We run into trouble when we start to take our words and concepts too literally. We run into trouble when we do not adequately understand the historical context of certain images. I want to use two examples of this issue. The first is the statement in our creed that Jesus "is seated at the right hand of the Father." For much of my life I had a mental image of two thrones in heaven with God the Father in one and Jesus in the other (probably with a dove flying overhead). The problem with this image is that it is di- or tritheistic - it is an image of two (three, if you count the bird) gods. We profess a belief in one God. So what is behind this image? Only when I started to study Scripture more in depth did this image become clear to me. As I became more familiar with the imagery used in the Hebrew Scriptures to talk about God, I learned that the right hand of God is a reference to the saving power of God. The psalms are filled with references to this image. Just yesterday the psalm for daily mass used it:
Though I walk in the midst of dangers, you guard my life when my enemies rage. You stretch out your hand; your right hand saves me. -Psalm 138:7God's "right hand" saves us, delivers us, upholds us, sustains us. (For references to God's right hand, click here!) One of my favorite references to this concept is in the Book of Job. When Job is questioning God, God responds by questioning him. God basically asks Job, "Are you God?" Did you create the earth? Can you command the morning or bring the rain? God says, if so, if you are God,
"then will I too acknowledge that your own right hand can save you." Job 40:14In other words, if you are not God, then you are dependent on God's right hand to save you. So what does all of this have to do with the Creed? To say that Jesus is seated "at the right hand of God" is simply a metaphorical way of professing that Jesus is the saving power of God. It is Jesus who saves us, delivers us, upholds us, and sustains us. Like Job, we cannot save ourselves, but are utterly dependent on the saving power of God in Christ to save us. By taking that line of the Creed literally, we not only fall into heresy by imagining Jesus to be separate from God, we also miss the very power the image is meant to convey!
The other example I want to use is the image of God that Jesus gives us, the image of God as Abba. We translate this image as father, a word that in our usage often conveys a very formal parent-child relationship. The tragedy of that translation is that the power of Jesus' calling God Abba was precisely in the fact that it shattered that formality in the relationship between us and God. Abba cries out to God with a child's familiarity, trust, and affection. To refer to God as a father would not have been shocking in Jesus' time as the Hebrew Scriptures use such imagery to talk about God. The informal and affectionate relationship with God is the legacy Jesus was giving to his disciples and to all of us. We also miss the point if we focus on the fact that Abba is a masculine term. God is not male or female. To try to categorize God as either becomes heresy and idolatry. We use personal pronouns (which in our language are gendered) to refer to God because our relationship with God is personal, not because we take literally the gender of the pronoun. Therefore it makes no sense to get upset when people use either male or female terms to refer to God, because neither one should be taken literally and Scripture uses both (for feminine imagery, see for example the beautiful passages in the book of Wisdom or Proverbs!)
Language is one of our greatest gifts and biggest frustrations as human beings. Just think about your human relationships to know the truth of this statement. How marvelous that we have been created with this gift of the ability to communicate, and yet, how often our words fail to capture our intention. So much human misunderstanding is based on the fact that we struggle to capture our feelings and experiences with language. Our relationship with God is not only no different, the disconnect between our language and concepts and the reality of God is that much greater because of God is ultimately infinite and beyond our comprehension. Nonetheless, because we are in relationship with God and do experience God, we continue to use our words and concepts, no matter how fallible they are, to try to articulate and communicate the relationship that makes us who we are.