Our society is very tribal. You might comfortably walk down the street and look to your left and see the tribe of Wal-Mart or the tribe of the restaurant Chili’s. Sure, they may not be tribes in the ancient sense of the word, but they promote tribal identity. This idea of belonging encased with the possibility of being accepted. If you are a part of something than you somehow feel like you have worth. This idea of worth being partners with the experience of any sort of community has been around since the beginning of man.
Abraham became ‘the father of many nations’, which is Hebrew rhetoric for a ‘really influential guy’. I can imagine it now, Abe and his friends sitting in his tent drinking some wine and reminiscing about moments in their life when they made it big. Then Abe chimes in with his story about how the Creator invited him to be the ‘father of many nations’. The room is silence with irreverent disgust and uncomfortable laughter, because no matter how hard they try, none of his friends can top that story.
Little did Abraham know (in this story) that his story was an exclusive one. That his unintentional trumping of all other stories created outsiders. So did his language.
Our churches are drenched in conversation about things like God, truth, compassion, scriptural authority, salvation, crosses and tombs. Although, we may not intend to, we follow in the footsteps of Abraham. Our language excludes others. ‘The father of many nations’ came with a responsibility to not discriminate. To not exclude. The Hebrew word for nations is ‘goy’, it meant every nation that was present on earth at the time Abraham got his new nickname. It was a term of inclusion.
So, here’s a question, has our language created other ‘nations’ that were never meant to be?
Abraham was a nomad. His life was a traveller. He experience life on the go, as a continual adventure filled with many twists, turns and surprises. What if he is a metaphor for how adaptable our language is meant to be? That maybe we are supposed to offer the ‘other’ words about God that they understand, grasp and can hold on to?
What about those who follow after Jesus now, has our language become a bit claustrophobic and limited
Some might be familiar with the metaphor of God as a parent. A father. A mother. Metaphors are descriptions of a subject that tend to be expressed through comparison. Metaphors tend to use the word ‘like’ to make the distinction between two subjects. The problem with this comparison isn’t the comparison itself but when people absorb the metaphor as objective. When people take metaphors such as ‘God is the Father’ and then apply all of their own experiences of their father on to God, the unintentionally denigrate the otherness of God. Even if we had a great father-figure, God isn’t the parent is out there waiting to give you tips on a right or wrong way to live life. This isn’t to say that God won’t ever do that, what it is saying is that we come to realize the frailty of language along with the limited knowledge of God we have. “In seventeenth century England the scientists of the Royal Society sought ‘to separate knowledge of nature from the colours of rhetoric, the devices of the fancy, the delightful deceit of the fables’ (Thomas Sprat, 1667: The History of the Royal Society of London for the Improving of Natural Knowledge); they saw the ‘trick of metaphors’ as distorting reality.” Metaphors as a device to understand God, although well-intentioned, are woefully inadequate. What it does for us as humans is place God into a much smaller box than the one we might already have Him in. When we think of God as parent, than God either becomes loving or angry depending on whether we do wrong or right. When we see God as parent than we come to believe in a God who only gives us things if we get our chores done. If we see God as parent, than when we’re eighteen and its time to move out, who are leaving behind?
Maybe what we can embrace is silence as the new theology. Awe. Wonder. Curiosity. Maybe these could be new words that are intertwined with the romantic realization that our language has limits. That we are called into creation as a reminder that God is be experienced. May we come to see that our limitations are a good thing, because then we can let mystery teach us rather than trying to define it.