On the evening of our first dinner church gathering, my then three-year-old daughter sat on the sidewalk in front of our banner that read, “God is not a boy’s name.” The picture struck a chord and continues to circulate on social media, in part because she is a happy, adorable little girl and also because her presence along with those words offers a bold theological statement.
People have shared a wide range of reactions to the sign in local settings as well. One woman emerged from the crowd at a festival where the banner hung. As I blessed dogs, she approached and shrieked, “Jesus is a man. That doesn’t make sense!” She was not interested in a nuanced philosophical exchange, and she quickly stormed off.
But most people have loved the banner’s simple statement about the wide and vast nature of God. Those of us who are interested in an intellectually honest and spiritually rich faith journey are hungry for new ways to speak of the Divine. I sense a longing in the wider culture for new language and new icons and new paradigms—even among those who aren’t part of traditional religious communities. One woman in my congregation uses the language of Star Wars to speak of the Holy. It feels right to bless one another with, “May the Force be with you!”
And yet in many expressions of Christian community, God seems less like a Force of Love. Among too many Christians, the Sacred is more like the National Security Agency. For example, I took a picture of a sign that stands in front of a church in my neighborhood. It read, “God is watching you 24-7!” It seemed to be shouting, “You should be scared!”
The idea of God as some sort of cosmic Elf on the Shelf represents theological leftovers from the time of the biblical poets, when people thought the earth was a large dome with holes poked in the top—the absolute center of everything, with God hovering above, keeping His unblinking, divine eye on all that happened below. Thanks be to the Universe, we have grown, and evolved, and learned that there are multiple universes and different galaxies, and that the earth is billions of years old. Given the immensity of things, it may turn out that we humans here on Earth are not even the most precious draw on Divine attention.
Ultimately, we are mere fragments of the light of our Greater Light. So isn’t it about time that we let our messaging, our liturgies, and how we speak the name of the Unnamable reflect how far we have come?
As is obvious, I question some of the language that several churches in my neighborhood use to talk about God. So I am always surprised when I find myself in churches where people seem to agree that God is neither Santa, nor a King in the Sky, nor the NSA, but still talk as if God is one or all of those things. Even in progressive and inclusive churches, calling God “Father” or singing about God as “a Mighty Fortress” or “reigning from above” is often still the default language for a reality that we have come to understand as much more complex, much more diverse, and much more inclusive.
On one level, I get it: in times of rapid change and disruption, hanging on to ideas and language from the past—even ones that we know are inconsistent with our theologies of justice and dignity for all of God’s people—can provide a certain nostalgic comfort. But perhaps such uncertain times also offer an invitation for many of us to do something like a theological upgrade.
How we speak, and the messages we send, as religious leaders and as people of faith really matters. Comforting as the outdated language may be, it often reinforces old patterns of exclusion that are not the measure of God’s love. New, even provocative, language can invite novel, more expansive ways of loving.
The first creation story in Genesis indicates that God uses inclusive, expansive language when creating the world and all the humans in it. But that language proved so perplexing over the centuries that people often mistranslated it or let a later, more gender and socially normative version of the story overwrite it. Yet there it is, right smack at the beginning of the creation story: “So God created humankind in his image; male and female he created them.”
The truth is that God builds the world with words. Words are powerful because they can help unsettle what is and build new possibilities. So perhaps one of the critical calls of 21st-century ministry is to let our speaking, and singing, and praying, and writing—let all of our words that point to the Sacred—expand widely beyond the genders, labels, and histories that we have known. (The United Church of Christ has certainly done so in a recent campaign that insists, “God is transgender!”)
My hope is that we use our words to do what the Spirit is doing already: building worlds with words that create connections and communities of abundance, justice, love, and peace.
No, God is not a boy’s name; it is a name for us all. May the Force of that be with you!