there’s a real and present danger that we subtly distort God to fit him into our mental paradigms, without even realising that we’re doing so. In short, we often unwittingly redefine God according to our language.
What’s the answer to this conundrum? Given the limitations and distortions of language, how are we to faithfully speak about God at all?
I’m not sure there’s any simple answer, but I do have three suggestions:
1. Be aware of the problem. It’s often said that awareness is half the battle. If we practise the art of being conscious of the inadequacies and dangers of human language when talking about God, we’re perhaps less likely to carelessly and thoughtlessly abuse or distort his character.
2. Work hard to communicate well. Rather than simply speaking of God’s love or power and assuming that these are clearly understood attributes, even among longstanding believers, use explanations, comparisons, metaphors and stories to clarify what they mean. (The Apostle Paul, whom I’ve already mentioned, dedicated a whole chapter of his letter to the Roman Christians expanding upon what he meant by the word love.)
3. Allow what we know about God to redefine our language. Thankfully, God didn’t leave our understanding of him to chance or to the vagaries of human language. Instead, he took on flesh and showed us in the person of his son exactly what he’s like. Jesus vividly demonstrated for us that God exercises power from below rather than from above; God’s power is the kind of “weak power” that refuses to coerce or force but chooses instead to invite and to woo. And Jesus showed us that, far from being conditional or limited, God’s love is recklessly self-giving. As an unknown author wrote, “I asked Jesus, ‘How much do you love me?’ And Jesus said, ‘This much’. Then He stretched out His arms and died.”
Rather than forcing God into the pre-cast moulds of our limited and distorted human language, let’s offer our language – and the thinking that underlies it – to God and ask him to reshape it according to his paradigm. Rather than struggling to define God according to our human notions of power and love, let’s ask him to fundamentally change our understanding of power and love.
Perhaps this is something of what Paul meant when he urged the Corinthian church to be transformed by the renewing of their minds.
[ Image: John Keogh ]