I’m on Thomas Oord’s email listserv, and just got something with the subject line: “What does God actually do?” I like Oord. He’s doing some important thinking — he wrote the provocative God Can’t — and in the email he’s playing on that and promoting his follow-up book. It’s not called God Can, but he does want to emphasize that God can and does act in the world. He writes:
It’s difficult to point to obvious examples of God acting. A believer and unbeliever can see the same event and interpret it differently. The main reason we cannot clearly identify God acting is this: God is a universal spirit we cannot perceive with our five senses.
He goes over the familiar territory of the ancient concept of God as ruach or pneuma. And says: “My favorite phrase to describe this says God is a ‘universal spirit without a localized body.’” Which means nothing. It really doesn’t. If it is without a body, then the metaphor or use of body as a referent is meaningless. It is there only to remind us that there is no physical referent. The language is a remnant of the Cartesian binary, and I actually think it’s a huge hindrance in theology in general, and that if we are going to use metaphorical language in our God-talk we really need to come up with better metaphors that keep pace with our growing (if at a snail’s pace) knowledge of the universe.
He does take a stab at it:
During the twentieth century, many compared God’s unseen but influential presence to the ‘ether’ in the universe. Others compared God with gravity: an influential force we can’t see, taste, touch, or smell. Today, some compare the universal Spirit with dark matter and dark energy.
And I do like the idea of “dark matter/energy” as a metaphor. But honestly, one of the personal revelations that came out of my Spiritual Autobiography course was that God cannot be thought of and should not be spoken of as metaphor. I came up with the mourning warbler as an illustrative metaphor (for this insight, not for God itself):
The banality of the human god has deep roots in Christianity (the first depiction in art of God the Father as a human figure dates to the 4th century CE, around the time of the Nicene Creed). For most of my youth, I did not question why anyone would depict divinity this way. I didn’t understand religious metaphor. As a consequence, it wasn’t until much later in life that I recognized the actual, unmetaphorical voice of the divine in the buzzing of bumblebees, the familiar song of the mourning warbler, the rustling of autumn leaves or the sound of water over rocks down by the creek “across the street”; in majestic summer storms: the thunder, rain, smell of earth and ozone in the air; the breath of a lover. This sounds poetic; I don’t mean it to. There is nothing metaphorical about the song of the mourning warbler. And yet for years I strained to hear that ancient human voice, when the whole world around me was singing. And not metaphorically.
It’s a clumsy paragraph, but that was a breakthrough for me, especially after banging my head against theopoetics last semester. Now I’m sort of left with the question: what is God-talk without metaphor?
In Dr. Rambo’s Theology and Trauma lecture yesterday we talked about Annie Rogers’ “poetics of trauma.” Rogers discusses how, in her work with trauma, distinctions started to crumble between the girls with known sexual trauma in their past and the girls who did not recall such trauma. I just couldn’t quite wrap my head around it, until we started talking about it in class. Rogers has a notion of the the unsayable, of languages of traumatic experience that are literally locked away in the brain, inaccessible to memory and spoken language, neural pathways to memory and speech centers in the brain blocked. But the experience breaks through. The languages are gestural, associative. If you know how to interpret these languages in which victims of childhood abuse who can’t remember the event reproduce patterns in seemingly unrelated narratives that say the unsayable, you can begin the healing. Rogers sees great potential for healing in poetry.
Dr. Rambo very delicately hinted at the parallels with God talk.