God's World

What in the world is God doing this week?

Monday, October 09, 2006

What's in a Name?

When we were little we used to say, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Brave words. Yet the truth is, if you have ever been on the receiving end of hateful name-calling, you know that words can hurt.

The Bible is filled with the power of naming. Creation is brought into being through God’s words – “let there be light!” New names are given at times of covenant and commitment: Abram to Abraham; Sarai to Sarah; Jacob to Israel; Simon to Peter.

How we name things shapes the way we and those in the presence of whom we speak see the world. Witness the power of propaganda, of marketing and advertising. Should it come as any surprise, then, that we are shaped by the way we refer to God?

My own understanding of God was marked by my struggle with the image of God as Father. Having a dad who worked all the time and who was rarely at home, I came to see God the Father as rarely present, or at least too busy with other things to be concerned with me. It was only as I learned to expand my naming of God to include other images that I could experience God as loving, compassionate, and intimately concerned with my life.

So, although Archbishop Rowan Williams’ comments last week were reported in such a way as to maximize sensationalism, it must be admitted that language about God that is exclusively male cannot help but shape the way we see God and ourselves. The ideas behind Williams’ comments are not new. Rosemary Radford Reuther was pointing out the same thing in Sexism and God-Talk over a decade ago. But you don’t have to be a feminist to recognize the power of naming. Think of the power of the images “rock” and “redeemer” or the declaration “God is love.”

I can call God Father now with ease, but I have also to see God as beyond Father, beyond gender. Infinite yet intimate. Blessed be the name…

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