Theological words are limited by many things, including culture.
Words are great and needed for human life and theology. But words are limited.
Consider: what If ants were like humans? What if they could think and speak in words, like humans in ant-disguise? How would they do theology? How would their God-talk be? In what ways would ants conceive of God?
Here is a story about that—
Revelation & Words Are Limited
Vatican II was correct, but we have failed to recognize it, fellow Catholics. Revelation isn’t primarily words and sentences. Revelation—God’s self-disclosure—isn’t really knowledge. It isn’t words and sentences to be memorized and assented to. It is the power of powerlessness, the opening of a holistic yes that brings transformation.
But don’t tell that to many Catholic ants who are obsessed with being right all the time and saying the correct thing. These ants have the best words about God.
Too bad words are limited!
Whatever God is, little ant, God comes to meet us. Between God and us, the mind assembles a vast fortress of thoughts, words, and images. These defenses block out the communication, mangle the divine gift. To look at God beyond all images, beyond all ideas, is to see the imageless.
Maybe God is nothing? Didn’t Angelus Silesius (d. 1677) say as much?
God is an utter Nothingness,
Beyond the touch of Time and Place:
The more thou graspest after God,
The more God fleeth thy embrace.
At first blush, God seems to be nothing at all to the newborn mystic. But “God” means the very opposite of nothing.
Knowledge Is Power, and Addictive!
We, humans, crave understanding. But for what? For being in control? Is it to accuse those who disagree with us that they’re wrong or even terrible (heretics)?
Again, none of this is saying that words about God are wrong. Words aren’t bad. In fact, words are excellent! Indeed, we need words for talking about God or anything, really. But we mustn’t forget that words are limited. Words do have limits, even the inspired word of God we call Scripture.
All God-talk is culturally specific human analogy. You can’t speak or write about God except by way of analogy, little ant. So even inspired Scripture is filled with analogies to human existence. And since human beings are always particular to a given culture, all God-talk, even if found in Scripture, is always culturally specific and limited. I told you, words are limited.
I could list thousands of examples. Maybe one from Paul should suffice—
Hence I [Paul] ask [you non-Israelite Jesus-group members in Rome], did they [Israelites] stumble so as to fall? Of course not! But through their transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles [i.e., you people], so as to make them [Israelites] jealous.
What is the cultural background for this passage, the only one in all his authentic letters where Paul seemingly addresses non-Israelites?
Paul’s Words Are Limited
Ancient Israel, like the whole Mediterranean at that time, was a patrilineal society. In such patrilineal societies, marriage is patrilocal. Therefore, grooms take their brides to live in or next to their father’s compound. Thus, women live isolated from their immediate kin. All the men in the husband’s household will dictate to these brides. These teenaged brides never are truly accepted into the new home, neither by men or women there.
In such a setting (Sirach 42:14), Middle Eastern women demonstrate astounding resourcefulness. One key strategy is to pit men against one another. Like Rebekah (Genesis 25:27-34), they are adept at this. Indeed, in a patriarchal culture, women often get their way (Genesis 27). Having survived and trained their own daughters, Middle Eastern mothers know well about the power of women there (Proverbs 31:3).
Traditionally, Middle Eastern mothers suffocate their sons (their social security) in every warmth and kindness. Sometimes, when their favorite son is nonreciprocating, the mother will give him a gift, only to take it away and give it to another son. This is done purposely to enrage the favored son into jealousy.
Words Are Limited By Culture
So back to Paul. Writing to Israelite believers in Rome, part of a Jesus group he did not establish, Paul understands (through the gossip network) that a few of them are non-Israelites. Contrary to spurious familiarity, Paul tolerated by didn’t care about Gentile believers. We have discussed this on numerous occasions (see here and here).
Paul also grapples with why so many of his contemporary Israelites rejected Jesus as Messiah. Paul is troubled by this! So, he refers to the well-known female strategy of manipulating males against each other to explain this mystery of why God allows the situation.
To Paul, the God of Israel created all human beings, Israelite and non-Israelite alike. But God’s favorite son, really the only son God actually is stuck to, is Israel. Why would God give the Messiah to non-Israelite believers (a worthless son)? Because to Paul, God’s behavior is like that of a Middle Eastern mother—this is a culturally specific analogy straight from Paul’s own experience growing up! Why do something ridiculous as give the divine gift to non-Israelite dogs? To make Israelites jealous—“Hey! Messiah belongs to us!”
Abba & Father: Words Are Limited
This is the same thing when Jesus cries out, “Abba, Father!” (Mark 14:36). Don’t imagine an American Daddy. Jesus didn’t know that. Abba and Father are culturally specific to his social world (see Proverbs 13:24; 19:18; 22:15; 23:13-14; 29:15, 17, 19; and Sirach 30:1-13). Recently, we talked about what father meant in the world of Jesus. Recall what we said about Joseph, important for Catholics to keep in mind in this “Year of Joseph.”
Anything you can say about God (God-talk or theology) grows from human experience (analogy). And all human experience is always culture-specific.
So, if ants were like human beings and some were ant-theologians, how would their God-talk be?