language for God
May 11, 2009
I teach a confirmation class. With all the problems involved with that (being part of a Christian culture where confirmation class is a way of reaching adulthood). The 12-15 17 year olds that entered my class this year are just like any class. They have very little knowledge of church history, the Bible, spirituality. They know many Christian words though, as part of this culture. But they struggle with language for God which resonate with the worldview that they are developing.
What I like about my confirmation class is the honesty that we have. They will regurarly remind me that they have little knowledge on issues of faith. This is the space where we search for language for God. A question like “where was God before creation?” can be interpreted in a number of ways. We could quote a Bible verse for them, using the religious terminology they are familiar with, but which is exactly the terminology that cause the problems, the reason for their needing to ask the question. This answer would be: “God is the beginning and the end, he that was and that is and that is to come”. This is theology that I agree with, but language that I struggle with. The 17 year olds in my class seem to be in the same situation.
So let me put some assumptions on the table. I believe that language for God and faith and trancendence is not set in stone. The Old Testament “El”-terminology and Jahwe terminology was Hebrew language, language that doesn’t translate exactly into the Greek “kurios” and “theos” language (if you don’t know the Hebrew and Greek, don’t worry). And the meaning attached to these words change over time. I simply admit that language refer to something else. The word “God” refer to something, the word in itself is nothing, and with English being my second language I don’t use this word when I talk about what English speaking people call “God”, I use an Afrikaans term. Admittedly, these two terms are spelled the same. The Belgic Confession article 1, one of the creeds of the Reformed tradition that I’m part of, point this out when writing:
We all believe in our hearts and confess with our mouths that there is a single and simple spiritual being, whom we call God — eternal, incomprehensible, invisible, unchangeable, infinite, almighty; completely wise, just, and good, and the overflowing source of all good.
God is a word, it refers to something which this confession tries to put into words, while knowing that it’s impossible, that this single and simple spiritual being is inconprehensible. But still we look for words to talk about this single and simple spiritual being, whom we call God. One way of doing this is to talk about that which is “more”. The language of “more” points to the fact that the physical reality is not all there is, and the measurable time is not all there is, there is more. This more we call God.
We read Psalm 8 in the class. The glory of God being higher than the heavens. Creation ended at the heavens, God was found beyond the edges of creation. God was the more for Psalm 8 as well, I think. And so we continue, we look for language to talk about this reality that many call God, that I also call God at times. And sometimes I see a 17 year old, one that seldom if ever read the Bible, get a glitter in his/her eye, recognize language for God which resonate with their hearts, and just maybe they will make the more more and more part of their lives.