Thursday, January 6, 2011

Words Fail Us

It should be self-evident that we can never fully capture in human words the divine reality.

Whatever we say about God falls short. The human mind and the words we formulate to capture truth are too small to embrace the Supreme Being.

Whatever we say about God we say by way of analogy. For this reason human beings use a variety of literary forms to speak about God. The Sacred Scriptures use poetry, song, folklore, myth, history, Gospel, letters, etc. to express what we perceive to be the truth.

The Bible is the result of our Jewish ancestors' struggle to understand their experience of divinity. Consequently we employ a variety of traditions and theologies to organize the complexity and superority of God.

The first chapter of Genesis emphasizes the transcendence of God; the second chapter presents God's immanence. Is God above and beyond us? Or is God truly with us? The answer to both questions is "Yes." God is transcendent and immanent.

The Bible is trying to express the inexpressible, often by formulating or borrowing traditions. It is a compilation of these traditions. Sometimes the stories have similar incidents but different characters. Sometimes elements of the stories contradict each other.

If you ask most Bible readers, "Who killed Goliath?" their answer is "David," and they may refer you to 1 Samuel 17 to verify it. Some others may give a different answer, and refer you to 2 Samuel 21:19: "There was another battle with the Philistines in Gob, in which Elhanan, son of Jair from Bethlehem, killed Goliath of Gath..." Two traditions, two heroes.

Acts 9:7 says that those with Paul on the road to Damascus "heard the voice but could see no one," while Acts 22:9, referring to the same incident, says they "saw the light but did not hear the voice." Two traditions, differing details.

These discrepancies do not invalidate the effort to understand and verbalize our perception of God's revelation. They do point, however, to the differing ways we experience God, to the variations in how we express that experience.

Theologians have long held that there is greater accuracy in saying what God is not than in saying what God is. In a sense, everything we say about God borders on heresy.

If we acknowledge that there are variations in the experience and that it is impossible to fully understand and verbalize those experiences, are we to conclude that all our theologizing is in vain and that religion is by its nature unreliable speculation?

No, not at all. Would it make sense to refuse to eat a meal because all the food groups are not represented on the table? No, we will eat what is there. Would it make sense to refuse to have a relationship with some people because we cannot meet and know all people? No, we relate to those we can.

In similar fashion, though we cannot know everything about God, we will not for that reason refuse to know anything about the divine. And we can even allow the probability that others may have an insight or a word that expresses the truth better than we do.

In an earlier age Church leaders argued over how best to express the truth that Jesus is divine. The expression "consubstantial with the Father" was chosen to express Jesus' divinity, but that same expression was understood by some to mean that Jesus and the Father are one and the same. Words sometimes fail us.

John the evangelist faced the challenge of capturing the truth: Jesus said, "I and the Father are one" (Jn 10:30) and "I am leaving the world to go to the Father" (Jn 16:28) ---one in being but distinct.

Despite our deficiencies, it remains possible for us to develop theologies, to reject statements which contradict what we know, to explore better ways of formulating our understanding.

At the same time we must acknowledge that we never fully capture God in human language. Good theologizing always requires a dose of humility.

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