Rodney Schofield reflects on the language we use about God and Jesus
THE CORRECT order is to believe the deep things of the Christian faith before undertaking to discuss them by reason. But we are negligent if, having come to a firm faith, we do not seek to understand what we believe.”
So St. Anselm described the task he set himself in seeking to understand why God had become incarnate in human form, and why our salvation hinged upon his Cross: Cur Deus Homo written at the end of the 11th century was his most ambitious work. The method was that of fides quaerens intellectum, echoing St. Augustine of Hippo who in De Trinitate quoted Isaiah 7.9, “Unless you believe you will not understand.
It is hardly surprising therefore that the secular world looks on the theological enterprise as so much verbiage, ending often in what must seem like petty wrangling. Those of us who hold to traditional orthodoxy in matters of faith and order are swimming against the tide of contemporary fashion, and must seem perversely out of touch with modern attitudes concerning personal freedom and sexual equality.
If Anselm and Augustine are right we shall find it hard, for example, to win over media opinion and to be convincing in public debate. Nevertheless, we need not abandon the apologetic task and write ourselves off as irredeemably bigoted: it is to the believer that we make our case, and to the household of faith that our theological insight is primarily addressed.
In New Testament times St. Paul wrote of the Gospel that it was “an offence to Jews and folly to Gentiles”, and again in 1 Corinthians “Among the mature, I do speak words of wisdom, though not a wisdom belonging to this present age.” The particular stumbling block he had in mind was the Cross, which had certainly caused perplexity and offence to Jesus’ disciples whenever he began to speak of it. Gospel culture and secular culture were from the very first on a collision course.
Today much offence is taken in feminist circles and among those influenced by them at the masculine language and imagery of much of the Bible. Some of it may well be needlessly non-inclusive, but it may be that at key points male references have to be retained despite the Jar they cause to modern susceptibilities. The Gospel cannot be made blandly unisex simply because that is politically correct for our contemporary world.
We can of course insist on the bare facts: that Jesus was a man, and not a woman; that he spoke of God as his Father, and not as his Mother; that he chose men to be his inner band of disciples, and not women. If we hold a low Christology this-recital will not impress very much, because little weight will be attached to anything that our Lord said or did. If we see Jesus as a man of his times, a mere first century Jew,. albeit something of a religious genius, it will obviously be our duty to universalise his message and complete the work he came to begin. If we think that our century is more advanced than his, and our culture more civilised, then we shall want to improve on his rather primitive beginnings. So any contemporary Christian, lacking both reverence and humility, will regard the founder of our faith. In particular, his attitude to gender will be seen as singularly outdated – although we will not admit that openly. We shall talk up his revolutionary treatment of women, while overlooking the obvious blemish that it was not quite revolutionary enough for us, because Jesus had to heed the cultural norms of his day with a rather cowed spirit. We shall therefore talk of fulfilling his real intentions which at last, after twenty centuries, have been vouchsafed so clearly to us for the first time.
On the other hand. we may believe that Jesus was no mere man, however much endowed with God’s Spirit, but was “the human face of God”, and therefore one who spoke and acted “with authority”. This high Christology sees him as a divine figure, uniquely revelatory of God’s purposes. It is with awe that we approach him, not with any spirit of condescension. We take him at his word, while appreciating that its meaning (like the mustard seed growing into a mighty tree) may yet develop more fully. We therefore value
the riches of teaching that the Fathers of the Church, both early and late, came to learn as the Holy Spirit has continued in his role of unfolding the words of our Lord and of leading us into all truth. But we are also aware of the possibility of “corrupt” developments, as Newman described them in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, and will note the tests he proposed there, such as the continuity of thought.
Thus if Jesus taught us to pray ‘Our Father,’ we take up his prayer and continue it in all faithfulness. But at the same time it is legitimate to ask why he used this imagery, and how it relates to any deeper understanding of our relationship with God. Likewise today it is not enough to accept that “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us”, we need also to ponder the question why it was in a male person that God chose, to dwell. Admittedly we are in the realms of speculative theology here, but this is the programme that Anselm embarked upon as well, fides quaerens intellectum. The outcome may help us to appreciate a little more of our tradition, and perhaps to arm us with some further insights into the significance of a male priesthood.
The starting point must surely be to recognise something of the nature of all religious language and imagery, that in so far as we speak positively of God It is by way of analogy. If it is true to say that he is “this”, then in some degree it is also true that he is “not this”. The analogy specifies a likeness, but not a clear identity. In our present context this means that God is not crudely male nor is he female. He is obviously beyond gender, because that is a creaturely concept.
Nevertheless, to speak of God as Father suggests some legitimate likenesses, just as the prophet Isaiah hits upon powerful imagery when he likens God to a mother suckling or comforting her child. Elsewhere the Psalmist describes God as a midwife, or again as a mother bird. But it trivialises the whole debate to take the symbolism at all literally. The terms are not so much masculine and feminine, as relational words which tell us something of how we stand with God and how he regards us.
As persons our two most fundamental human relationships are with our father and our mother. They are different in kind, characterised at least in the early stages (and with God do we progress any further in this earthly life?) by closeness to our mother, who offers us warmth and security, and by distance from our father, who begins to make demands upon us and brings to bear the demands of a wider world. Do we not experience God in a similar two fold way? He is immanent and close, something New Age thinking or Celtic theology would remind us of, but he is also transcendent, ‘over against us’ the moral God of monotheistic faiths. This latter feature is strongly portrayed in the Old Testament in the prophetic tradition, but even here we have already noted Isaiah’s – and later Hosea’s – qualification.
If God is only the Almighty, King, Judge, the Lord of hosts, maybe he threatens to destroy us? There is a counterbalancing note of tenderness, but the issue remains unresolved (through all of Israel’s suffering) until we reach the New Testament. In Jesus’ language “Father” is more intimately “Abba”: He could not call God his mother, as it was Mary whom he knew in that role. But is there a sense in which Jesus is both father and mother to us at once, in his male person reminding us of his Father in heaven, but also by his sacrificial love revealing all God’s tenderness and compassion, those so-called “feminine” qualities? Jesus, the image of the unseen God, .shows us the Almighty stooping low, the power of God surrendering itself upon the Cross. And we understand that transcendence and immanence are inadequate ways of speaking of that awesomely demanding but inexpressibly caring love that he bears for us.
My thesis is thus that we derive the word “Father” from Jesus’ own experience in his incarnation and see the imaging of that in his own person. Had he been a woman, there would have been some rather more contorted comparison between the visible person and the invisible deity. Again, had he been a woman the symbolism of the Cross would have lost some of its potency, because it is the voluntary agony of a male victim that is so arresting.
These thoughts do not impose upon God’s sovereignty to act otherwise, but seek to lay bare just a little of the appropriateness with which he has acted.
(In the same way, it is not for us question the use of bread and wine as sacramental elements, but there is an undoubted resemblance to Body and Blood which makes them fitting. Why is it that the modern Church has not yet sought to overturn their use, or to replace them with more culturally relevant tokens of fellowship.?)
If we take priesthood to be but a job or a series of jobs – preaching sermons, visiting the sick, running a parish (or in today’s language, “managing its resources”) – it will not seem to matter whether the priest is a man or a woman. After all, we are sufficiently used to men and women as interchangeably competent in most other walks of life.
But if at heart the task is that of focusing in one’s own person the truth revealed in Jesus Christ and of articulating the common calling of all God’s people, reminding them of their vocation, then words and actions are not enough.
The priest’s very being must also proclaim the truth as a living sacrament of the Lord’s own person, a visible sign of God-given reality. Maleness is a necessary part of this symbolism, but in itself it is nothing if it does not express the same self-denying love that was in Christ.
Rodney Schofield of Director of Ordinands in the diocese of Bath and Wells.