Regarding the grammar of God

The recent debate over the marriage canon of the Anglican Church of Canada has revealed at least two major theological fault line, both deeply underexamined. One is how we think about gender, both in the order of creation and in the order of redemption, and in our language about God and humanity; whether our scripture and tradition actually tie us into a simple gender binary to anything like the extent we have believed for the last few centuries. The other is how we think about the theological nature of covenant partnership (and, secondarily, how this relates to the institutions known as “marriage” at various times and places).

At the moment I am mostly making forays towards the first question, not with any idea that it can be resolved forever, but in an attempt to at least slightly complicate and deepen some of our thinking. I’ve also glanced at the second question occasionally, and will again, and may treat it more comprehensively at some point.

How a faith system thinks about gender with relationship to the divine, and gender with relationship to humanity, do not necessarily have to be directly connected (or, humans being what we are, even coherently related). In Christianity specifically, however, there is an unavoidable connection, which is the body of Jesus, the place where divinity and humanity meet; and so, how we think about that body matters in particular. But even aside from that crucial intersection, it is perhaps worth rehearsing a few basic things about gender within the Trinitarian God of orthodox Christian theology.

The God we encounter in the Hebrew scriptures is clearly somewhere past the horizon of all human concepts, and to speak to, or of, this God pushes at the edge of language. God has several names or appellations – the one most resembling a proper name is unpronounceable, unsayable, and seems to translate broadly into something like “I AM THAT I AM.” The second most common way of naming God in the Hebrew scriptures, the word Elohim, is a plural formation treated as singular, a violation of human grammar in its nature. If this confusing God has any pronoun at all, it is “I”. God, in fact, has a unique claim to this pronominal status, and may be the only one who can use first person with complete accuracy, the one who has absolute being, selfhood, and existence, from which all of our existences and identities are derived; we are “I” only insofar as we participate in the great “I” of God. It is the first person voice which speaks through the prophets, the ego eimi of Jesus which moves through the gospels and climaxes at the moment in the garden when Jesus steps out towards the soldiers and says simply, like the voice from the burning bush, “I am.” Ideally, we do not speak of God, but simply allow God to speak.

But of course, we do speak of God, and on some level we must speak of God; nevertheless, we must also understand that doing so moves us inevitably into the territory of approximation and error.

That approximation and error are confounded by the fact that most modern readers are reading texts in translation. Biblical Hebrew, koine Greek, and Aramaic (which is not a language in which our texts are written, but is probably what Jesus spoke, and may underlie some of the Greek texts) are all highly inflected languages. English is a weakly inflected language, and that alone changes the nuances of pronoun usage. All nouns in Hebrew, Aramaic, and koine Greek must must take a gender – in Hebrew and Aramaic only masculine or feminine, in koine masculine, feminine or neuter – but there is no sense that this necessarily attaches any actual gender identity to the thing named. In fact, to take one interesting example, the sun, as noun, has changed gender between ancient Hebrew and modern Hebrew, but no one is going to suggest that this means that the sun itself has transitioned from male to female. Sometimes the gender of the noun matters, sometimes it does not, and those of us who are many centuries away from the original language and culture may not be the best judges of exactly how much it matters in specific complex cases (God being always a complex case). Throughout the Hebrew scriptures God is compared to, among other things, a betrayed husband, a nursing mother, a king, and a nesting hen. It is generally a mistake to try to pin God down on any front, and human grammar does not operate in the divine realm.

In the Christian faith, of course, we are instructed by early tradition to think and speak of God as both one and three – a triune identity expressed in the formulation “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (and to do this while maintaining continuity with the singular I AM of the Torah). It is not wrong to say that these names do have a significantly privileged position in Christian discourse, difficult as they may be, and have always been, to understand properly. We are not free to reject them. We are, however, not only free to complicate our understanding of them, but required to do so.

To start at the simplest level, at least one person of the Trinity definitely does not use male pronouns – the word “Spirit” is feminine in Hebrew and Aramaic, and neuter in koine. Now, again, it is important to stress that these are highly inflected languages, and this does not mean that we are to think of the Holy Spirit as female (or indeed non-binary) in anything like a human fashion, any more than the fact that the common words for “God” usually take a masculine pronoun in these languages means that we should think that God is a very large man. It is also that case, as Gregory of Nazianzus pointed out in his 31st Oration, that a word commonly used for the concept of the Godhead, theotita, is feminine in Greek. Gregory finds it extremely amusing that anyone would try to take any of these things as suggesting anything at all about God having human gender, and takes for granted that doing so would be a very elementary theological error. Rather, this multiplicity of pronominal forms is another indicator that human grammars are all inadequate to express the grammar of the pluralsingular malefemale God, that all our categories of gender and number, not to mention time, extension, and sequence, among others, are constantly cut across, upturned, and made relatively wrong – though still beloved, insofar as they express the struggles of beloved creatures towards the great source of love.

The problem in our thinking, then – and this is in no way original, but well-established as a theological principle – is that we tend to decide what it means to call God “Father” by turning to those associations which the word calls up in the human realm – maleness, first of all, and then all those sets of qualities which society has associated with male bodies; and usually, as well, a hierarchical status tracking back to the Roman paterfamilias. A number of early theologians would suggest that all of these are mistaken, that they are epiphenomena of the word “father” and not its core, and that we will understand the meaning of fatherhood better if we subtract from it all of these things.

As Gregory of Nyssa says, “What is the significance of the unnameable name of which the Father speaks, ‘Baptize them in my name’, without adding the signification uttered by this name?” (The phrase which is translated as “unnameable name”, akatanometon onoma, is actually wordplay on a near-Derridean level, and can also carry implications of “inconceivable,” “unblaming”, and “unnaming”).

This might seem to leave the word without any content at all, but the theologians who hammered out the theology of the Trinity would think otherwise. Finally, “fatherhood” is about unbegottenness – and volumes have been written over centuries trying to explain what unbegottenness is, but in a drastic sort of summary, we might think about it as a radical freedom of being, the I AM THAT I AM – and about relationship. It’s very likely that modern theologians, following John Zizioulas, have made more of relationality as a defining feature of the Trinity than the Cappadocian theologians intended, but this nevertheless does go back to their work, and to the perception that the word “Father” is a privileged word because it implies relationship, implies the existence of a child, as the word “Son” implies the existence of a parent.

It is a precise balance between radical, existential freedom and radical, existential relationship, which has nothing really to do with human ideas of gender, maleness, or family structure. And this understanding is quite coherent with Jesus’s use of father language throughout the gospels,which consistently presents a picture of responsive relationship, deeply shared communication, and unity at the level of will and desire.

One could argue, and not unreasonably, that “Mother” could, in that case, just as well be used (this is separate from whether God is portrayed as carrying out the characteristic actions of a mother, or as having qualities traditionally ascribed to mothers, both of which are clearly true). The “Father” language is inevitably culturally inflected, and owes at least something to the medical science of the day, which, as I noted in any earlier post, imagined the father as contributing the entire nature and being of a child, with the mother providing something more like a growth medium.

But it is also quite possibly the case that the “Father” language is important because it is our construction of the Father which needs more undoing, which is more deeply indebted to powers and principalities of this world. Just as John of Patmos applies imperial imagery to the Son of Man in order to strip it away from the empire of Rome, so Jesus, in using the language of fatherhood, strips away the power of all the human fathers (biological and otherwise), and transforms the word into something absolutely different. The power of the paterfamilias is made as hollow as the power of Caesar; the economy of the patriarchy is disrupted by the kenotic economy of the Trinity, by the radical freedom and radical relationality which leads us into a new way of being.

I do not mean to underestimate the genuine problems which this language can create, especially for those who have been damaged by human fathers or by the constructions of patriarchal power. We need to do a great deal more work, not only in theology but in liturgical texts and actions, in the interactions of bodies in our worship and in our work, in our relationships to power and patriarchy in general. The church has spent many centuries in thrall to Caesar, and to the fathers of this world, and we will need to free ourselves, to untie this knot, much more comprehensively before we can use the language of scripture with real faithfulness. This does not mean, I believe, that we should back away from using this language now – these are the words given to us, and the words with which we are obliged to struggle. But we must use it more consciously, with more awareness that the akatanometon onoma strips away all human names and hierarchies, and in a context more clearly unsettling, more deliberately resistant to the powers of the world – family and gender structures among them. The grammar of our lives in faith must be present in shaping the meaning of our language.

Of course, a Christian grammar must be a grammar of incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection, a grammar of the body of Christ, and the very particular complications of gender which surround this body in scripture and tradition. We’ve already glanced at one example of this in the work of Julian of Norwich. I hope to look a bit further at the queerly complex meaning of this body in future posts (of which, there may or may not be another one before a break of a few weeks for travel).

2 thoughts on “Regarding the grammar of God

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