Does Language about God Matter?

August 15, 2010 - 4:13 pm 69 Comments

Does Language Matter?
A response of preliminary considerations

Human language, by its origins and design is symbolic communication. Being organic, it is also dynamic. Being human, it is also culturally relative, and therefore susceptible to the social context, and to the subjective agendas of both the speaker and the listener.
There is a need to grasp the problem of religious symbolism within language and culture. A step beyond the accepted norm of Aquinas, that religious language is analogous, and comes from accepting the approximation that any word contains. When considering the limitations of words themselves, language in its human and cultural context creates an urgent and ever present, corroborating need to assign to words a symbolic influence or power. Language contains within its purposes infused messages and meanings. Therefore, simply to accept and not to question and examine seems too superficial. Being willing to explore and expand upon the meanings, we find adaptations that are possible and could contain important, vital ways to unlock hidden understandings. If we are willing to be so adventurous and risk-taking, we can inherit from previous generations a limited scope, a confining expression or definition. Worse, yet would be that we could unwittingly perpetuate misconceptions and erroneous ideas and definitions that depart from a more inclusive original framework for meaning and purpose that word first symbolized or harnessed for human usage. 2

2 Edward T. Hall, The Silent Language, DoubleDay & Company, New York, 1959, pages 37. Hall further states on page 58, that ” Americans tend to isolate or compartmentalize language more than any other culture.” Hall’s eight criteria for understanding language and culture are these: Interaction, Association, Subsistence, Bisexuality, Territoriality, Temporality, Learning, Play, Defense, Exploitation( use of materials) Page 46-62.
Hall provides a social science critique for Fundamentalism’s assertions that language stays the same since written. For example, The claims of Biblical inerrancy such can be found in authors like Carl Henry, can be seen as falling apart before the reality of cultural shifts and changes. Definitions, over time, can be altered or reinterpreted. Most hermeneutics and preaching could benefit from using a modern dictionary of language meanings, and various idioms, along with Biblical etymologies. It could be a valuable asset and a step toward greater clarity.

We can conclude that there is no true or complete sense of certainty that can be captured or conveyed through language. This is considered to be true even when we humans are contemplating the words that various cultures would deem to be sacred, such as in World Scripture. Even though these words may be subjectively and culturally defined as being absolute and static, these words are shown, over the course of their compilation and linguistic critique to be words that are neither certain nor are they defined consistently by all who read them. The Bible we have received is a collection of words and ideas that have gone through many incarnations, versions, revisions, and translations. A a sample pathway through culture and translations, we can see that our Biblical words have been on quite a historical and cultural journey: From the ancient Near East origins in cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphics to early Semitic languages we are given the unpolished Hebrew and Aramaic that became the basis for the translations into Hellenic Greek, then into Roman Latin, then to into German and eventually into Shakespeare’s English when we arrive at the King James Version.
Presently, we have at least five different translations in common English usage. All along this culturally and religiously diverse pathway from the Middle East to Europe to the New World, these words and ideas, these metaphors and symbols, and their various meanings have be changed to suit the particular editorial bias or preferences.
Hebrew scholar, Fabre D’Olivet, who wrote this warning for our contemporary generation: 3

The tragedy of biblical translation has been expressions that were meant to resonate many levels of meaning- at least the intellectual, metaphorical and the universal- have been whittled down to become ‘wholly gross in [their] nature.. restricted to material and particular expressions.’ This tendency to divide and over “literalize” was reflective of the whole Newtonian era; a period that repressed mystical cosmology and was also ill at ease with mystical translation.”

The lasting gift and value of scripture cannot be found in its assumed absolute status. It is found in the very nature of religious language as being “polyvalent” or being capable of conferring a variety of meanings within it. The men who were responsible or placed in charge of the task of translation and adaptation from one language to another, chose carefully within a range of possible meanings. However, those choices were made by fallible men- and so their choices were not made in a cultural or theological vacuum. The gender of language is one, glaring place where the possible choices or the subjective preferences have had a lasting influence and, for this writer, it has had a significant marginalizing, pejorative effect. Much of the exclusionary language problems we have today find their root cause in the misogynist clerics who controlled the translation process. When that fact is coupled with how women were denied literacy (up to our modern times in places in the world!) the combination of many factors such as ecclesial bias and its clear preference to speak of God as being exclusively masculine can be seen to be so rehearsed and expected that it stubbornly persists to the untrained and prejudicial eye into our modern era!
(Without belaboring the point in this short essay, there is another useful corollary to consider from modern scholarship. James Fowler, in his well known and respected developmental theory called ” The Stages of Faith” assigns a relatively naive, and elementary awareness or unrefined understanding to those who are only comfortable with literalism.)

Agreeing with professor Piepmeir, language certainly does matter! The feminine in Biblical language for God shows up early- in the first Genesis account. She shows up linguistically as a feminine Holy Spirit, and is known in the pages of the Torah such as Deuteronomy as a mother bird brooding over her nest. And she is a prominent part of the whole section of the Hebrew Bible called Wisdom literature where wisdom as Sophia is portrayed as the alluring female who traps men into self awareness!
(Incidentally, the usage of the gender inclusive words, Father/Mother God was first introduced into Protestant worship in 1835 by Bostonian preacher and abolitionist, Theodore Parker. He used the phrase Out Father/Mother God regularly to begin his prayers… Them of course, in a few decades after that, we have Mary Baker eddy making this gender inclusive phrase a regular part of all Christian Science services. So the idea of addressing God are having both masculine and feminine traits or qualities is far from new!)

The excellent insights from contemporary feminist scholarship since the 1970’s has contributed immensely to our greater and more full expression and comprehension of theological language for the divine. They have provided and produced important ways to understand a more balanced, integrated, and inclusive approach to God, and to whatever is deemed to be sacred and holy. We also have learned from depth psychology that when archetypes become conscious, they often become engendered in our thoughts and feelings.
In short, women have been disenfranchised from taking their rightful and equal place in religious understanding and ministerial leadership. For far too long, the dominant language of patriarchal culture- from politics to religion- have limited our choices for language and hampered or full human comprehension. Through a greater exposure to these new translations and deeper insights, we can gain a richer understanding of all the myth, metaphor, and meaning that can be found in sacred literature. By empowering this more inclusive and egalitarian approach. We, as a worshipping community and larger western culture, can arrive at images for the Divine that give both men and women more accessible and inviting guidance for their lives.
Religious feminism and the search for the inclusive sense of the sacred and for the recovery of the Holy Feminine in our Western culture has made important strides in the necessary work of reclamation and rediscovery. However, this large affirmation does not belong to scholars and to the esoterically inclined among us. As I see it, there is a pressing, urgent need to reform liturgy and life span religious instruction to reflect these new/old insights and to rephrase language to reflect new learning and new levels of comprehension. These new patterns of recognition and greater awareness needs to be actively applied to our leadership questions within our congregations.
While many established approaches to theology will state that God is eternal, changeless and absolute, the language we use to describe our story of faith, the words we use to affirm our beliefs, and to testify to our understanding – from its linguistic roots to its idealistic wings- remains variable, culturally relative, and because of this fact, literal meaning remain unknowable.
So I will offer one last reflective central question of the newspaper’s article: Does Language Matter? And will follow with last words of personal reflection…
From Theopoetics, a book by the famous New testament scholar, Amos Wilder:

“The great mysteries of faith can only be approximated
within the limitations of human language. The higher forms
of understanding have to be expressed in ways that transcend
language and intellection, and finally reside in mystery and experiential
meaning for the person before her/his God”

While these limits of language, even though they can make us feel insecure, uncertain, unknowing, they prove themselves to be ultimately gracious. The acceptance of our human limits or the uncertainty of translations and editorial compilations leads us directly toward the necessity for faith, for trust, for courage and for compassion. We cannot safely rely on any written word to contain the best ways to know and to affirm the “Allness” of God.

The Rev. Peter E. Lanzillotta, Ph.D.


Fabre D’Olivet, The Hebraic Tongue Restored 1815. This quote comes from the introduction to Neil Douglas Klotz’s Prayers of The Cosmos, where he puts forth a possible Aramaic and mystical translation of the Lord’s Prayer and Beatitudes, and Parables, Harper and Row San Francisco 1990 page 2.

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