Friday, January 21, 2005

The Inadequacy of Language

I've been thinking lately about how we as human beings just don't have the ability to wrap our 3 lb. brains around God, much less explain him fully to others. It seems to me that the only ways we can even talk about God are anthropomorphically (giving human traits and characteristics to something that is not human, i.e. "the flower turned its face toward the sun" or "the skies wept"), analogically (through the use of analogy), or metaphorically. I guess that's why it bugs me when I hear people describe God with such certainty. ("God IS like this." "God couldn't possibly be/do/feel that") As Brian McLaren says, most people actually just think of God as a bigger, better version of themselves. The use of the three language devices I have listed (anthropomorphism, analogy, or metaphor) in relation to God necessarily implies that we don't or can't exactly know. When we use these devices we are, by necessity saying "it's kind of like this, but not exactly". It's a stance of humility (and one that scripture actually takes in describing God as well). It's saying "I only know what He has chosen to reveal to me, and I have to relate it to my experience in order to even begin to grasp it."
Even when Jesus explains the Kingdom of God, He speaks parabolically. We want Him to do a detailed, logical exposition. Instead, He always says "The Kingdom of God is like this: Once upon a time, there was a..." On top of that, these parables aren't even allegorical, where you can just figure out the symbolism and fill in the blanks, and it's a rare exeption when He gives any kind of explanation whatsoever. Instead, what Jesus does with parables is create worlds full of things from the experience of his listeners, only the worlds created by His stories don't quite operate the way ours does. Tom Wright says that parables are like plays looking for actors, and our job is to figure out where we fit in them. Jesus, instead of giving us steps, rules, and models for the Kingdom of God creates new ideological worlds with his stories and invites us to join the cast.
AE

11 comments:

David U said...

Great thoughts, brother! Keep on challenging us! I check your blog daily.

In HIM,
David Underwood

Phil said...

It's kind of like trying to describe a color or a sunset to someone born blind. Language just cannot capture it.

Kenny Payne said...

Rob Bell says, "You can mess up a sermon by talking!" Maybe that is why Jesus told so many stories without feeling the need to offer explanation. As with a good joke or a pun, if you don't get it the explanation will not help anyway...

Jon said...

Anthropomorphically? Wow, been reading that new dictionary you got for Christmas. :) A year ago, I struggled with thinking about stories to use for illustrations in chapel talks or wherever. But when you look at teaching/preaching as sharing your personal experience of God, rather than icing on a homiletic cake, it is much easier to see the story as the message itself. Great stuff...as always.

Keith Brenton said...

Jesus also knew the power of story; how a story will stick in our minds and reveal reality to us long after facts and stats and graphs have been forgotten.

My great-grandpa Alfred Ellmore, in the days before TV and radio, would often gather children at the front of the church and begin his sermon by saying, "Now, listen! I'm going to tell you a little story ... " Then he would.

What's amazing to me is that bringing people to Christ - or closer to Him - is so much easier when you avoid the deep theological questions about theodicy or eschatology ... and just tell His story!

(I wasn't aware of the quote from Tom Wright ... but I was sorta thinking the same thing when I commented on Jeff Berryman's blog some time back!)

Fajita said...

Words are not an exact science (huh? they are not even a science, what am i talking about?). In fact, they are only representative of the meaning we try to convey. Words are like money. They represent value, but do not have it in and of themselves. But like money, they are powerful. Yes, it is an attributed power, but powerful they are.

You could say that words and interpretations are all we have. There is meaning, sure, but who can actually get to it? I think the best we can hope for is to get near it. Jesus knew this, having been involved in the whole creation thing, and the evolution of language thing, well, He might have had a hand in it as well. However, what is interesting is that is the Jesus incarnated into a language system. He allowed Himself to be limited by words, but also to expand our limits through nthe use of words. Curious paradox, no?

Phil said...

How about the idea that Jesus came as the Logos/Word of God?

Adam said...

Great thoughts guys. Thanks for the feedback. I'm exhausted (long day, I'm working on filming some small group material on parables of the Kingdom and parables of Grace and Judgement with the staff at Palo Alto). I did want to take a sec to comment on Phil's question though. Logos can also accurately be translated as information or testimony. I think that's probably more what John had in mind (although "In the beginning was the 'Word' does sound quite cool). The idea that Jesus existed as a testimony about God is a beautiful idea to me. The idea is that He WAS the information...that He embodied it. Somehow, wrapped up in the mystery of the Incarnation, is the fact that Jesus at His essense was Meaning...meaning that wasn't inhibited by language. Instead, it was accurately conveyed by His existense and pressence.
AE

Kenny Payne said...

This whole discussion reminds me of something I read by Parker Palmer who suggests that truth is not some objective thing "out there somewhere" but it is extremely subjective as in "standing right in front of Pilate" in the person of Jesus. Thus when Pilate asks "What is truth?" Jesus cannot give a verbal answer, because he has already shown himself to BE truth. Truth that is relational is less likely to be used as "brutal truth" or manipulated as some type of "universal/generic truth." So when Jesus says, "I am the way, the truth, and the life" he might not have been kidding. And he might not have been speaking metahorically either. Perhaps he really embodies and is the source of all those necessary (and exciting) concepts. Just a thought...

Brandon Scott said...

Adam-
Great thoughts here. It reminded me how we typically don't do metaphor and symbolism well. We work much better with pure black and white. There are all sorts of issues that speak into that. I am just grateful that God loves us anyway. We, as the human race, can be pretty idiotic. Imagine that He still gave up HIS CHILD for us? Incredible!

td said...

As an "infant" to Christianity (saved not 4 months ago) trying to learn more about Jesus and then applying that knowledge is often frustrating. It seems as if wherever one looks, someone is taking this-or-that and running a completely different direction than was seen before. I often feel defeated with what might not even be expected of me...but I can always hold onto grace - that it is not of my power at all, but God's magnificent love. I only hope that as I grow as a Christ-follower I can see my new life the way that I should - and can be certain in my faith. Thank you for being a resource in my journey.