Wembley Downs Uniting Church
Current Sermons
Speaking of God (Revd Neville Watson) 28.9.2008
The question 'Do you believe in God?' has an obvious and simple answer: 'It depends what you mean by the word God.' If you mean a superhuman being sitting in heaven controlling the weather and determining whether I shall go to heaven or hell, then I donít believe in God. If, however, you mean the Spirit of life within and among us seeking to bring love, peace and fullness of life to us and our world, then I do believe in God. What we mean by the word 'GOD' is crucial to any discussion of religion.
We begin by recognising:
(1) Language is a limiting factor in the description of reality. It is becoming increasingly clear that language plays an important part in our social structure. Indeed, some would say it is the all important factor Ė that it is prior to the individual and forms the individual. I certainly wouldnít go that far. Humankind is as much a creator of language as it is its product but language is certainly more than the labelling of things. It shapes our perception of the world.
Language, however, remains an imperfect tool in coming to grips with reality. At the recent World Youth Day one of the participants was asked what it was like to be there and his answer was, 'There are no words to express the experience'. I would suggest that is a common occurrence. This is the first point I wish to make. Language is an imperfect tool to describe what we experience. It is a limiting factor in determining what we mean by the word God but that is not to say that we shouldnít try and express our understanding of God in the most accurate way we can.
(2) The three letter word GOD has no intrinsic meaning. If we re-arrange the letters in the order DOG it does have an intrinsic meaning Ė a four footed creature with a waggly tail. But the letters arranged in the order GOD have no intrinsic meaning. They take on the meaning assigned to it by the community of which we are a part. And the point that I find myself making over and over again these days is that it is useless for us to use meaning and metaphors and language of a world that has gone. Some might say 'Does it really matter?' It matters a great deal for as Val Webb says, 'Our metaphors for God can bind us in prisons of despair or set us free' for fullness of life.
What was the God language of two thousand years ago?
(a) It was determined by a cosmology, a world view that had a flat earth with seven heavens above it and a burning hell below. God reigned in majesty in the highest heaven. He answered peopleís prayers and granted people favours in return for worship and obedience to his eternal law. When you died, you went to heaven above or hell below according to how you lived. Life on earth was a preparation for life in heaven.
When nautical explorers established the spherical nature of the earth, and astronauts flew around the earth, the notion of heaven above and hell below became irrelevant. Why then in the name of all thatís holy do we keep using it? It may have made sense to a first century believer. It makes little or no sense to a twenty first century believer and we desperately need to use God language that is relevant to our day and generation.
(b) The God language of two thousand years ago was also affected by the fact that it was a patriarchal society with the father of the family at the top of the family and social pyramid. Kenneth Bailey is a theologian who has spent his life in the Middle East trying to get back to the original context of the scriptures. He has been a major contributor to our understanding of the parables of Jesus. He writes that on one occasion when he was explaining to Middle East students the claim of Jesus that there was more to life than looking after oneís father 'the class turned a ghastly white'. Such even today is the significance of patriarchy in the Middle East. We live in a very different social context in Australia with men women gradually being regarded as being of equal significance Ė even though parts of our society such as the Catholic Church are still coming to terms with it. To deny women ordination simply shows how out of date some parts of the Church really are. They are still living in the old patriarchal society.
Should we then stop speaking of God as Father Almighty? This is a difficult question because to do so is to risk some important aspects of the Christian faith, for example, the words known as 'The Lordís Prayer'. In the very first line of the Lordís Prayer there are two concepts that I have described as outdated: 'Our Father in heaven'. God is described in terms that I have suggested are linked to a previous age. To stop using them is indeed radical but to continue to use the language and concepts of a previous time can only lead to irrelevancy. I really donít think we have any option but to use language and concepts of our day and generation. It is difficult to stop thinking of God as Father Almighty but this is what we must do if we are to be faithful in the twenty first century. We must, of course, be careful that the new words adequately convey the original thought.
'The Lordís Prayer' demonstrates the point at issue. The Lordís Prayer as we repeat it today was decreed by King Henry VIII in 1541. The decree refers to 'the great diversity of translations' and the need for 'a uniform translation'. From this we can deduce
(a) The Lordís Prayer is a translation. It is in fact an English translation of a Greek translation of the Aramaic language that Jesus spoke and the prayer itself comes from the Jewish Talmud.
(b) There is nothing particularly holy about the translation we use, as indeed there is nothing particularly holy about Henry VIII.
(c) Rather than use an old English translation of a Greek translation, we would do well to go to the original Aramaic words and translate them into contemporary ideas and language
The Aramaic language that Jesus spoke is an interesting language in that the words have a 'sound meaning'. In the word 'Abwoon' which we translate as 'Our Father', 'a' is the sound for unity, 'bw' signifies the blessing of birth, 'oo' is the breath that conveys this blessing, and 'n' is the resonance of the name of God. 'Abwoon' can then be translated as 'Our Father in heaven'. It can also be translated as 'Birther of the cosmos, the resonating breath of life'. The words 'hallowed be thy name' may also be translated as 'may you be recognised for who and what you are', and so on. The point I am trying to make, and which I believe is evidenced in the so called 'Lordís Prayer', is that rather than repeating the English translation of a Greek translation authorised by Henry VIII we would do well to return to the original Aramaic language of Jesus and translate it into language and ideas of the twenty first century.
(c) The God language of two thousand years ago was also non scientific. It was only in 1610 that Galileo with his tube and a piece of shaped glass set the cat amongst the clerical pigeons and spent the rest of his days under house arrest. This was the beginning of a new way of approaching reality. Up to this point religion was required to provide information about how the world was created and how the world worked. Now it became a matter of measurement, observation and experiment. The Enlightenment (the Age of Reason) was a turning point in human history. The rationalists sought knowledge through reason alone, the empiricists leaned towards experience, and others like Emmanuel Kant incorporated both approaches and saw the significance of religion lying in morality. Schleiermacher responded by asserting that the essence of religion is neither thinking nor acting but intuition and feeling. Hegel in turn responded by saying that if religion was characterised by feeling, his dog was the most religious being he had met. And so the debate continued and continues to the present day.
Where was God in all of this? God had died according to Nietzsche. God was no longer life enhancing but life denying. Humanity is required to construct its own meaning and morality. The Churchís response to what we refer to as The Enlightenment was far from 'enlightened'. Apart from a few brave souls like Bishop Robinson, Bultmann and Bonhoeffer the Church simply shouted louder and became increasingly irrelevant as it continued to read Genesis as if it was scientifically accurate. It is a classic example of speaking of speaking the language of a bygone era and ignoring the importance and necessity of speaking of God in contemporary terms.
How then should we speak of God in our day and generation?
An intriguing thought is that perhaps we donít, that we are called to be silent and in that silence come to know God, not in the mind but in the heart. In the silence the lips are stilled and the mind is closed down and we encounter God in and with our being. It is the old story of the French peasant who used to daily go into the Church and sit there in silence. The priest one day asked him if there was something troubling him, to which he replied, 'No Oi just sits wi im and e sits wi me and we are appy.' I donít know whether happy is the right word. 'Content', or 'fulfilled' or 'at peace' may be better Ė but you get the drift of it: we relate to God with our being; our being relating to the ground of our being. And for many people this is enough. As Meister Eckhart famously said, 'There is nothing more like God than silence.' It is Godís first language. No need for words! For others however words are essential. Where would we be without words today? As has been already mentioned some, and not without good reason, see language as the formative agent of civilisation. How then shall we speak of God in our day and generation, remembering that we can only speak in metaphor and 'for a metaphor to work the word picture selected must be an experience shared between speaker and hearer'.
A Suggestion
I would suggest that the words 'Spirit of Life' and 'Breath of Life' are a good starting point and that these phrases have strong links with the traditional way of speaking of God. There are extensive references in the scriptures to God as spirit, wind and breath. The Hebrews believed that life began when the baby took its first breath and ceased and ended when the old person ceased to breathe. God was seen as the spirit of life, the breath of life, the wind of life. The Hebrew word 'Ruah' has all of these meanings. Breath also is the source of our words and indeed 'The Word'. Jesus continually refers to the Spirit, and the Spiritís work in the world. The words Spirit of Life and Breath of Life also have the advantage of presenting God as 'formless'. You cannot see wind or breath but you can see its effect. Using these phrases avoids the trap of thinking of God in a human-like form. It avoids the temptation to create God in our own image.
I am not unconscious, of course, of the problems we face in updating our speech about God. I am aware of the high stakes involved in what I am proposing, but I see no future in using the metaphors and language of a bygone day. But when that is said and done, we face two problems in updating our speaking about God.
The first problem is that Spirit of Life may be theologically sound but it may not emotionally satisfying. As Harold Kushner says, 'Intellectually I know that God is not a person but I just canít stop thinking of God as a person'. Most of us would agree. And let me say quite clearly at this point that I have no difficulty with addressing God in personal terms, because what we know as human consciousness must be part of what we refer to as the Spirit of Life. The phrase Spirit of Life means more than human consciousness but it cannot mean less, so providing we see it as a means of expression rather than addressing 'a heavenly father', I can see no difficulty in using personal terms.
The second problem we face is that the idea of God as a person out there somewhere has so dominated Christian thought for centuries that it is going to take a long time to turn it around.
What the answer is to these problems I am not sure. Some would say that we should continue to use the words but in a poetic sense, that is, recognising that the words are not to be taken literally. I personally have difficulty with this because the purpose of language is to convey meaning, and language must and does change with the years and with the deepening understanding of ourselves and the world in which we live. One way that I think may work is to run the concepts parallel to each other until we get used to speaking of God in contemporary metaphors; to have some services in traditional language and some services using contemporary language. The problem here is that there are all too few congregations seeking to worship in contemporary language and ideas. There are plenty of articles being written by so called progressive theologians but I know of few congregations who are worshipping in the language and concepts of the twenty first century. And here I pay tribute to the Wembley Downs congregation. For decades now it has encouraged new approaches to worship, so much so that Margaret maintains that I would be a lost soul without it. If I have done anything for Wembley Downs it is nothing when compared with what it has done for me.
Let me summarise in three sentences what I have been trying to say this morning.
1 We will become increasingly irrelevant if we continue to speak of God in the language and metaphors of a world that has gone.
2 We need in the twenty first century, a new understanding of what we mean by the word 'God' and a new way of speaking about God.
3 The phrases Spirit of Life and Breath of Life offer real possibilities and are consistent with the foundational story of the Christian faith.
(Next month we will look at ways of speaking about Jesus in terms of our day and generation)

130 Calais Road, (crnr of Minibah Street)
Wembley Downs, Western Australia.
Phone 08 9245 2882

Ten kilometres northwest of Perth city centre,
set amongst the suburbs of City Beach, Churchlands,
Scarborough, Wembley Downs and Woodlands