The Idols We Speak


wordcloudOne of the chief tenets of our postmodern era is the understanding that language shapes reality. The language we use is critical to how we understand and transmit knowledge and how we experience the universe.

So while today’s post is by no means a new topic, I think it is one that bears some serious conversation:

Does the language of the church help or hinder people’s understanding of God?

A few weeks ago my friend Jeff sent me a link to an article that discussed the incident in Exodus 32 where the Israelites erected a golden calf to worship while Moses went missing up on Mount Sinai. The gist of the article was not so much that the Israelites were replacing God with an idol (as has been commonly taught), but that they had created an idol to represent God. And God didn’t like it.

In essence, says author Naomi Walters, the Israelites were genuinely trying to worship Yahweh. They had become accustomed to God’s presence through the guiding pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. And when Moses disappeared up on the mountain with God for 40 days, the people panicked.

It wasn’t that they were just fabricating any old god to worship. They were trying to create an image of the God on whom they had come to rely in order to be assured of God’s continuing presence. They wanted something they could see to represent the God they wished to worship. But God had something better in mind for them. Walters states:

“Perhaps Israel did have good intentions, but God’s reaction reveals Israel’s attempts at representation for what they really are: an attempt to control God, to constrain God, to make concrete a God who is profoundly abstract. The sad irony is that Israel’s attempt to re-present God has ruined God’s plans to be actually present.”

It was part of my friend Jeff’s reaction to the article that sent me down this path of thinking about how language shapes reality, and how desperately the church needs to reinvent its language today.

Jeff’s astute observation was basically this: if our attempt to represent God essentially creates an idol that is not God, and our words about God can be seen as an attempt to represent God, how can we talk about God at all? Are we not in some unintended way actually attempting to control and constrain God by the language we use about God?

And therein lies a difficult conundrum for the church as we attempt to adapt to the rapidly shifting thought patterns and cultural nuances of a postmodern world. How can we communicate our experience of God, our knowledge of God, the reality of God, without somehow creating something that is not actually God, but is really no better than a domesticated image of our own creation?

I don’t have the answers. But I think it has to start with an admission that much of the church’s language about God has become little more than a golden calf. The way we describe God, the way we represent God, has in many ways become something other than who God really is. And so we speak a from a lexicon that is inherently exclusive to outsiders at worst, burdensome to newcomers at best, and widely misunderstood even within our own tribe.

This includes much in our doctrinal statements and theological pronouncements. But it also is manifested in some of the basic descriptions we simply take for granted.

We have to ask ourselves what it means, for instance, to speak of God as a loving heavenly father to a generation that has grown up largely fatherless. When we call Jesus “son of God,” are we aware of the patriarchal societal/cultural context from which that figurative terminology comes, or do we conjure images from our own experience of a literal parent-child relationship?

When we use words like “salvation,” or “righteousness,” or “forgiveness,” or “redemption,” or “sin,” do we understand how they are understood by those who have not been indoctrinated in our vernacular?

Do we really even understand the true meanings of those words ourselves? Or have we constructed idols even of our own language about God, adding yet more distance between our limited selves and our limitless Creator?

Do we really understand how we are representing God? Or, like the Israelites in the desert, is our language really trying to control God? To create a God that’s “ours,” but not “theirs?” How many untold thousands have we sent running the other way from the intolerant, insensitive, backward, unreachable, schizophrenic god we have represented with so much of our language?

Is that how God wishes to be present with his people?

Obviously, we have to be able to talk about God. We need to be able to share our experiences, our questions, our struggles, and our quest for knowledge and understanding.

But somehow we must also find ways to simply live in the tension of knowing that even our best efforts fall short of representing something/someone so powerful, so omnipresent, so mysterious.

Again, I don’t pretend to have the answers. But I think if we want to recapture the true image of God, the imago dei at the very heart of our being, it has to start with love. The way we love others creates a language that I think starts to come close to experiencing God as actually being present rather than represented.

The less controlled and constrained our expressions of love, the less we need to create our own image of God…because in our love we truly experience the reality of God.

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2 thoughts on “The Idols We Speak

  1. Yes, yes and yes! Joe Webb, you are my people! I have so many thoughts about this, not just the language but also some of the problems with Christian culture. I’m not going to get up on my (well-loved and oft-used) soap box — just wanted to offer a hearty AMEN! and add that I hope you explore this topic and offer some more thoughts on it.

  2. I think what you’re asking is how do we translate “God” into a language that today’s people understand without creating and idol. I guess we’re always at risk of misrepresenting God. As Paul said, we see through the glass darkly.

    Maybe part of the answer is that we are willing to ask these questions in the first place. I don’t know. The people who are blindly confident in their own interpretations always make a little nervous. Have you ever met someone who insisted that the King James was the only valid Bible translation? Anyway, you’re asking some good questions here, Joe.

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