Naming God — Risky Business

St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo (354 – 430 AD) and one of the great Church Fathers, was walking along the seashore one day, puzzling over the concept of the Blessed Trinity. Deep in thought he saw a little boy going back and forth to the sea with a small bucket, pouring sea-water into the hole he had dug on the beach. St. Augustine asked the boy what he was doing: “Putting the sea into my hole,” he replied.  The intelligent saint laughed, “You can’t do that; it won’t fit,” he said. No sooner had he spoken or an angel whispered, “Neither can you put the mystery of the Trinity into your mind; it won’t fit.” Thus one of the greatest minds in Christian history was enlightened by a small boy. Like the sea which does not fit into any human-made hole, God as Father-Son-Spirit surpasses all understanding and does not fit into any human-designed categories of reasoning.

All who, throughout the history of Christianity, have attempted to name all of God, have come up short in much the same way. Yet it is a human propensity to name things, encoded right into our very beginnings when God invited Adam to name everything (Genesis 2:20). Naming our surroundings,  experiences and relationships both liberates and grounds our existence. Ever since humanity’s spiritual awakening, we have been consumed with attempting to name the Mystery which gives us life and towards which our spirits are forever oriented.

It is risky business for the finite – which we humans are – to capture the Infinite in words, lest we believe that we are capable of a total grasp. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274 AD) was acutely aware of this danger. He rendered a great service by articulating three guidelines, ground rules for the journey, when engaging the task of naming God.

The first and most basic rule is that the reality of God is and will always be a mystery beyond all comprehension, even despite the revelation of Jesus Christ as God’s Son. The infinitely creating, redeeming and sustaining God is so far beyond the created order as well as so deeply embedded in the very fabric of creation that every naming is by definition inadequate and incomprehensible. Every name for God, therefore, will fall short.

The second ground rule flows from the first one, i.e. that no name for God can be taken literally. While Jesus called God Abba/Daddy, we ourselves do not come close to fully understanding that name in the same way as Jesus himself did. At best our language for God is like a finger pointing to the moon, not to be confused with the moon itself. The closest we get to grasping the divine mystery is by way of inference – because we experience goodness in our lives, we can know something about God’s goodness. And because we can know Jesus we can know God more intimately. But to equate our limited knowing with the totality of God is a grave error, according to St. Thomas Aquinas. To claim that we are capable of fully comprehending the Mystery animating creation and our own very being must be the greatest arrogance. Fostering a good dose of humility will go a long ways in leaving empty space in our minds and hearts for ever greater insight.

And so St. Thomas’ third and final rule is no surprise: because of ground rules one and two, it is imperative to give God many names. Both the Old and the New Testaments offer a virtual kaleidoscope of names for God drawn from nature, human relationships and occupations: father and mother, liberator and consoler, vinedresser and midwife, rock and fire, cloud and gentle breeze, shepherd and potter, king and friend, son and judge, baker-woman and physician.

Trinity2As the Church celebrates Trinity Sunday soon, it behooves us to reflect on how we employ names for God. Each person in the Blessed Trinity reveals qualities found in both women and men.  Or better, as women and men created in God’s image and likeness, each reveals divine qualities. God is the strong and loving, reliable and caring Father as well as the compassionate, faithful and merciful Mother, in whose womb we are formed, and who always looks out for the weak and suffering.  In fact, in September 1999 Pope John Paul II himself affirmed this dual reflection in the divine when speaking of the parable of the Prodigal son (Luke 15):  “The father who embraces his lost son is the definitive icon of God…. The merciful father of the parable has in himself …. all of the characteristics of fatherhood and motherhood. In embracing the son he shows the profile of a mother.” Thus God is all of that and none of that, both incorporating and transcending all human qualities.

Jesus, born in a male body, nevertheless revealed a strong feminine spirit, and is even referred to as the Wisdom of God – a designation considered female in Scripture. In the beginning, John’s Gospel tells us, Wisdom/Spirit was with Logos, the Word. Wisdom and Logos encompass both masculine and feminine attributes of God. To the question in Job (38:29) “From whose womb did the ice come forth, and who has given birth to the hoarfrost of heaven?” we answer Holy Wisdom, Mother of the universe. Henceforth, every living creature is knit together in, and comes forth from, a woman’s womb – divine image, likeness and activity. We have only to think of Julian of Norwich’s famous words: “A mother can give her child milk to suck, but our precious mother, Jesus, can feed us with himself.”

In his book on the Trinity, First Comes Love, Scott Hahn points out that the HolyTrinity4 Spirit/Wisdom has a “motherly role as comforter and consoler. What a mother does in the natural order, the Holy Spirit accomplishes in the supernatural order. What earthly mothers do finitely and inchoately, the Spirit accomplishes infinitely and perfectly.” (p. 130) Hahn searched the Scriptures’ own definition on the Holy Spirit, a feminine noun in both Hebrew and Greek, and concludes: “As our mothers gave us birth, so the Spirit gives us rebirth. As a mother feeds her children, so the Spirit feeds the children of God with spiritual milk. As a mother groans in labour, so the Spirit groans to give us life.” (p. 131) Curiously, some Protestant sisters and brothers have remarked that Catholics seem to attribute to the Blessed Virgin Mary the very characteristics which Scripture attributes to the Holy Spirit.

Today’s church seems intent on constricting language about God, in particular inclusive and feminine language. In light of the evidence from Scripture and the three ground rules formulated by Thomas Aquinas, this ought to raise some warning flags. What happens to the spiritual health of God’s people when male designations for God dominate both theology and liturgy? Does Jesus’ reference to God as Abba/Father mean that other names for God are somehow inferior or unacceptable? If this were so, then why would St. Thomas bother to develop ground rules?  Or, have we become guilty of the very things St. Thomas cautioned about? Do not both women and men suffer spiritually by limiting God’s name, a name which will always exceed our grasp?

Trinity3God made us all into the divine image and likeness; unfortunately we have returned the favour ever since. Women and men are equal yet different. The “equal yet different” is in fact the strongest argument for encouraging a wide range of names for God, especially God as both Father and Mother. Mixing male and female pronouns and metaphors for God may well be the best choice, even if this will feel jarring, and indeed it should. Only a jarring mix of names can provide a prudent protection from our own worst tendencies to put God in boxes of our own making. Maybe then our ecclesial and sacred conversations, as well as our liturgical practices, will approximate God’s nature more adequately. And I venture to imagine that Saints Augustine and Thomas would be most pleased.

This blog post is also published in the Liturgy & Life Column of the Prairie Messenger, May  20, 2015

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