Was it Rahner who asserted that all language about God has to be comparative and relational? I just read that section in She Who Is, but I can't remember the exact wording used. I think our divisions by sex, or imaging of God by gender is such a limited (and limiting!) understanding. After all, the Bible says "male AND female, He created them," not "male OR female."Her comment caused me to pull out She Who Is by Elizabeth Johnson, and I found several points in there I wanted to share this week. Karl Rahner does assert that God is first and foremost incomprehensible mystery, and therefore all of our language about God falls short of the reality it is trying to express. God is beyond our cognitive grasp. We can "know" God, but when we do, we "know" God as mystery. The word "God" actually works because it is empty of all content. Unlike other words we use for God, such as "Father" or "Lord", the word God is not metaphorical; it is not a word that is taken from our prior human experience and applied to God. We create images and concepts of God, but those images and concepts can never fully capture God. Rahner also points out, in an article titled, "When God is Far From Us," that at times the images we have been using for God no longer work, and the consequence is the feeling that God is absent. It is not that God is truly absent, it is that God is not fitting our image or idea of what God is supposed to be, and we have to let go of that image in order to reconnect with God. Elizabeth Johnson quotes C.S. Lewis on this point. In his work A Grief Observed, Lewis says:
My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that his shattering is one of the marks of His presence? (p. 52; cited in Johnson, p. 39.)Lewis' idea of God was shattered by the death of his wife. He had very explicit ideas about the purpose of pain and suffering in our lives, but when his wife died, his previous understanding of God no longer worked. Our images of God change and grow as we go through various experiences of life, and sometimes that growth can be painful.
The idea that our concepts fall short of God is as ancient as the prohibition on images of God in the ten commandments, but has been profoundly restated by theologians over time. St. Augustine simply states, "If you have understood, then what you have understood is not God." In its more expanded form quoted by Johnson, Augustine says:
If you have understood, then this is not God. If you were able to understand, then you understood something else instead of God. If you were able to understand even partially, then you have decieved yourself with your own thoughts. (Sermo 52, c.6, n.16; cited in Johnson, p. 109.)Thomas Aquinas follows Augustine on this line of thought. Johnson quotes the following passage from Aquinas:
Since our mind is not proportionate to the divine substance, that which is the substance of God remains beyond our intellect and so is unknown to us. Hence the supreme knowledge we have of God is to know that we do not know God, insofar as we know that what God is surpasses all that we can understand of [God]. (De Potentia q.7, a.5; cited in Johnson, p. 45.)Nonetheless, we do need to be able to talk about God and put our experience of God into human concepts. For this reason, Aquinas develops the doctrine of analogy which says whenever we affirm something of God, we must also negate it, and then negate the negation. In other words, we can say God is good, but God is not good as humans are good, God is good beyond what we can even understand goodness to be because God is the source of all goodness (see Johnson, p. 113). We use our human concepts to talk and think about God, but we also recognize the limits of those concepts.
This point brings us back to the topic of gender and metaphor for God. Speaking of God in language that is masculine or feminine is always using language that is metaphorical. The problem is not using such language; the problem is taking such language literally. Many feminist theologians, including Elizabeth Johnson, would argue for the necessity of using feminine images and pronouns to break through the exclusive hold masculine images and pronouns have held through the years. Read some of the Psalms, for example, and replace "he" and "him" with "she" and "her". Does it make you uncomfortable? Why? That reaction is something to examine within yourself. Has a masculine image of God become an idol in your thinking about God? Many raise the objection that Jesus was male, but Jesus' "maleness" was part of his humanity, as was his height, weight, hair color, etc. Some also protest that Jesus spoke of God as male when he called God "Abba". He did, but we also have to understand the historical context in which he was preaching. He also did use feminine images for speaking about God and God's reign (a mother hen gathering her chicks, a woman searching for a coin), albeit not as frequently. The most prevalent use of feminine language for God is Scripture are the passages about Wisdom/Sophia, for example in Wisdom 7:22-27
In closing, I just want to highlight the an important point Sara made in her comment, that we are made in God's image "male and female" not "male or female". Thanks Sara, for that profound insight!
For in her is a spirit intelligent, holy, unique,
Manifold, subtle, agile, clear, unstained, certain,
Not baneful, loving the good, keen, unhampered, beneficent, kindly,
Firm, secure, tranquil, all-powerful, all-seeing,
And pervading all spirits,
though they be intelligent, pure and very subtle.
For Wisdom is mobile beyond all motion,
and she penetrates and pervades all things
by reason of her purity.
For she is an aura of the might of God
and a pure effusion of the glory of the Almighty;
therefore nought that is sullied enters into her.
For she is the refulgence of eternal light,
the spotless mirror of the power of God,
the image of his goodness.
And she, who is one, can do all things,
and renews everything while herself perduring;
And passing into holy souls from age to age,
she produces friends of God and prophets.