Welcome to Trinity Sunday – the week when we explore how we think about the names we use to speak about the mystery that is God. For those who grew up with the Prayer Book, Father Son and Holy Ghost was, perhaps is, the default. Like any default position, it does no harm to revisit, to check out whether it still serves us.
We know that language evolves and changes over time. Dictionaries are constantly being updated to reflect that evolution; there are times when we realise that a particular phrase no longer serves us because its meaning has changed in daily use. We can be confused by an unexpected use of language. Some obvious recent examples are woke; wicked; gay… all of which have different meanings for different generations.
Language points us towards something, helps us to understand the nature of that thing, but it isn’t the object itself. For women of a certain age and outlook, Spare Rib magazine was a radical feminist publication that really pushed at boundaries. I learned this week that the name was chosen at a Chinese Restaurant. It’s perfect – it says enough but not too much. It encourages the reader to think beyond what’s immediately in front of them. Language used creatively but not aggressively.
Thinking then about the language we use for God and how it helps – or hinders – our understanding of who God is and who we are in relation to our God. There is a range of contemporary attempts at a more inclusive version of Father Son and Holy Ghost. But is it just wokeness wriggling its way into the church or is there a reason why we might move in that direction?
Let’s take the 3 persons of the Trinity and think about who they are and how we might name them. I think it’s fairly easy to see that Father is the most contentious of the titles. By no stretch of the imagination could Father be argued to really mean Father and Mother. The traditional image of the old white man in the sky is very definitely a cultural norm in some contexts as an image of Father God. And for some people, Father God is a safe and comforting and helpful way in. But for others, father is someone who is anything but safe. For some, father may be someone who they never knew, or a very distant figure who it wasn’t possible to have a relationship with. There was a move a while ago to address God as mother – if not instead, then alongside. But I don’t think that solves the problem. Clearly, there are the same issues for those whose relationship with their mother isn’t great. But more importantly, limiting God to some kind of parental role, limits God.
Our Christian teaching tells us that we are made in the image of God; that each one of us uniquely reflects in some small way something of the nature of God.
If something of who we understand God to be is reflected in our shared humanity, then our language for God needs to encompass that. Our language needs to express something of the diversity that is held within the image of God. Some of us are Fathers and mothers – and many aren’t. And yet all are made in that same image of God that is bigger and more inclusive than we can ever imagine. So why would we even try to limit our language for God to one or two terms? What stops us from experimenting, from checking out how we hear and feel about very different ways of talking about God? They may not all work for all of us – and that’s fine; they make help us to understand more about who we know God not to be as we grow in our experience of who God can be.
The second person of the Trinity is Jesus, the son. Now there is no disputing that the incarnate Christ was born into a male body and lived his life as a first century man. But who, for us, is this Christ? Son of God, sure. But that doesn’t tell us anything about who he is for us – how we might relate to him and find ways to invite him into our lives. Words that are used for Jesus are often things like friend; companion; mentor; role model; redeemer; saviour. Son may encompass some of those, but what does it leave out?
There is undoubtedly a parent/child aspect to how we are and who we are with God, but if we’re not careful that leads us into a place of dependence and an abdication of personal responsibility. Good parenting is about resourcing our children to take responsibility, about helping them to take risks and make mistakes. If that is what we wish for our children, surely it’s also what God wishes for us – and choosing to follow Jesus means that we are choosing to follow a man who models the best of human interaction. If Jesus is my companion and my guide; my inspiration and my role model, then the person I am in relation to him, and to God, can’t be summed up in one or two words. If I give myself permission to use a wider vocabulary about Jesus, I give myself permission to explore more of who God wants me to be. As we gain a deeper understanding of that, we perhaps become more confident in the ways that we speak about our faith and its complexities. We perhaps give ourselves permission to be more courageous, more exploratory in the language we use – and by so doing might we just find that we have found a new way to resonate with other people?
And then we come to the Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit. As general usage and understanding of the term ghost changed, so the shift within our churches was generally made towards using Holy Spirit, which wasn’t actually an updated version, although it maybe felt that way; it had always been an alternative. The move away from using ghost was a deliberate attempt not to limit what people heard.
The Spirit who brings and breathes new life, new perspectives, new ways of being. We often use the word transforming to speak about the impact of the Spirit. We speak about the comfort that the Spirit might bring; about the movement of the Spirit in our world and our lives. This language isn’t dismissing the previous one, it’s adding to and enhancing. Language allows us to explore and stretch and challenge ourselves. Clearly it also allows us to tell other people something about who we are as a community and how we experience God within our community. The best language speaks not just to us, but also to people who wouldn’t describe themselves as us.
The best choice of language is probably one that none of us fully embraces but that has enough breadth and depth that it speaks to each of us where we are, and allows room for growth and new insights.
None of our language is adequate to describe the nature of God. But in the same way that a Trinitarian understanding of the nature of God goes a little way towards helping us engage with God, so a broader and more nuanced range of language goes a little way towards opening up our communication with and about God. As our language evolves, we evolve. As we evolve, our engagement with God evolves – and so one supports and enables the other. May that evolution always be filled with surprise.