Corporations’ legal staff constantly patrol the Internet, searching for disparaging parodies and unauthorized YouTube videos that threaten their ability to control the discourse around their brand name. Proving that no target is too small, the Mattel Corp. last month denied my request to use the name “Barbie” in the title of my forthcoming poetry chapbook, which will now be called Anatomically Impossible Commercialized White Female Body Image Icon at 50. Or The Happy Endings Support Group. We’re still working out the details.
If God were as protective of His trademark as Coca-Cola, we’d all be in trouble.
“What right, really, do we have to talk about God?” asks Mark Galli in “God Talk is Dangerous“, an article on the Christianity Today blog. Normally we’d hesitate to pronounce on an issue that we didn’t know much about. But we often sling around opinions about God’s will and God’s attributes, even though “if there ever was a ‘topic’ beyond our comprehension, it is the infinite, immortal, and all powerful God!” Biblical and theological metaphors are always mere approximations. Galli writes:
This is the genius of apophatic theology, about which our brothers and sisters in the Orthodox tradition have taught us so much. Apophatic theology talks about God in terms of what he is not. God is uncreated, not bound by time and space, and in one sense is unknowable—that is, because he is infinite and we are finite, we can never know God as he is. From the perspective of apophatic theology, we can even say that God does not “exist.” We use that word to talk about people, plants, animals, and rocks. But how and why these created things “exist” cannot be compared to the way a transcendent, immortal deity “exists.”
…[But] the Incarnation and Jesus’ talk about God suggest that there is more than one way to blaspheme—that is, to be irreverent and impious. That would be to so exalt the transcendence of God that there is no room left in the imagination for the scandalous Emmanuel, God with us.
As early church theologian Irenaeus put it, Jesus Christ “gathered together all things into himself … he took up man into himself, the invisible becoming the visible, the incomprehensible being made comprehensible, the impassible becoming capable of suffering, and the Word being made man, thus summing up all things in himself.”
Today there are many who strive to protect the reputation of God. They are, so to speak, on “blasphemy alert.” At their best, they remind us whenever we suggest that God is anything but holy, immortal, and almighty. In an age such as ours—which can be so casual about things divine—I’m glad there are such people around.
But the interesting thing is that God does not seem all that concerned about his reputation. He is the one who inspired people to think of him as an inert rock (Deut. 32) or a common shepherd (Ps. 23), and who came to us not in a flashy show of glory and power but as a baby in a trough wrapped in rags. He apparently isn’t offended when he is mistaken for a simple gardener (John 20).
The incarnation is God’s permission to talk about that which, really, we don’t know that much about—God Almighty! He’s even willing for us to tread on the border of blasphemy if it will communicate something true about him.
To be sure, we are wise to not transgress that border. But that job is made easier when we realize that all our talk about God is partial, that there is no word picture that can do full justice to his being, that there is always something greater than the arresting image we might fashion—and that there is a divine source that can keep us both humble and balanced in our God-talk.
Reading this piece, I had the thought that the Incarnation points to a resolution of the postmodernist paralysis that follows from the inadequacy of language. Rather than revive the failed modernist project of searching for fixed, objective meanings that perfectly contain reality, we can speak knowing that we will fail, knowing also that we are forgiven for our failure to “get it right”. God-in-Jesus would rather that we took a halting step toward communication with him, than that we hung back out of false scrupulousness.