Thursday, February 08, 2007

I'm going to use this week's blog to expand on a comment on last week's blog. If you didn't read Sara's comment last week, which raised some excellent points, she stated:

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

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.

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!

Thursday, February 01, 2007

A friend showed me a CNN video clip the other day about a 12 year old child prodigy artist named Akiane Kramarik. At the age of four Akiane had an experience of God, even more extraordinary given that she was raised in a home where faith was not practiced or discussed. Her mother had been raised atheist, and her father was a former Catholic. (See article in Christianity Today.) In the CNN interview, speaking of when Akiane first started describing the visions, Akiane's mother tells the reporter, "I knew it was real to her, the things she had seen and the places she had visited." Through their daughter's experience of God, Akiane's parents have found/renewed their own faith in God. While Akiane enjoys painting portraits and animals, she also started to paint her visions. Through the visions Akiane felt called to help others, not only through her artwork, but also actively working to relieve suffering in the world. She gives a portion of the proceeds of her artwork to charity and is hoping to start building hospitals in Lithuania (her mother's home country) and will soon begin a tour to raise money to alleviate suffering from AIDS in Africa.

In addition to the paintings themselves, Akiane would pray, reflect, and write poetry about the paintings. Akiane explains that her poetry writes about the suffering and the hardship of humankind; her art shows the hope. About a painting titled, "Divine Knowledge," Akiane writes:

"This painting was particularly hard for me, because I have changed it so many times and ended up using two models and two completely different backgrounds. It took me a few months to paint its full meaning and another five months of prayer to fully understand it. This is the painting about search for divine knowledge.The young sculptor represents our civilization mostly ruled by the male. His youth shows that our civilization is still immature. The sculptor is chiseling a huge heap of coal in order to find the diamond representing divine knowledge. The sculptor ignores the pain, strain, hardship and temptation of everything surrounding him. All he focuses on is on finding this particular diamond, and he knows that if he chisels long enough through the black coal layers, representing human knowledge, he will finally see the diamond of divine knowledge. In the background of a cave"
The poem she writes with the painting states:

“…Only from the deep coal tunnels
White diamonds come.
But only by the light
They are recognized…”

Akiane tells CNN that her vision of heaven is vivid and full of color, more colors than we can even imagine. God she describes as "bold light, pure, really masculine, really strong and big." I write about Akiane both because her story and her work touched me deeply, but also because it gives me an opportunity to talk about visions and images of God. If you or I were to have a vision of God, there is a good chance that God would not look to us as God looks to Akiane. God is imageless, and so when a person has a vision, God works through the person's imagination, which is not to say the vision is "made up". God works through the person's own consciousness and the concepts or experiences the person has at her disposal as well as through the subconscious. Many mystics have visions of God, but rarely do two mystics describe God in the same way. Often times words fall short of describing the experience.

Julian of Norwich had many visions of "showings" of God. In her writing about on of her visions, she states:

"As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother, and he revealed that in everything, and especially in these sweet words where he says: I am he; that is to say: I am he, the power and goodness of fatherhood; I am he, the wisdom and lovingness of motherhood; I am he, the light and the grace which is all blessed love; I am he, the Trinity; I am he, the unity; I am he, the great supreme goodness of every kind of thing; I am he who makes you to love: I am he who makes you to long; I am he, the endless fulfilling of all true desires."

Our images of God tell us about our relationship to God, and they also tell us a lot about ourselves. When I taught theology, I would ask my students to describe God for me. I would write the characteristics they said on the board: powerful, loving, just, compassionate, strong, etc. Then I would ask, for each trait, whether it was masculine or feminine. The results were never entirely surprising: powerful - masculine, loving - feminine, just - masc., compassionate - fem., strong - masc., etc. Eventually someone would sort of catch on and start replying "both". I would have them look at the board and tell me what this says about God. God is not male or female - God does not have a body. Then I would ask what it says about us. What does it mean to men that we say being loving and compassionate is feminine? What does it mean to women that we say being powerful, strong, and just is masculine? I recently heard that there is a new movement afoot called the "menaissance" (like Renaissance) encouraging men to be more manly and less "in touch with their feelings". Similarly much of the language about complementarity between the sexes has the danger of stereotyping men and women and limiting both groups in terms of what it means to be human. I recently heard a homily (not at St. Monica's) about husbands needing to love their wives, and wives needing to respect their husbands. Not once did the priest say that wives should also love their husbands, and husbands also need to respect their wives.

Many people are uncomfortable with feminist theology and feminine images of God, but as theologian Elizabeth Johnson points out, the symbol of God functions. The way we image God has an impact on the way we understand the human persons created in God's image. What does it say about all of the traits listed above when we exclusively image God as male? Not that it is wrong to image God as male, but it is also not wrong to use female metaphors for God, because all of our language about God is metaphor. Images help us relate to God, but they do not capture God. Johnson also points out that to use one image exclusively for God is actually idolatry.

So what does this have to do with Akiane's paintings? I invite you to hear her story and look at the images she has created, and I hope that they will inspire you as they do me. But I also offer them to you with the caveat to take them as real and true, for Akiane and maybe for you, but not literal. They are beautiful symbols and representations of an extraordinary relationship this little girl has with God that, as she herself points out, will always go beyond what we can capture with the limited means at our disposal in this life.