God in Motion
I just finished reading Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, Marilyn Chandler McEntyre’s delightful plea for us to renew our commitment to steward the gift of language as the treasure it is. She is not the first to lament the decline of those who truly understand and appreciate the importance of words (a problem compounded in our text-crazy, Facebooked, Twittered world), but her book communicates these points with the grace and beauty you would expect from someone attempting to lure readers back into the simple truth of how words can move us.
One memorable passage has me thinking today. The following comes in one of the earlier chapters where McEntyre is singing the praises of the various elements of grammar and syntax—in this case, the verb:
We depend on [verbs] to reveal the dance of the whole dynamic universe, from orbiting electrons to sucking undertows to swiftly tilting planets. We entwine them in sentences like strands to describe the complex weave of events. A single verb can change our sense of what we are witnessing, as when Mary Oliver writes of preying vultures, “they minister to the grassy miles.” Good verbs invest our gestures with the language of the heart…
And sometimes nouns become verbs because they can’t sit still any longer: so things catapult and flame, and meetings are chaired. Verbs, I think, matter most. Asked for his name, God gave Moses a verb. And even those of us who are, as Cummings put it, “human merely being” can’t be contained in nouns, even buttressed by the best adjectives, but burst and blossom into verbs like Van Gogh’s trees and leaping fields when we are most alive.
What fantastic imagery! I love the picture of nouns becoming verbs “when they can’t sit still any longer. But beyond the imagery and the matter of how language moves us, I think there is some interesting theology at work here as well. That God responded with a verb when asked for a noun is theologically significant and worth pondering, in my view.
We spend so much of our lives treating and talking about and relating to God like a noun, and on one level I suppose that’s unavoidable. But God is also action and motion and unpredictability and surprise. God has always been leading human beings on a journey—a journey where assumptions are challenged and where certainties about “what God is like” and “how God works” are unsettled. God cannot be contained by the nouns we enlist to describe and delimit and manage.
The text for our church’s worship service this past Sunday was 1 Timothy 2:8-15—a passage notorious for its supposedly archaic and morally unacceptable portrayal of women. It is a difficult passage, certainly. It is one of those passages that many of us would prefer to ignore. The view of women that it seems to assume is so far removed from what nearly all of us find acceptable. Paul’s literal instructions to women in this passage are almost nowhere practiced consistently two millennia later (thank God!). Few people interpret this passage as anything remotely like a divine transcript articulating God’s eternally fixed views on the ontological status or nature of men and women.
And yet gender is, obviously, an issue that continues to generate controversy in some circles. A perceived need to understand and implement God’s views of gender as fixed for all time in ancient terms does real damage in real people’s lives (I have been fascinated and perplexed and saddened to observe this in the unusually active comments section of a previous post of mine). And is is unnecessary. In the area of gender and what we think God has in mind about it, thankfully, there is movement—in Scripture itself, and throughout the Christian story—even if the movement is slower and more inconsistent and painful than many of us would prefer.
The issue of how to understand gender is just one area where I am glad to think of God as a verb who communicates to limited human beings in verb-like ways. I am glad—indeed I depend on—the fact that there is movement in how God chooses to reveal Godself to human beings over time. A God in motion is worth worshiping, worth following (how, I wonder, can you follow someone who doesn’t go anywhere or ask or allow any new questions?). A God in motion has to be trusted to continue to speak, to illuminate the meaning of Scripture in the many and varied contexts it is applied, and to guide women and men into truth. You have listen more carefully and humbly to a God in motion. And a God in motion makes it possible (and healthy) for you and I to move too.
I am glad that God didn’t just dispense everything important for us to think and do once upon a time, and that our sole task as human beings is to just preserve it, package it, and open it up unchanged for each new generation. I am glad that God thinks more of us than that—that he gives us the challenge of applying the truth of the gospel to whatever times and cultural forms we happen to inhabit. I am glad that following Jesus provides the freedom to interpret Scripture and live according to wonderful nouns like life and love and hope and grace.
But like McEntyre, I, too, think it is verbs that matter most.
So is this movement leading to the acceptance of gays in many religious circles? (to bring up a hot topic)
Certainly in some circles it is, although probably not many (e.g., the American Lutheran church, the Anglican church here in Canada).
I always wonder how it is different than the example you used in the blog? If you approach the issue biologically then the parts don’t add up. But, that places reproduction, or the passing of genes, as the goal of human life. If flourishing or salvation is the goal of human life then homosexuality doesn’t really detract from this goal at all. In fact it many prove even beneficial as two people loving who they wish to love only increases the amount of love which in my opinion is much more important than the biological parts not adding up. Especially in our already over populated world.
I suppose one of the differences would be that there is less obvious biblical support for applying it to the question of homosexuality than to the question of the role of women in the church. Typically, for every reference to 1 Timothy 2:8-15 or other passages that seem to be restrictive toward women, there are appeals to passages like Galatians 3:28 or Colossians 3:11. There are also examples throughout Scripture of women assuming roles of prominence and leadership. There are no such obvious Scriptural examples to point to in the case of homosexuals.
That’s not to say that people don’t find justification in Scripture to support the affirmation of homosexual behaviour (which, I think, is different than acceptance, even though “affirmation” and “acceptance” seem to be regularly used as synonyms in this debate and other hot topics), just that it doesn’t seem to be quite as straightforward.
In Exodus 3:14 I think God answered Moses’ question about his name with a pun on his name: “I will be what I will be.” I think it was a reassurance that God would be with Israel.
I think by saying “God is a verb” you are saying what you have often said – it matters what we do.
I think the short answer to Tyler’s question is “yes.” Yes in the West, but not in the rest of the world where Christianity is growing fast – moving in ways that many traditional Western Christians do not accept, are unwilling to move. The movement in much of the world (as well as in some Western contexts) is towards verbs like “exorcise” (as in demons) and “speak” (as in tongues.) The movement is not towards “affirm” (as in same sex relations.)
Personally, I think God’s acceptance and affirmation, his grace, is found in nature as well as in scripture. It is everywhere for those who see it. If I were gay I think I would feel about it and scripture the way I feel about divorce, my divorce. It would worry me. But then, that is not the only thing I need to worry about. And it is God’s grace, not anything I have done or can ever do, that relieves my conscience.
Yes, I think your take on Exodus 3:14 is a good one—it seems to be a play on words for the purposes of reassurance and emboldening. I am no Hebrew scholar, but smarter people than I seem to agree that this is what is going on in the original text. Of course, I would also say that this doesn’t preclude other interpretive possibilities or avenues for reflection, but your point is well taken.
Actually, while I do often say that it matters what we do, that’s not what I’m trying to get at in this post. The main idea I was gesturing toward was that how we understand God and God’s purposes and how God chooses to reveal himself to human beings changes over time. And that this is a (mostly) good thing (the division between Western and non-Western churches—movement in different directions—that you cite might suggest otherwise).
Like you, I see traces of grace everywhere. Like you, I have much that could be cause for worry. And like you, I am exceedingly grateful for the grace of God that is stronger than what I can or cannot do.
Catching up on some of my “regular” blogs — I appreciate this one very much, its thoughts about God is a verb — so very relevant to the life of faith. Thanks!