Getting Theological: God

So I missed Tony Jones’ deadline.  His open invitation to progressive bloggers said in part:

“Progressive/liberal/mainline theology, on the other hand, has a PR problem. We might think that people know what we think about God, but they don’t. It’s clear in the comments on this blog and elsewhere. …

Thus, I have a challenge:  I challenge all progressive theo-bloggers to write one post about God between now and August 15.”

OK.  I’ll talk about God.  I am a theologian, after all.  To be clear, this will also be my first in a series of posts that are “getting theological.”  Stay tuned for Jesus, being human, the bible, church, sabbath, hope, and whatever other theological whimsy carries me away.

But first, God.  And isn’t that exactly the point?

My God-talk is framed with the words of those who’ve helped me figure it out.

Ntozake Shange

i found god in myself

& i loved her / i loved her fiercely  (p.63)

God is creator and a sustaining source of life, and therefore present in me.  In you.  In those whom society shuns, as Shange said so beautifully in for colored girls.  This has radical consequences for our understanding of being human, so that post will come later.  Consider what this means about God.   Fully present in all things, all bodies.  A reason that they are.  Not sanctioning all that we do (umm, that’ll be sin … again, later), but reminding me that no matter what the world says about my worthiness, it isn’t caught up in skin color or gender or financial stability or physical appearance.  It begins and end with God.  This is what it means to be source and sustenance.  If I’m created in the image of God, so are you.  Even and especially when we don’t have the same image.  The diversity of the world and all of its life, diversity abounding … this is God’s image because it is God’s creation.

Mary Daly

I have already suggested that if God is male, then the male is god.  (p.19)

God isn’t male.  But you know, God might be female.  Maybe God transcends gender.  Actually, we have no idea what that means because human society has thusfar demonstrated itself to be unable to transcend gender.  Therefore, images of God rarely escape gendering, produced as they are by human history and community.  When society is skewed in the direction of the male, as patriarchy has ensured that it has been for generations, then images of God are similarly skewed.  It’s nonsense, really.  But the theological is sociological, and vice versa.  This is why I’m more interested in affirming female language and images for God than male.  It’s strategy, really.  And let’s not pretend that theology isn’t strategically employed.  Unlike Tony who said in a comment on his own post that “all of our academia has squelched our ability to speak candidly and unapologetically about God,” I think that our academia has bolstered the ability to untangle what’s really going on with so much of traditional God-talk.  Once untangled, we can be free to say no, in fact, Father isn’t God’s proper name.  Because it’s as important to say what God isn’t as to say what God is.

Elizabeth Johnson

SHE WHO IS:  linguistically this is possible; theologically it is legitimate;  existentially and religiously it is necessary if speech about God is to shake off the shackles of idolatry and be a blessing for women.  (p.243)

YHWH is a much better name for God than Father.  Not because it is that which is revealed to Moses in Exodus, but because it is a verb.  A verb!  Be … to be … I am that I am … I will be that I will be … the Harper Collins Study Bible footnotes properly indicate that we’re unsure of what form of the verb “to be” this Hebrew word is.  And how great is that?  The name of God is first of all a mystery.  Mystery!  Remember that all self-assured God-talkers!  The name of God is second of all not a fixed static noun, proper or otherwise.  It’s dynamic.  Alive.  Moving.  Breathing.  Doing.  It’s the word we use to name existence itself.  Being.  Be-ing.  Present, future, and whatever else there IS.  And given what I said above, I’m with Elizabeth Johnson in that we speak of God as She Who Is.

Alfred North Whitehead

For the kingdom of heaven is with us today.  The action of the fourth phase is the love of God for the world.  …  What is done in the world is transformed into a reality in heaven, and the reality in heaven passes back into the world.  By reason of this reciprocal relation, the love in the world passes into the love in heaven, and floods back again into the world.  In this sense, God is the great companion – the fellow-sufferer who understands.  (p.351)

God has power in a mutual relationship with the world.  I have never understood why we’d valorize a concept of power as coercion, dominance, and control in a deity when we abhor it in our fellow human beings.  We call that violence.  Then again, I don’t understand much of what a patriarchal culture valorizes.  Rather than this making God less powerful or less worthy of worship, as critics of what is called process theology usually charge, I think it makes God more worthy of respect and praise.  God does what God can do, and we are called to do what we can do.  What we do affects God, and what God does affects us.  If God weren’t affected by the world, grieved by our pain, angered at our injustices, enthralled by our joys, well then … what’s the point?

Draw God!

In some of my classes, I ask students to draw a picture of God.  It’s the kind of task that breaks up a boring lecture, let’s us use crayons in college, and prompts discussion about why so many of us are quick to dismiss our ability to draw the divine, when we are so confident of what we or ancient authors say with words.  Pictures with crayons (or sidewalk chalk as in my picture) are as limited and flawed, partial and full of possibility, as anything we can write or say with our words.

And that’s the most important that I have to say about God.


About Caryn Riswold

Caryn D. Riswold is a feminist theologian in the Lutheran tradition. She is Professor of Religion and also teaches Gender and Women’s Studies at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, where she has worked for over a decade teaching undergraduates to think critically and creatively about religion. She earned her Ph.D. and Th.M. from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, holds a master’s degree from the Claremont School of Theology, and received her B.A. from Augustana College in her childhood hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

  • Richie

    Although I also find myself generally left of center theologically speaking, isn’t a whole of of scripture or Christ in your brief analysis. I would assume that I’m foreshadowing some forthcoming criticism to your piece.

    • Pseudonym

      Actually, when the question was posed, I expected that at least one response would be from an academic theologian who would give an answer pretty much like this one. I think it’s inevitable. And no, that’s not a fault.

      Disclaimer: I’m not a theologian. I’ve never studied theology formally. I have no clue what I’m talking about. I don’t normally ramble this much.

      It’s like if you asked a physicist “write something about the Higgs boson” and they took the time to delve into calculus and abstract algebra. Like it or not, advanced mathematics is the language that we have to use to talk about particle physics in any way that’s accurate. The language that we use to talk about things that are far removed from our everyday experience matters, because everyday language is invariably not up to the task. Language matters because fine distinctions matter.

      Incidentally, it’s no coincidence that most of the other responses (particularly the ones not by academics) are about everyday experience. That’s also not a fault. Non-theoreticians almost never want to know what “it” is (when you get down to it), they want to know what relevance “it” has to their lives. Now I do realise that “relevance” leaves a bad taste in the mouths of many, due to the cult-like status it held in the 20th century humanities, but in retrospect, it was a necessary reformation. Today, relevance is merely “very important”.

      OK, enough with the stick-poking. I very much enjoyed this contribution to Tony’s question. Of all of the ones I’ve seen so far, this one has been the most brutally honest about theology. I’m no theologian. Despite what I said in the disclaimer, I do know from bitter experience a few things about academia-as-sociology. I think that’s why this response resonates with me more than most.

      I loved the Elizabeth Johnson quote, by the way; I’m going to have to check out the book. I knew that the historic use of male language to refer to God was anthropomorphisation, but it had never occurred to me before reading this post that it also carried a significant risk of idolatry. (And yes, I realise that the use of female language could carry the same risk in theory, but unless you’re Neo-Pagan, it’s unlikely to any time soon.)

      Short version: Thank you for this.

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