In his tenth Conference, John Cassian tells of how Bishop Theophilus of Alexandria sent a letter to the monks living in the desert of Asia Minor, instructing them to renounce the anthropomorphite heresy—the view that God possesses a human shape. The monks don’t respond well to this, since the bishop
seemed to impugn the teaching of holy Scripture by the denial that Almighty God was formed in the fashion of a human figure, though Scripture teaches with perfect clearness that Adam was created in His image (ch. 2).
Cassian goes on to tell the story of one monk in particular:
Among those then who were caught by this mistaken notion was one named Sarapion, a man of long-standing strictness of life, and one who was altogether perfect in actual discipline, whose ignorance with regard to the view of the doctrine first mentioned was so far a stumbling block to all who held the true faith, as he himself outstripped almost all the monks both in the merits of his life and in the length of time (he had been there)” (ch. 3).
A clever deacon named Photinus arrives from the city and explains to the monks, using both reason and scripture, that the “image of God” is mean in a non-corporeal way and all are convinced by his explanation, even the old monk Serapion.
[A]nd when we arose to give thanks, and were all together offering up our prayers to the Lord, the old man was so bewildered in mind during his prayer because he felt that the Anthropomorphic image of the Godhead which he used to set before himself in prayer, was banished from his heart, that suddenly he burst into a flood of bitter tears and continual sobs, and cast himself down on the ground and exclaimed with strong groanings: “Alas! wretched man that I am! they have taken away my God from me, and I have now none to lay hold of; and whom to worship and address I know not” (ch. 3).
Last week at its General Convention the Episcopal Church approved the development of new liturgical materials that would employ “expansive language” for God—more or less what a lot of people have called “inclusive language,” with the perhaps the added twist that it would not be simply gender neutral language but would employ a variety of gendered images for God. It also approved for trial use an inclusivized version of the current “Rite II” liturgy (i.e. the liturgy in contemporary, as opposed to Tudor, language) of the 1979 Prayer Book.
There is a lot that can be said about all this, and I have some specific doubts about some of the suggested changes in Rite II (e.g. the substitution of “maker” for “Father” in phrases like “the God and maker of all”—the first person of the Trinity is the Father of all, but not the maker, since according to Nicaea, the Son is “begotten, not made”). And apparently some at the General Convention who reject a gender binary raised questions about whether adding female language to male language did not end up excluding those who identify as neither. But as I was praying the Office this morning I found myself thinking about all this in terms of poor Serapion and the ineradicable difficulty of prayer.
Advocates of inclusive/expansive language are clearly correct in claiming that God has no gender, and that all people are in the image of God and therefore we can use a variety of gendered images of God. And they are somewhat correct in claiming that we should always seek more theologically adequate language in our prayer, while recognizing that none of our language expresses adequately the reality of God toward which it gropes. But I worry that we can fool ourselves into thinking that if we tinker enough with our language we will somehow get it right, that we will have found the correct language for prayer. I think Serapion shows us that the nature of human language is such that in trying to say “God” we never have gain without some loss, and that ever greater abstraction is not always the solution to our linguistic difficulties. Indeed, nothing really alleviates the difficulty of prayer. We are always wrestling like Jacob with the angel, seeking a blessing from words that can seem like an adversary.
This occurred to me this morning as I prayed psalms that, on the face of it, seemed to me like nothing more than ancient dynastic propaganda, pumping up human rulers by putting God on their side. The fact that God was referred to as “he” seemed small potatoes compared to the image of God as the transcendent legitimator of earthly power. While I recognize the real difficulty that some people have relating to a masculine God, I found myself equally if not more at sea in trying to relate to this petty tribal deity. And this is, at least in scale, an even greater problem than the gender of God, because we cannot solve it with a few verbal tweaks. We’d have to throw out at least half the psalter, not to mention great swaths of the rest of the Old Testament, in order to fix it. And I don’t think this would fix anything, but simply give us a deracinated imitation of Christian prayer.
Cassian and others suggest another strategy for dealing with this: to take such passages “spiritually,” seeing the king as Christ and the enemies so ruthlessly defeated as the power of sin. And I often do this, imagining that the enemies surrounding Jerusalem that I am asking God to smite are actually the daily temptations around my soul. But in doing it I always face a couple of difficulties. First, to extract the spiritual blessing I must wrestle with the literal words; they do not go away, and I remain always aware that, whatever God intended by them, they have been used by human beings throughout history in quite literal ways to justify various sorts of horrors. Second, in wrestling with the words there is always the danger that I will kill them, that I will so strip them of their literal sense that they will become mere gaseous abstractions and I will be left, like Serapion, bereft of my God.
There is no solution in this life to the difficulty of prayer. We should always seek more adequate language about God, but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that by doing so we can free ourselves from having to wrestle with the words in all their gendered, historical, concrete specificity.