Parsing God

Galatians 4:1-9

Let’s begin with an exercise.  I want you to close your eyes for a minute and visualize the scene I am about to describe to you.  It’s just a one sentence description so listen carefully:

“The girl ate the cake and her mother came in and said, ‘What are you doing?’” 

In your mind’s eye, visualize that scene.  There isn’t a right or wrong way of imagining this; I just want you to take a second to create an image in your mind that would fit that sentence:  “The girl ate the cake and her mother came in and said, ‘What are you doing?’” 

Ok, now remember that image because I am now going to describe the scene in a slightly different way and as I do, see if anything has to be adjusted in the picture you have in your mind to fit this new sentence.  

“The girl was eating the cake and her mother walked in and said, ‘What are you doing?’”

“The girl was eating the cake and her mother walked in and said, ‘What are you doing?’”

Did anything change in your imaginary scene with my second sentence?  For most of us, the primary difference between the two scenes is in the amount of cake present when the mother entered the room.  In the first sentence — “The girl ate the cake and her mother came in and said, ‘What are you doing?’”— the word “ate” describes an action that has been completed.  By the time the mother walks into the room, the cake iss gone and so we don’t even know if the mother’s question — what are you doing? — has anything at all to do with the cake eating since the mother isn’t a witness to the dirty deed.  In your imagination you may have seen the little girl trying to hide the empty plate behind her back, but there was no cake in your imaginary scene because “the girl ate it.”  It was already gone.

In the second sentence, “the girl was eating the cake,” the verb describes an action that hasn’t yet been completed.  There is still cake there and the little girl is caught in the act of eating it, the fork halfway to her mouth.  Now, the mother’s question, “What are you doing?” takes on a more ominous tone in our mind since the mother is witnessing the little girl’s gluttony in action.  The word “ate” and the words “was eating” are both past tenses of the verb “to eat.”  They are both describing eating that took place in the past but the first form expresses a past action that is finished — she ate the cake — while the other expresses a past action that is unfolding as we watch — she was eating — and that small change in verb tense makes all the difference to the image that forms in our heads as we listen to the story.

Ah, very interesting you say, but why are you giving us a grammar lesson on what should be a relaxing holiday weekend? 

I wanted you to do this exercise to show how our language allows us to create very specific images in our heads, images that capture the nuance between, for example, being only a suspect in a wrongful act or being caught with the goods.  English is a language rich in verb tenses and grammatical constructions that create vivid pictures for the listeners.  I gave you an example of just two ways of describing something that happened in the past but there are many many more —  I ate the cake, I was eating the cake, I had eaten the cake, I used to eat cake… English allows us to be very specific about just what that little girl was doing with that cake yesterday. 

And it’s not just verbs.  English has nearly 200,000 words in its vocabulary many of which are synonyms with just slightly different shades of meaning. (1)  The manufacturers of Cascade dishwashing liquid urge you to use their product because it will leave your dishes “virtually spotless.”  The dictionary says that the word “virtually” means “almost,” but would you buy a detergent that leaves your dishes “almost spotless?”  When we hear “almost spotless,” our minds go right to those little bits of food still clinging to the plates, but when we hear “virtually spotless,” our minds imagine an almost magical cleanliness.  Those fine shades of meaning between one word and another can create radically different images in our minds.   

Ah, that’s very interesting too, you say, but still you ask, “What’s your point?”    

My point is that the language we speak, the words we choose, the vocabulary available to us, and the syntax we employ not only reflects our thinking but actually influences our thinking.  The richness and limitations of language affect not only the way we view dishwasher detergent and children eating cake but it has also influenced the way we think about God.  The primary source for our images of God comes to us through ancient texts written in Hebrew and Greek and those two languages are extremely different.  The Greek of the New Testament and of the early church theologians is a analytical mind’s delight: ancient Greek is a language that allows you to throw a word into a centrifuge and separate its parts into nice neat pieces.  Ancient Greek had a slew of verb tenses, more even than English, allowing Greek centurions to be very specific about whether they intended to kill you slowly over time or with one quick blow of their sword.  Biblical Hebrew, on the other hand, was poetic and imprecise and often left a lot to the listeners’ imagination.  It was not only miserly with its verb tenses; it didn’t even have vowels.  Vowel sounds were added later by frustrated religious scholars who got tired of hearing Hebrew students garbling the sacred texts. 

“Oh, for Pete’s sake, you sound like you’re speaking Klingon,” they grumbled.  “Let me put some vowels here to show you how to pronounce it right.” (2)

Jesus read the scriptures in Hebrew and taught about God in Aramaic, a close cousin of Hebrew.  The early Christians theologians, however, read the scriptures and thought about God in Greek.  When our faith language shifted from the Hebrew world view to the Greek world view, our understanding of God and our relationship to God shifted as well.  We went from a language that might describe a cherry tree as, “Fruit tree blooms abundance cherries magnificently beautiful,” to a language that would say, “The Prunus Serotina is producing a prodigious quantity of ripened fruit which are not only aesthetically pleasing to the eye but also part of a well-balanced diet.”

If that’s what happens to a cherry tree when you go from Hebrew to Greek, what happens to God?

What happens is that we have become a religion of dissectors who for nearly two thousand years have parsed God almost to death.  We have put God in our centrifuges and squinted at God under our microscopes and tweezed God apart in our grammars.  I would argue that even today’s Creationist debate is not really a debate over science but is a debate over the meaning of language, a debate between those who want to turn the Hebrew poetry of Genesis literally translated—- “In the beginning, chaos, vacancy, darkness, then Spirit of God vibrating over waters, and saying, ‘Become light!’ and light becomes!” into “In the first geological era 6002 years before the birth of Christ (the Son who was begotten but not created, of numerical unity of substance with God, and present therefore before even the beginning of time) God created the world ex nihilo, that is, out of nothing.”

God has become a proposition to be described in theological precision instead of a holy mystery to be experienced. 

And so finally, I come to my point.  The apostle Paul had been trained in Greek and like us, was raised in a culture that analyzed, dissected, and parsed.  His letters are illustrations of carefully constructed theologies in which he attempts to put his faith into a neat and orderly world view; in which he tries to make intellectual sense of God and Christ.

And yet, when all is said and done, even Paul throws up his hands and allows the mystery of God to be mystery.  In his letter to the Galatians, he is explaining why the new Gentile members of the church should give up their pagan practices.  He is trying to explain why the idols that they once worshipped are not truly God and why our God is the real God, an explanation which requires some deep philosophical thinking, right up Paul’s alley.  Nevertheless, in the middle of his argument — in the middle of a sentence in fact — Paul suddenly stands down and confesses that his intellect is not capable of containing the mysteries of God.  “Now that you have come to know God,” he begins, and then corrects himself, “or rather to be known by God…”  Who can really know God, we see him wonder?  Paul thinks back over his history of faith — the surprising vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus, the constant intervention of the Holy Spirit changing Paul’s carefully laid plans, the moments of grace he least expected, the forgiveness and strength and love that came upon him in ways he could not explain, and he realizes with profound humility that no one, least of all himself, could ever say that we have come to know God.  God is a mystery who remains beyond all of our attempts to parse and dissect God; all we can say with certainty is that God knows us, and in the end, that is enough.  


1.  Bill Bryson, Mother Tongue: English and How it Got that Way

2. The Masoretic texts developed in 7th- 10th century CE (AD) added dots to the consonants to represent vowel sounds