A few years ago I had the joy of attending a series of workshops/presentations by Andrew Harvey, who has been called a modern mystic. Two memories stand out. One is his excitement when talking about the Sacred. The other is how his excitement caused him to sometimes stumble over words when referring to the Divine. As the speedy torrent of words flowed out, he would often say something like “GodMotherFatherSacred… [sigh, breath] …the words don’t matter…”
Indeed the references didn’t matter to him. He knew and felt and lived the fact that the Infinite is beyond our thoughts, ideas, concepts and words. I enjoyed those revealing moments and they helped me grow in my own work with the failure of language.
I believe that a person can grow past the state where language distracts from the ideas being discussed. But I also believe that great care must be taken not to assume that others around us have arrived at that place, too. Sometimes we must guard our language to avoid distracting those for whom labels still carry much weight. This is especially true with labels that limit and/or obscure.
I hesitate to use the word “maturity” because of the way that idea can be belittling, as in, “When you are more mature, you’ll understand.” (meaning: “When you’re more like ME.”) If growth is considered a progression, however, it’s difficult to avoid noticing where we are along the path compared to others. Those who are farther along the path have responsibilities to those who have barely begun their journey, and one responsibility is to postpone lessons for which some travelers are not prepared.
I believe this is what Paul was talking about when he wrote of food sacrificed to idols. Found in I Corinthians 8:1-13, the idea is that some people thought they were defiled when they ate such food. Others had grown enough that they knew it was just food, that’s all. But the advice given to the mature was to abstain, for the sake of their brothers and sisters. Verse 13: “Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat [sacrificed to idols] again, so that I will not cause them to fall.”
The principle, related to God-language, is this: Some people can hear God spoken of as male or female and “translate” that to themselves, knowing the Sacred is beyond gender. Others may take it literally.
Most of my career has been spent working in churches and I’ve put together many worship services and experiences. Once I grasped this concept, I always advocated the use of language with the first-time visitor in mind. They may have grown up in a church, they may have no church background. They may have been spiritually abused by a church. They may be seeking something that they cannot name. Our personal, private language of devotion can take whatever form works for us, but I think the use of genderless references to the Divine is definitely the way to go in public settings.
To a person farther along the path this may seem silly. They might say, “Since God is beyond language anyway, let’s not worry about it, but focus on our encounter with the Sacred and what can be learned. Surely it’s time we get past worrying about it.” In my next post I’ll quote a rabbi and link to her article that makes this very point. And she makes some great points about metaphor along the way.
What do you think should be different about public and private God-language, if anything?