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Thursday, June 29, 2006

How I understand 'God language.'

The sermon that follows contains most of what I feel able to add to a Unitarian Universalist conversation about the metaphors and names we use for God. PeaceBang kicked off a lively blog conversation about the (un)availability of Christian language in a UU context with a list of assumptions "God talk"-wary UUs cultivate in others, followed it up with a post on the near impossibilty of speaking devotionally about Jesus, and then (just to keep things lively) put in a good word for "Lord." You can see how far the ripples go on the other blogs via Technorati.

I post this old sermon (which I preached back in 1999) because it conveys something about what religious language — devotional language — means to me, and because it quotes a marvelous hymn by Thomas Troeger that highlights the diversity of biblical metaphors for God.

God's lovers

I opened to my love
but he had slipped away.
How I wanted him when he spoke!

— Song of Songs 5:6a (translated by Ariel Bloch and Chana Bloch, 1995)

As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.

— Psalm 42:1 (New Revised Standard Version)

The readings today illustrate something profoundly important. The religious quest, the desire for the divine, involves us not in a rejection of the world, not in a rejection of the human, not in a rejection of life. In the end, we learn to love by being alive, by living embodied in the world, by being human. Love relates us. There is, in the end, no way to draw clear boundaries between the love of God, the love of the world, and the love of the human.

Jacob Trapp said, "Worship is the mystery within us reaching out to the mystery beyond." The biblical texts say the same thing, they say that love is the mystery within us reaching out to the mystery beyond.

The Song of Songs is a love poem. More than that, it is a love poem of extraordinary eroticism, the only surviving example of ancient Hebrew love poetry — a curious work in the Bible because, like the Book of Esther, it never mentions God. The Song of Songs is about desire. Although some readers are tempted to see in it only the erotic, and although many have tried to read the sexual dimension of the poem away, the amazing feature of the book is that Jews and Christians have seen something profound about the love of God in the book — as well as something wonderful about human sexuality.

In the Song of Songs, a young woman and a young man celebrate the goodness of the human body, the beauty of physical love. The book opens with the words, "Kiss me, make me drunk with your kisses! Your sweet loving is better than wine" (1:2). The voice belongs to a bold young woman. She describes her lover in words like these: "My beloved is milk and wine, he towers above ten thousand. His head is burnished gold, the mane of his hair black as the raven. His eyes like doves by the rivers of milk and plenty. His cheeks a bed of spices, a treasure of precious scents, his lips red lilies wet with myrrh" (5:10-13).

He watches her dancing, and says, "How graceful your steps in those sandals, O nobleman's daughter. The gold of your thigh shaped by a master craftsman. Your navel is the moon's bright drinking cup. May it brim with wine!" (7:2-4). Does this sound like the Bible you know?

In the passage I read earlier, the young woman has gone to bed, when she hears her lover knock at the door. He wants to come in, but she complains, "But I have taken off my clothes, how can I dress again? I have bathed my feet, must I dirty them?" Then, she tells us, "My love reaches in for the latch and my heart beat wild." Full of desire, she goes to the door. She says, "I opened to my love but he had slipped away. How I wanted him when he spoke!"

She rushes out into the streets of the city, looking everywhere for him. She calls out his name, but hears no answer. Then, in a startling passage, the young woman running through the streets late at night is caught by watchmen who beat and bruise her, who tear the shawl from her shoulders. Vulnerable as a woman in a male-dominated culture, she has rushed out into an even more vulnerable situation looking for her lover in the night. But their cruelty does not diminish her desire for her lover, nor can their violence deter her from the reality of her love. The passage ends with this appeal, "Swear to me, daughters of Jerusalem! If you find him now you must tell him I am in the fever of love" (5:2-8).

Like the Song of Songs, Psalm 42 expresses a kind of loneliness born of having known a deep love. "As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God" (v.1). Perhaps this is a less universal craving than the young woman's sexual desire. You may not think often or at all about God, at least not in conventional terms. But could it be that the poet's desire for God is just as universal? "Deep calls to deep" (v.7): the poet yearns for the living God as one with a deadly wound in his body yearns for a cure (v.10). Deep calls to deep: the mystery in us reaching out toward the mystery beyond, life desiring life, even though each life is destined to die. This is an honest poem. "Why have you forgotten me?" (v.9). The poet thirsts for an eternal spring. "Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God" (v.5).

The texts in our service illustrate that the love of God, the love of the world, and the love of the human spill over into each other. They illumine each other. It is almost a cliché among religious liberals that the Bible to us is metaphoric, not literal. When we speak of God, we say we speak metaphorically. But what does it mean to speak metaphorically? Thomas Troeger has written a wonderful hymn about the biblical metaphors for God.

Source and Sovereign, Rock and Cloud,
Fortress, Fountain, Shelter, Light,
Judge, Defender, Mercy, Might, . . .

Word and Wisdom, Root and Vine,
Shepherd, Savior, Servant, Lamb,
Well and Water, Bread and Wine, . . .

Storm and Stillness, Breath and Dove,
Thunder, Tempest, Whirlwind, Fire,
Comfort, Counselor, Presence, Love, . . .

— Thomas H. Troeger, in Borrowed Light: Hymn Texts, Prayers, and Poems (Oxford UP, 1994, 26).

The metaphors, of course, are drawn from the natural and human worlds. Not one of these words applies only to God. And so Troeger concludes each verse with this refrain:

May the church at prayer recall
that no single, holy name
but the truth that feeds them all
is the God whom we proclaim.

One Christian text from the sixth century explains that "everything we can truly say about something God has created can be stretched out towards the representation of God . . . This is because in its creation each thing is the stretching out of God towards it." There is no such thing, for this writer, as specifically religious language. Instead, when "ordinary language [is] stretched to the limit of its significance . . . talk about creatures comes to be talk about God." 1

Poets and religious people stretch language, so that talk about things — specific things — comes to say something more. The language boils over. Our metaphors take us only partway, but only then do we see that we are at the limits of our understanding; the mystery expands, "no single, holy name but the truth that feeds them all is the God whom we proclaim."

This takes me to the heart of why I am preaching this sermon. When I first turned my attention to the Song of Songs a month ago, I was struck by the fact that the lovers describe each other using language that boils over. The young man, in the pitch of exaggeration, says, "The curve of your cheek [is] a pomegranate in the thicket of your hair. Your neck is a tower of David raised in splendor, a thousand bucklers hang upon it, all the shields of the warriors. Your breasts are two fawns, twins of a gazelle, grazing in a field of lilies" (4:3-5).

How do the lovers speak about each other? By speaking about food, animals, smells, politics, architecture, gardens: the whole world becomes an expression of their love for each other. How do you describe love? No words are ever enough, but everything in the world has something to say.

I was struck by this: Divine love and human love spill over into every region of life. Why should we treat them separately?

There is a strong tendency in our culture for "spirituality" to take on a disembodied quality, an other-worldliness. For many people, spirituality is entirely individual, but religion is about connection. Faith must be embodied, it must be shared. There is also a strong tendency in our culture to treat the body as a commodity, to treat the world itself as so much stuff. Doctors treat the body, but not always the person. Churches sometimes revere the spirit, but fear the body.

But the love that is proclaimed in these biblical texts resists both of these tendencies. One cannot properly love God without loving the human; we live this life embodied, and only embodied do we first taste love, human or divine.

We don't use metaphors because we're trying to be clever, nor because we are being indirect. We use metaphors because we are stretching our speech about the world to the point where it spills over and says something more. We are taking our understanding to its limit. We are speaking as God's lovers. We stretch language until it spills over and conveys transcendence. One cannot love another person without that love implying an entire universe of connections. Love implies the world.

Deep calls out to deep, the mystery in us reaches toward the mystery beyond us, life desires life even though the deadly wound is in us. As embodied beings, we live for love — we are, at the very core of our being, related. To love life, whether in the simplest form of gratitude for breath itself, or in the love that brings two people together, or in the love one feels among creatures and forests, or in the love that joins the soul and God — to love life is to live in the divine life. Not to love it selfishly, or greedily, not to love it for some other end, but to love for love itself. The greatest experience is love, said Bernard of Clairvaux eight centuries ago in one of his sermons on the Song of Songs. "Love is its own fruit, its own object and usefulness. I love," he said, "because I love; I love, that I may love" (Sermon 83, 4).

"Bind me as a seal upon your heart, a sign upon your arm," says the young woman at the end of the Song of Songs, "for love is as fierce as death, its jealousy bitter as the grave. Even its sparks are a raging fire, a devouring flame. Great seas cannot extinguish love, no river can sweep it away" (8:6-7). To love another person is a mystery that does not diminish even when that person is in your arms; to love the world is a mystery even though it surrounds us; and to love God is to love that mystery.

What love is this the young woman describes? I would like to meet the person who thinks that they can draw the lines hard and fast. Love relates us. In it, the soul and the world are joined in the divine. As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.

Excerpted from a sermon preached by Christopher L. Walton to the First Parish in Concord, February 14, 1999. Copyright © 1999.


1. The words are those of scholar Denys Turner, writing about a sixth-century namesake, the so-called "Denys the Areopagite," in Eros and Allegory: Medieval Exegesis of the Song of Songs, Cistercian Publications, 1995, 53-54. back

Copyright © 2006 by Philocrites | Posted 29 June 2006 at 9:08 PM

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h sofia:

June 29, 2006 10:20 PM | Permalink for this comment

How excellent this is! I will have to print this one and save it. And send it to others.

ms. kitty:

June 30, 2006 12:07 AM | Permalink for this comment

Thanks for offering your sermon. I was thrilled to see my former professor Tom Troeger's hymn. Tom was my professor at Iliff School of Theology and I took a Hymnody class from him. What a great class! He taught us to write hymns and every time we met, we sang our own hymns as well as other great songs and hymns of the church.

Ronale Stevens:

June 30, 2006 11:21 AM | Permalink for this comment

I have never liked the deity presented in the Bible. To distinguish the One I do worship from that deity, I refer to It (yes, It) as Divinity. So, if you will, add those names to your list


June 30, 2006 11:23 AM | Permalink for this comment

Thanks, Philocrites. This will be addded to my scrapbook of UU sermons that I would like to be able to re-read from time to time.

And for all of you that felt moved by Troeger's hymn, I recommend checking out a wonderful song by Van Morrision titled "The Youth of a Thousand Summers" (from his 1990 album Enlightenment). The song's lyrics consist solely of the poet naming the names of God, some of them traditional (i.e. "Ancient of Days") and some his own (i.e. the title phrase). It's one of those songs I keep available in my car for when I need some spiritual pick-me-up. (In the same way websites like this one I keep bookmarked in my work computer for the same reason.)


June 30, 2006 05:42 PM | Permalink for this comment

Throughout mankinds history we have attempted to name that mystery which can't be named. We have held the belief that such mystery could be captured and contained, where any name or phrase would capture the essence of what has no essence as we understand it.

Your sermon is a marvelous representation of the limits of language and the struggle that faces those who spend their lives and energies trying to name that which can have no name.


July 1, 2006 02:46 AM | Permalink for this comment

cool sermon


July 1, 2006 11:18 AM | Permalink for this comment

Sounds good and fine, Ph., but some of the feedback that Peacebang has been receiving for her posts on what "God" and particularly "Lord" mean to her seems to call seriously into question our optimistic assumption that UUs support people to "freely explore their own spirituality".


July 1, 2006 12:31 PM | Permalink for this comment

Personally, Jaume, I never make that assumption. It would be practically impossible for a UU Christian who had stuck their toe into denominational affairs here in the U.S. to believe that Christian self-expression won't get you into some conflict. Things have been getting dramatically better in recent years, but discomfort with Christian devotional language is and will remain widespread in the UUA.

That's why I said, in one of my responses to PeaceBang, that I have stopped trying to integrate my personal sense of discipleship to Jesus into "Unitarian Universalism." I'll quote from that comment:

I maintain a mildly bifurcated spiritual life in which certain deeply meaningful parts of my faith are almost never engaged by Unitarian Universalism. When I'm singing Taize songs or worshiping with my wife in her church, I'm perfectly happy with [symbols like "Lord" and "savior"], and they mean a great deal to me. But I also feel wonderfully connected to the humanist default setting of many UU churches, and find those services moving, too.

For reasons that grieve me but that I do not expect to change, symbols that are very much alive for me are dead for many other religious liberals. I think I have simply come to accept this as how it is. I'm not sure these symbols can simply come back without a lot of attenuation in a UU setting, and I'm not sure that's a bad thing.

It's just that, in all honesty, I still have a foot on both sides of a growing divide.


July 1, 2006 02:39 PM | Permalink for this comment


In my limited experience the divide isn't growing. The Unitarian churches of my youth were more hostile to Christianity than my current congregation. When I was a kid the church was full of people who had grown up in traditional religions to which they were very hostile. They disliked religion but for some reason still wanted to go to church.

The world has changed. There is less general social pressure to go to church. As a percentage of population my very liberal area is less UU than it was in the 1950s. But the people who do go to church are, in my completely subjective impression, more likely to genuinely crave religion, including Christianity.

I also think the Episcopal church down the street is a lot more liberal than it was in the 1950s. Like you I am completely comfortable in an Episcopal church. When my Unitarian parents were younger, they weren't. Actually my mom still isn't.

So I tend to think people like you are the wave of the future. At least that's how it looks from here, far from Boston.


July 1, 2006 05:01 PM | Permalink for this comment

Ph., talking generally and not about your individual case (which is surely not unique), if people have two religions, one that is the "authentic" one, the one that appeals to their innermost spiritual feelings, and then UUism as the liberal church that they attend because of some commitment to liberal values or because they like to visit an interfaith place for interesting conversation, or to hear intelligent sermons, then this is a death knell for one of those two places, and I think I know which one is the loser. I wish that this religion rediscovers in time what it is truly about.


July 3, 2006 11:14 AM | Permalink for this comment

I think Philocrites is giving voice to something that many Americans experience. I honestly don't think many folks really are drawn to an anything goes theology or one that doesn't draw somehow on tradition. It's wonderful that Episcopalians and Unitarians have more in common than thirty years ago, and as was commented, that seems to be because both sides have evolved to be less exclusive.

In my case, I also am in general very comfortable with the language of God, Jesus, grace, atonement, creation, etc. What determines my level of comfort is the context. I feel extremely uncomfortable in settings where there is an implied in-group vs. out-group dichotomy. I also feel uncomfortable if I feel that I am being explicitly or implicitly expected to leave reason and tolerance at the door. (And this is my own little quirk, but "contemporary praise" services continue to either depress me or annoy the hell out of me regardless of the theology behind it. Maybe I need to be more aesthetically inclusive.)

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