God the What?

God the What?

You may have noticed that the Bible translation we are currently using refers to the Spirit as “she”, which may come as a surprise—we are so used to hearing the Holy as “he”. Our first reading, that marvelous passage about the Wisdom Woman from Proverbs, has always been feminine, but the other readings we heard have used masculine words for God and Spirit, at least since they were translated into Latin. So we are used to a testosterone filled God. However, all that masculinity is not actually faithful to the Bible. For example, the Greek word used for Spirit in the New Testament is gender neutral, not masculine. Jesus, of course, was male—though I would hazard a guess that was rooted more in practicality than some sort of God-preference for males, a female incarnation of God would not have even gotten out of the gates in a time and culture in which women were viewed as property.

From the beginning, though, this insistence that God is male and only male “has not rung true to half of humanity. It does not ring true to those of us who are women or non-binary. And it does not even ring true to many who see themselves reflected in the dominant portraits of God”. As Rev. Wil Gafney writes, “…it never rang true to authors and editors of the Hebrew Scriptures or Greek Writings, to Jesus or the voices in the New Testament”. Because Scripture uses a vast wealth of language and images to name and describe God—starting in the first Chapter of Genesis when God is both He who created the Heavens and the Earth, and She who hovered over the face of the deep. She who led the Israelites through the Red Sea. She who gathers her young like a hen gathers her chicks. And in our reading today, Woman Wisdom, she against whom evil does not prevail, she who when listened to will grant serenity and peace, and she whom Jesus named as mother. So there is, in fact a multiplicity of images for, language about God in our sacred texts.

And you would think from the beginning we would have figured out that any human language was not going to capture this God who is Holy Trinity, a mind-bending 3-in-1 and 1-in-3. But you would be wrong. The church had huge fights early on about what exactly the Trinity was and how we describe it. And not surprisingly, in cultures that were patriarchal, and councils that were made up entirely of men, the doctrine landed on imagining each aspect of Trinity as male—and that has stuck as male theologians defined what was orthodox and wrote THE definitive theologies. But despite this binary language and doctrine, the God of the Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament cannot be constrained in a binary box, a Trinitarian box, or any of our theological constructs, rather God transcends all the names, descriptions, imagery and attributes ascribed in Scripture and Christian doctrine. God is more. And yet, as limited human creatures, language is what we have—it is the tool we use to communicate, to imagine. The problem is it can all too quickly and easily become fixed and fossilized.  But if we pay attention even to the barrage of words that is Scripture, we find a God who is definitely not fossilized, but who, in Wisdom Woman, comes sashaying through the streets calling for people to come to the banquet.

So what are we to make of all of this? Perhaps it is simply that God transcends all categories and classifications. That God is not limited to dwelling in the powerful, those who write the rules, but inhabits all flesh—including flesh the world loves to despise. That it is actually dangerous to view God as male as it diminishes God and leads to the cheapening and denigration of women, non-binary, and transgender people. Women and that which is perceived to be feminine often represent weakness, secondary status, and subordination in the world of the scriptures and in our world today. Women’s and transgender people’s bodies are held in low regard, even as others seek to possess and control them. Many of the prophets’ favorite rhetorical devices for shaming the men who led or failed to lead Israel were rooted in women’s bodies or bodily processes and in the fear of what could happen when those bodies and processes were not carefully controlled by men. And while our understanding of women’s bodies is more scientifically advanced we are still trying to control them politically and theologically. And yet, in these same Scriptures in which women are called whores and the capture of foreign cities described as rapes with God sometimes portrayed as the perpetrator, there are also portrayals of God that transcend the categories of gender as understood then. God refused and refuses to be imprisoned in any language, but especially in the language of domination and gender. Jesus certainly demonstrated this in hanging out with sinners, tax collectors, drunks, and gluttons—which could today be read as sex workers and women outside of male control, the wealthy whose practices exploit the poor, drunks and addicts of all kinds, and people whose bodies were used as a pretext for fat shaming. The diversity of those Jesus hung out with, the diversity of humanity —are themselves evidence of God’s expansive love, of God’s expansive nature. Perhaps, as Gafney says, Jesus learned that love from both his mamas, Mama Mary taught him a love that puts one’s very body on the line for the beloved and Mama Wisdom taught him to find his beloveds in the streets and welcome them home”.

This boundary crossing God who is beyond all naming and understanding marks each aspect of our identities, our bodies, as holy, fit for the divine. God does not hew to our ideas of who is good and who is not, God does not put the holy stamp on our categories and divisive language. It was, of course, in the feared and demonized space of a woman’s body that God became incarnate in a family that was not typical or “traditional”:  A God who fathered without being embodied. A woman who made her own reproductive choice. And a second mother—Wisdom.

Ultimately and tragically, the problem with language that “fixes” God, is that what we often have is a God who is a reflection of us—as the old saw goes, “In the beginning God made humans in God’s image and we have been returning the favor ever since”. So we have white Jesus, and we have the God of the Sistine Chapel ceiling—a big old white dude. And all of this has impoverished our minds and our souls—because God is neither of these things—or perhaps God is these things AND God is black, and brown, and female, and non-binary, and queer, and gay, and straight, and transgender, and lesbian. At the same time, God is no one of these things. God is not in fact simply Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  God is Eternal Mystery, Source of Life, Ground of Being. God is Author, Word, and Translator. Parent, Partner, and Friend. Majesty, Mercy, and Mystery. Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Creator, Christ, and Compassion. Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer, and Life-Giver. Peace. Light. Salvation. Strength. Shield. Mother. Sister. Lover.

The eternal truth is that God is far bigger than our language, our culture, our customs. And that God’s love for the diversity of humanity is far bigger than we can imagine. If we listen to Wisdom and her child Jesus and follow their example, we will find much more than new language for God. We will find a God who challenges our assumptions, our knowledge of God and invites us into deeper knowledge of the vastness of God, the vastness of love. Unless we can see God outside of our own racial, ethnic, gender comfort zone we will not a scrap of understanding. Because the white supremacist cannot know God without knowing the God of black women. The homophobic and the heterosexist cannot know God without knowing the queer God in God’s transcendent trans-ness. The law and order judge cannot know God without knowing the God of Michael Ferguson and countless other black men and boys executed on the street without benefit of trial. The supercessionist cannot know God without knowing how God’s Jewish and Muslim children know her.

So, on this day that celebrates a doctrine, I have just used a lot of words to try and describe, grapple with, One who is not describable. Perhaps the wiser, more prudent thing to do, is not to speak about God but to simply accept Wisdom’s invitation to come and sit at the Table. Eat and drink. Gather our strength. Then go find the undefinable God reflected in all the breathtaking, holy diversity of our siblings in Christ.

Share

The Rev. Claire Nevin-Field is the rector of St. Peter’s Church.

Recent Sermons

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.