What’s in a word?

I was reading about the thinking of a pastor regarding pronouns and God. They try to make a habit of using “she” and “her” of God, and I can’t remotely criticise that from a theological point of view, though I’m an old guy who has spent over 50 years in environments where God was most definitely “he” and “him”, and the use of female designators jars a bit with me – it shifts my attention to gender, where in all probability the aspect of that-which-is-God has nothing to do with gender. And I thought “I could probably cause a stir in those circles by using “it””. After all, “it” is the way we, in English, denote something which does not have a sex, or is neutral as regards sex and gender. Let’s face it, I’d be in even more trouble there if I started talking about sexual organs in respect of God, though I assume Jesus had a penis and testes, and trinitarian thinking in Christianity, plus the traditional interpretation of the introduction to the Fourth Gospel, both identify Jesus as God – in some way, at least. (The “word” in the title might refer to a pronoun – but see below).

The thing is, if I want to think of God in terms of a person (and again, that is definitely trinitarian thinking, though in that paradigm there may be three persons), I need to think about gender. And at least some of the time I do want to think of God in those terms. Clayton and Knapp, in “The Predicament of Belief” do suggest that we should relate to God as a person, or at least as person-like, and I think that has to be right – huge numbers of mystics have written or spoken of God in that kind of language, and that cannot be ignored (my own testimony would be that I sometimes experience God in that kind of way). More mystics, I think, than those who have written or spoken of God as being some kind of impersonal force or principle (which I can also attest to, and which is common among Eastern traditions).

Clearly, I approach the question of what-it-is-that-is God as a scientist, not as a philosophical theologian. So much talk about God says, in effect, “start with your doctrine of God” or “define God”, and I think that is exactly the wrong way to approach the issue. There is a phenomenon. It, or something very like it, is attested by very many people. Those among them who seem to me to be trying the hardest to describe what this phenomenon is, starting from the phenomenon rather than some tiny aspect of what someone has previously written about God, are the mystics. This is company I’m very comfortable with, having had mystical experience thrust upon me in my teens and having spent a lot of time in my teens and 20’s trying to develop a way of entering the mystical space reasonably reliably (I never did hit on a guaranteed way of doing that, merely various factors which tended to make it more likely).

As my second paragraph rather indicates, I never did arrive at a definition on which I felt I could build any dogmatic theology. It’s not just the “personal/impersonal” dichotomy there, there’s also the transcendent/immanent dichotomy. I note that in finding dichotomies in my attempts to describe that-which-is-God I do not indicate that I subscribe to Peter Rollins concept of an ontological split or opposition at the heart of existence – I think that is going too far on the basis of the available evidence, given that our thinking seems to me to throw up dichotomies wherever I look; I think that human cognition creates dichotomies, and whether or not there actually is a dichotomy there has to be uncertain. Indeed, where Pete sees oppositions, I am more inclined to see fuzziness. Philosophy, it seems to me, tends to a misplaced confidence in its ability to be precise.

In the case of theology, perhaps because it ultimately (in my opinion) has to draw on mystical experience, and one of the features of mystical experience is just that “coincidenta oppositorum” (coincidence of opposites) which I’ve outlined some of above, an even greater problem is that it tries to over-specify. Perhaps at the root of that is taking similes from the mystics (God is like a father, for instance) and making them into specifications (God is our father), which clearly meets with problems when we also encounter scripture which says God is (or at least is like) our mother.

But let’s also look in more detail at the introduction to the Fourth Gospel for a moment. The NIV version says:- In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Let’s think about that a bit. What do we actually mean by “Word” (which is capitalised in this version of the text)? Well, we certainly don’t mean just a collection of letters which, taken together, signify some thing (or action, or…). I was alerted to the fact that there may be more to this wording than meets the eye when, some years ago, I bought myself a Bible de Jérusalem in order not to be constantly translating from English when discussing Christianity online with some French people, and found to my surprise that the translation in French of the original Greek word, logos, was “verbe”. I would instinctively have rendered “word” as “mot”, but “verbe” carries a strong significance of being an action. As it happens, I would have been less surprised if I’d bought a different French translation, as all the others I know of use the term “parole” instead (which carries an equally strong significance of being something spoken), but I’d still have felt the pull of the English word “word”, which has no particular connotation either of action or of being spoken. (As an aside, it’s a thing, which makes me think of my comments above – it isn’t a person…)

That made me look at what this greek word “logos” actually meant to the Greeks using it in the past. What I found was that it meant in classical Greek something like “rationally understandable principle”, which makes a lot of sense when inserted into John 1:1-5 in the place of “word”. But then I happened on an account of what Philo of Alexandria wrote about “logos” in the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, which blew my mind.

Philo was a hugely prominent Jewish philosopher and theologian from Alexandria in the early years of the first century. He was very active at and before the time of Jesus’ ministry, and for a few years after that, and was a sufficiently respected individual to be selected to head a delegation of Alexandrian Jews to the Emperor Caligula in around 38 CE, but has been largely sidelined in Jewish intellectual circles since then, possibly because he wrote in Greek, which was already under pressure in Judaism as not being the authentic language and also perhaps because his writings have been so attractive to Christians; he was quoted widely by several of the early Church Fathers including Clement of Alexandria and Origen.

As you can see from the linked article, Philo had twelve meanings for the term “logos”. Among them are:-
The utterance of God (“parole” as a French translation?);
First-born son of God (well, that could explain a lot about the Christology of the Fourth Gospel!);
Immanent reason (that seems fairly close to the classical meaning of “logos”);
Mediator of the physical universe (very definitely a fount of Christology) and intermediary between the divine and man;
The Angel of the Lord (which seems to be close to the idea of Jesus which is evidenced in the synoptic gospels);
Manna and wisdom (I’ll come back to this);
God him, her or it’s self (on which one builds trinity).

There is a huge amount of reasoning and exegesis behind Philo’s set of meanings, but the element I’d like to focus on at the moment is that he effectively equates uses of wisdom (“sophia” in Greek) in the Hebrew Scriptures with “logos”, which is primarily, prior to the New Testament, a Greek philosophical term and not one from the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures from which Greek speakers generally drew their scriptural references). In passing, in the Hebrew Scriptures, wisdom is “chokmah”, word is “davar” or “memra” – and in Hebrew too “davar” and “memra” like “parole” carry a suggestion of being spoken; davar/memra and chokmah are generally regarded as very distinct – except by Philo and those following him. Much of the meaning Philo advances is in fact attributions for wisdom drawn from Proverbs – the most obvious example, to my eyes, is Prov. 8:22-36. However, there’s also Psalm 33, which has a different term for word in the Hebrew (bid-bar, “by the word”), which is translated “logos” in the Septuagint, so Philo had some significant clues in the pre-existing text.

Picking up on my earlier comment, that theology tends to over-specify, Philo’s set of meanings might well be thought of as an example of that (and one which ends up carried over into the huge set of titles of Jesus!). Starting at the end, God=manna=wisdom=his own angel=mediator=reason=his own son=utterance. It is, frankly, enough to make one throw up one’s hands in confusion – they can’t, surely, all be simultaneously correct? However, I do see one possibility, and that’s again picking up from earlier, the fact that I see things as fuzzy, as incompletely defined, and not infrequently as being best described as a coincidence of opposites. If things are indeed fuzzy, there may still be some aspect of all of this terminology which does apply, or something which it is pointing at which is not directly communicable, at least at the moment.

So God may be father-like and mother-like without us positing hermaphroditism (or gender fluidity, these days).

I’ve still no idea what pronoun to use, though…

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