On Language

Sunday 12th January 2014
Year A, The Baptism of Christ (The First Sunday of Epiphany)
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Matthew 3:13-17

It is a truism that we need to remind ourselves of more regularly than we do, that to talk of God is to talk in metaphors or, as the philosophers of language would say, to talk about God is to make an attempt at the impossible because our language can't handle the subject, and to think it can is to make a category mistake. In other words, to talk about God and to think we are talking literally is to reduce God to the limits of our human language.

I mention this at the beginning because our Gospel reading today, of the Baptism of Christ, raises a difficult language question and also provides a difficult linguistic approximate answer.

Put simply, the question is why would Jesus submit himself to John's baptism, but the deeper question is why would Jesus submit himself to anything and, to widen it out further, why would God bother 'himself' by creating what we know as the universe. To put this as a human language question is to commit the serious category mistake of thinking that God thinks like us which, of course, is nonsense; but as we only have language to discuss God - and we might actually think that silence is altogether a better way of going about things - let us start by qualifying anything we say with the subordinate but vital clause: "Although what we say about god is a language metaphor", we might then go on to say something like: "God created the world and humanity because 'he' wanted to create entities that would freely choose to love 'him'. This is an easier idea than first appears because we all know that the answer "yes" to the question "do you love me?" is much less satisfying than the sentiment being volunteered without the question.

Left to ourselves, we might conjecture that God created the universe for no reason whatsoever but we have not been left to ourselves; we have the witness of Scripture, starting from the apprehension of God with Abraham, culminating in God's presence on earth in Jesus, with the whole span being synthesised by Saint Paul. The purpose of the Incarnation was to bring the reality of God closer to our comprehension through the human agency of Jesus. And, on the massive scale of God's putting himself onto our earth to be born, to die and rise again, Jesus' undertaking of Baptism by John is just a small gesture of how he put himself into our hands, to live in solidarity with us and, ultimately, to be betrayed by us, not just by Judas nor by the Jewish religious authorities, but by all of us.

And the great thing is that although we lack the grammar to discuss God except in metaphors, we have all the means we need to discuss God in the person of Jesus; and we might, on that basis, want to ask ourselves a radically different question from that which was addressed by the great Councils of the Church, namely, what is God and how do different aspects of God relate to one another, with a more interesting question, what has God done? To which one answer might be, God has created, redeemed and sanctified.

Which brings us to the second language problem in today's Gospel. Matthew depicts what we call the Holy Trinity, with the Son in the water, the Father overhead expressing approbation and the Spirit in the form of a dove. To get ourselves oriented, what Greek speakers at the Councils of Nicea and Chalcedon meant by a 'person' was precisely the opposite of what we mean: To a 4th Century Greek a person was a stereotype of human character portrayed by an actor's wearing of a mask whereas, since the Romantic movement of the 19th Century, by person we mean something highly individualised, if not unique; we have personalities and exercise personal choice, we are persons in our own right. So, to think back to the Church Councils, it might be easier to think of the Trinity as three aspects or characteristics of God and, in that context, we might be more comfortable with the idea of creation, redemption and sanctification.

But it's all a bit over intellectualised for me. I find it easier to think that God made me, that Jesus shows me who God is, and that the Spirit is God working in me. And if we think of it this way we can see that if we take any one of these three away, there is something profoundly flawed in the way we think about ourselves, our earth and God; so let me try this:

Take any two of three and we just don't have enough colour to produce a brilliant picture; it's like having a colour television and finding that the red, green or blue dots aren't working, which means we don't get a colour picture. I can see why Saint Patrick liked the shamrock as an illustration but I prefer the way that the three elements in colour television work because their combination and density differ according to what they are portraying, just as we have different intensities of feeling for our Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier at different points in our life; and different points in the Church's year.

So one conclusion we can draw from this discussion is that when it comes to thinking about God it's as well for us to mind our language; but the more important point is that no matter how inadequate that language may be, we have Jesus to make all things clear.