Talking about God

Monday’s post about the language of filation and sonship brought a number of interesting emails. I should like to quote from one which expresses, better than I ever could, both the difficulty of predicating anything about God and the necessity of the struggle to do so.

These [reflections] are all bound up with my growing sense of the relative irrelevance of words. I say this as one for whom words are an overriding passion, and of course they remain the way into the Word: there are combinations of words which slit open the eternal like knives. That is just one of the paradoxes so fundamental to our religion that I am beginning to wonder if anything non-paradoxical can be true!

. . . My true refuge from linguistic problems, minor and major, is Pseudo-Denys and the unknowability of God. If one cannot even say ‘God is good’, then surely one cannot, in any literal sense, say ‘God is our Father’. From the darkness of Denys I fly to the Syrians and specifically to St  Ephrem, who describes God as ‘clothing himself in language’, now putting on metaphors for our sake, now stripping this one off again and fetching another out of the wardrobe – all because our minds are small and limited. For Ephrem the whole of Scripture is one great metaphor. I find this infinitely consoling, probably because my mind is at ease with metaphor: it creates a great space in which one can move around unimpeded; I leave systematic theology to the seriously clever.

I know the writer well enough to take that remark about systematic theology with a smile of complicity. The point is, however we talk about God, however helpful or indeed unhelpful we may find the language of scripture or theology, the language of prayer transcends all limitations. It is wonderfully subversive, because types and shadows fall away in the face of the reality of God.


8 thoughts on “Talking about God”

  1. Thank you for sharing this with us. It resonates with me, too. Periods of delving into apophatic theology (a contradiction in terms?) or reading The Cloud of Unknowing or the Rhenanian Mystics do get one back on the track of contemplating that which cannot be comprehended. I find solace in this.

  2. Hmmm…. Looks like this natural contemplative just signed up for a MTh for the seriously-clever this year. I wonder what I’m going to be doing for the next few years.

    Rowan Wiliams seems to make it all hang together, though. I’ll let you know when I come out the other end.

    • Now, stop being perverse, Andy, you know perfectly well that there is no conflict between intellectual giftedness and spiritual giftedness! The trouble comes when we exalt one above the other for reasons of personal gratification — which has the effect of annihilating the gift.

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