A God By Any Other Name?

Allow me to quote an already over-quoted line from the mouth of Juliet written by Shakespeare

Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.

I had a Twitter conversation (yes I know, long Twitter conversations are annoying) about this very idea a while back.  I tweeted about a disagreement with the use of a metaphor in a particular worship song at church.  Maybe you know the song, the line in question reads,

He is jealous for me 
Love’s like a hurricane, I am a tree 
Bending beneath the weight of His wind and mercy 

Now I get the idea of the metaphor, basically God’s love is big, overwhelming, and powerful.  It makes sense to a point.  But as a person who has been through hurricanes, and I am not suggesting that I am alone in this experience, I cringe a little every time I see these lyrics written on the screen.  You see, my experiences with hurricanes are predominantly (read completely) negative.  I have seen hurricanes destroy building, homes, crops, families, and towns.  I have seen what hurricanes do to trees and the last word that I would use to describe any of these interactions is love.  I would be willing to bet that most people who have seen a hurricane would agree with me, they are violent, unloving forces of nature.

While I still think that this is a particularly bad metaphor, I have gotten over this annoyance, I am easily annoyed, and this song has become a bit of a jumping off point for me onto the broader idea of our uses of metaphor when describing God.  The more I think about this subject the more I realize that it is not so much that this one metaphor is horrendous as much as it is that all metaphors for God are lacking.  The reality is that no comparison that we can make accurately describes God.  As a side note, feel free to share your favorite horrible metaphor for God that you have heard in church, school etc.  Some of my favorites are food related, God as an egg, a cake, water in three states, and even an onion.  Again, feel free to leave your favorites in the comment section below, I am looking forward to hearing them.

So if metaphors are seriously lacking in their ability to accurately describe God and make him more relatable, should we abandon the use of metaphor when describing God?  May it never be!  Quite the opposite, I feel that we need to open up our use of metaphor to further our understanding of God.

One way I want to discuss this idea is in terms of gender.  Side Note: I will refer to God as “he” throughout this post solely because that is the traditional way to do so.  I will attempt to be careful on this topic as I am sure I will be accused of being a heretic, it would not be the first time, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth.  So before I officialy start the discussion let me concretely lay out a few points so that there is no confusion

– I believe the Bible to be true.

– Jesus was in fact a living breathing male and also God.

– The earliest known manuscripts of scripture refer to God using the masculine pronoun “he.”

– God is without gender.

– The biblical texts were written in patriarchal, male dominated societies.

– I am writing under the  premise that “he” and “father” are implied metaphors for God, the writers of the text knowing that God is in fact without gender but needing to use words in which to describe him.

So with that out of the way, let’s discuss.  What do we do when people are repelled, appalled, isolated and have other negative reactions, not to God himself, but to which the way he has traditionally been described?  My main concern is this, what do we do when, for example, a woman (or  a man) who was say abused by her father simply cannot accept the idea of God being a father figure, with her only expeiences with the word “father” being overwhelmingly negative?  What we need to look at is the intention of the metaphor.  Is it the intention that God is an actual male leader of a person, or is it that God is a loving, caretaker, with the best interest of the child in mind?  It is my suggestion that the intention of the metaphor is more focused on the real role of a father as opposed to the physical makeup of that father.  With this I think that we should be willing to expand our use of metaphor and embrace others such as God as mother, sister, and so on.  The use of the word “mother” to describe God has been traditionally rejected as new age, panentheism, and other unorthodox beliefs.

Now don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t mean that all metaphors for God should be accepted.  We cannot use those which contradict aspects of his character that we know to be true.  I am not advocating that we change what we think of as God’s character, only that we change how we describe what we know to be true about him.  Like the cliche rose, God does not consist of simply a name, word or metaphor but a set of truths, realities, and convictions.

So I still think the hurricane metaphor is weak and exclusive.  However, on the other side of exclusivity is inclusiveness and it is worth a million cringes from people like me if it means that a single person comes to a realization about God  because of those words.    But the more I think about it the more assured I am.  It is nice to know that God is greater than the limits of our human vocabulary, that he cannot be described accurately in prose or poetry, and that though we can begin to understand certain aspects of his character, we will never fully understand him.  Paul spoke of being all things to all people for the sake of the gospel.  In our current culture I think that it is important that we continue this idea with our use of metaphor so that we may include as many people as possible.

At some point I have to stop putting off my weekly posts until the last minute.  There are a lot of issues that I think are worth discussing but time is a bit limiting in this format.  Please feel free to leave your thoughts below in the comment section to further the discussion.  Thanks for reading.

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Categories: A First Faint Gleam

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9 Comments on “A God By Any Other Name?”

  1. August 10, 2012 at 12:38 pm #

    G-d, the unnameable, the unspeakable. Metaphors are the way we try to talk about the subject. And the powerful, awesome, wrathful quality of G-d is also part of reality.

    • curtisrrogers
      August 11, 2012 at 10:27 am #

      definitely, thanks for commenting and reading.

  2. Sean
    August 10, 2012 at 11:15 pm #

    I agree that some (most) metaphors fall short of describing god. I myself am a soon to be father, and lately when I hear god referred to as father it makes me feel weird. I’m not sure if its because the title is to big for me or to human for god. but I think that’s just part of nervous soon to be dad feelings. A Christian punk band I have listened to said something really wise in a song ” Is your god really God?, Is my god really God?
    I think our god isn’t God, If he fits inside our heads.” always thought that was a cool lyric. Also I am very familiar with your mentioned song and wondering if you heard the original lyrics that say sloppy wet kiss instead of unforeseen kiss. I think sloppy wet kiss is a better lyric. sorry if you don’t know what I mean

    • curtisrrogers
      August 11, 2012 at 10:27 am #

      I am also a soon to be father, and it is weird to think about. I think what you said about God not being God if he fits inside our heads is an excellent point. The more I thought about this the more I thought that it is refreshing to know that God is hard if not impossible to explain. I think if there was a perfect metaphor for God then it would make him too familiar, just like another person. Thanks for the thoughts, and no I have never heard the lyric “sloppy wet kiss” in that song, but I like the idea. Thanks or reading.

      • Sean
        August 11, 2012 at 1:59 pm #

        I also Ment to put that Donald miller talks about the father metaphor and how it hurts some peoples idea of god, in his book to own a dragon.

      • curtisrrogers
        August 12, 2012 at 7:21 am #

        I haven’t gotten around to reading that one. I read Blue Like Jazz but never read the others, thanks for the heads up I will check it out.

  3. Adam R
    August 11, 2012 at 8:09 am #

    First, lay off DCB!

    Second, our bad metaphors are all we really can do. Scripture teaches “the Lord is one God”….that is a loaded statement in Hebrew. It literally means He is perfect, and that whatever attribute can ascribe to Him, He is perfectly that attribute. I.e., He is holy therefore He is perfectly holy. He is love therefore He is perfect love. You get the picture.

    We can’t fully handle that. I like the comment “I think our god isn’t God if he fits inside our heads.” In the context of a broken world, think how much our minds really will be blown when we escape it’s confines and see more clearly

  4. Keith Williamson
    August 11, 2012 at 10:53 am #

    Very thought provoking post. Thanks for writing.

    I think we need to consider the metaphor carefully. While the intention of the father metaphor may be that God is a loving caretaker with the best interest of the child in mind, the reality is that fathers do that differently than mothers (and intentionally so). So when we say that God is our Father, certainly we are saying that He is a loving caretaker with our best interest in mind, but that He is doing this as a perfect Father would. This is not to say that God does not also reveal Himself in the different, but equally important, mother metaphor (see Mt 23: 37 and Lk 13:34), but that those two are very distinct and different – and say different things about who God is and how He loves us. Either one by itself is less than a complete picture. Both together are still an incomplete picture, but closer to the heart of God. I think a loving response to those who have been abused by their earthly parents is not to change the way God describes Himself, but to invite them to tell God they can’t handle Him as a Father, they don’t trust Him as a Father. That’s really what’s at the heart of the matter. God’s big enough – He can take it.

    I think that this premise can be applied to metaphors on the whole. God has revealed himself in certain ways, and preserved those ways because they say something about who He is. Rather than seeking to make God easier to accept, we need to ask people why they can’t accept Him. Then invite them to tell God that and ask Him to meet them in that and be willing and available to walk with them on that journey towards healing. Personally, I’ve been on this journey with God as Friend. It has been a wild ride, but not one that I would want to miss…

    • curtisrrogers
      August 12, 2012 at 7:20 am #

      Excellent points Keith. There are important aspects of God shown through the God the father metaphor. I guess the idea for someone who has a hard time accepting the God the father metaphor would be to bring them to God by using a different metaphor and once they started building a solid foundation, then they could start to understand the God the father metaphor in ways that they couldn’t previously. I am not suggesting that we “dumb down” God simply that we remove any roadblocks that a person may have on the way to encounter him. Once they arrive and study, pray, and live in him I think that the God the father metaphor would start to make itself more applicable. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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