How We Speak About God
How we speak about God shapes us as people and as communities of faith. Speech about God is the primary way a faith community is constituted, “as the primary symbol of the whole religious system, the ultimate point of reference for understanding experience, life, and the world. Hence the way in which a faith community shapes language about God implicitly represents what it takes to be the highest good, the profoundest truth, the most appealing beauty. Such speaking, in turn, powerfully moulds the corporate identity of the community and directs its praxis” (1).
If we believe that God is warlike and loves smashing his enemies to bits, as a faith community we will be quite aggressive. However, if we believe that God is loving and kind, and that he forgives his enemies, and makes the sun shine on both evil and good, then we will be a forgiving and loving people (1).
Feminist theologians, such as Elizabeth Johnson, highlight that the way that the church has spoken about God has alienated women. “While officially it is rightly and consistently said that God is spirit and so beyond identification with either male or female sex, yet the daily language of preaching, worship, catechesis, and instruction conveys a different message: God is male, or at least more like a man than a woman, or at least more fittingly addressed as male than as female. The symbol of God functions. Upon examination it becomes clear that this exclusive speech about God serves in manifold ways to support an imaginative and structural world that excludes or subordinates women. Wittingly or not, it undermines women’s human dignity as equally created in the image of God” (1).
Similarly, much Australian theology is shaped by colonial biases which have made the spread of the gospel to Aboriginal people more difficult. For a long time Aboriginal people were not considered to be human, they were protected under the flora and fauna laws. It was believed that they were not able to be in relationship with God in the way that white people were. Chris Budden in his magnificent second peoples’ theology Following Jesus in Invaded Space, highlights that the way we talk about God “plays a role in constructing and supporting particular worlds, and theologians do their work from within particular social locations… Theologians always protects certain (often unconscious) interests—one’s place in the world, who one listens to and privileges in the conversation, and what set of values and beliefs one ‘naturally’ sits in and has made part of one’s life” (2).
Other non-western people have had the same experience. Under “colonialism the vast continent of Africa was a ‘haunt of savages’, replete with ‘superstitions and fanaticisms’, and was held in contempt and cursed by God. …[It was important for] Africans to recover their history and reassert their identity and culture… for the former colonised to conceptualise and take control of their identities and rectify the falsification and harm done by colonial misrepresentation” (3).
If you read feminist theology, postcolonial theology, liberation theology, black theology they all come back to the same point. They have not been allowed to be people in their own right, different from the western male. Being a white man has for a long time been held up as the pinnacle of humanity, and other people, the other gender, other races have been seen as less. Yet God is the God who created this plurality of people, with a plurality of voices. Looking inside the triune godhead, at the unity that is achieved in diversity, we cannot say that the diversity of human voices is outside either God’s plan or God’s nature.
“Sharon Ringe says, ‘…that our own social location among the privileged muffles the images of liberation, so that we fail to be grasped by them, or else we recognise only those dimensions of the images that do not threaten us.’ Some voices are never heard, and in our world that usually means the voices of women, black people, people from Asia and the Pacific and Latin America, those who are poor, or those who are gay and lesbian. In Australia… it can mean the exclusion of the voice and experience of Indigenous people. It is important, therefore, to acknowledge or own starting points and interests, and to hear voices that are not always heard” (2).
Jesus’ Upside Kingdom
If we want to see ourselves as the children of Abraham, then we need to listen to the Hagars around us. God blessed Abraham so that through him the whole world could be blessed. That is why God sent Hagar back to Abram and Sarai in Genesis 16, he wanted her close to the source of blessing he had appointed. If we see ourselves as continuing in the family line of Abraham, through Jesus, then we need to start listening to the voices in the margin more, even if, particularly if it makes us uncomfortable.
The Salvation Army has a good history of serving the poor, but how often do we allow them to speak into the very way we structure our lives and our mission? Jesus came proclaiming a gospel that was good news for the poor. “Throughout the Gospels, Jesus presents the kingdom as a new order breaking in upon, and overturning, old ways, old values, old assumptions. If it does anything, the kingdom of God shatters the assumptions which govern our lives. As kingdom citizens we cannot assume that things are right just because ‘that’s the way they are’” (4). Listening to voices in the margins rather than rushing in with solutions and programs is the way to start the kingdom change. When we stop trying to rescue people as if we know better than they do then the kingdom has advanced, first in us, and then in reconciliation with those we have believed to be beneath us (even if with the best of intentions).
1. Johnson, Elizabeth A. She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. New York : The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1992.
2. Budden, Chris. Following Jesus in Invaded Space: Doing Theology in Aboriginal Land. Cambridge : James Clarke & Co, 2009.
3. Sugirtharajah, R. S. Charting the Aftermath: A Review of Postcolonial Criticism. The Postcolonial Biblical Reader. Malden, Oxford, Carlton : Blackwell Publishing, 2006.
4. Kraybill, Donald B. The Upside-Down Kingdom Third Edition. Scottdale, PA : Herald Press, 2003.