This is the eighth post in a ten-week series on reading Sarah Coakley’s Powers and Submissions with my friend and mentor, Pastor Jason Byassee.
I love the scale of the questions you raise. One of my favorite things about graduate school classes was the chance to raise a big question and then watch a major intellect work on it. I remember asking Geoffrey Wainwright about a contention of John Zizioulas’s: that if only Augustine had learned a little Greek he might have read the eastern fathers and not come to so gloomy a view of the human person as he did with his doctrine of original sin. Surely God watches over the church enough that one person’s failure to learn a language wouldn’t cause a church of billions of people over thousands of years to be permanently impaired—right? Half an hour later Wainwright hadn’t answered my question (how could he?), but it was certainly fun to watch him work.
When I was at your stage, colleagues and I pushed around Nicholas Lash with a similar question to yours. Lash was visiting for a semester from Cambridge, where he was the first Catholic chair holder since his predecessor lost his head in the Reformation (does clear the mind a bit). Lash describes “Father” and “Son” as metaphors in his Believing Three Ways in One God (a book title that already runs to the modalistic). Lash, as a Barthian, felt that we don’t know what “Father” means when applied to God, but we’re bound to use the description by scripture and tradition. Those of us reared on Wainwright pushed back, suggesting the terms are more like proper names, and so more unsubstitutable than “metaphor” would suggest.
The point, Erin, is that really smart people don’t know the answer to your question.
In the patristic era it became clear that “Father” and “Son” were not unproblematic. But the people who came to be seen as orthodox responded that the titles have a pride of place in scriptural usage across the New Testament, and that they appropriately name the one key thing: the Father and the Son are the same “thing,” just as creaturely parents and children are the same species. If the Son is not as divine as the Father is, he can’t save us. Yet they were at pains to eliminate the false meanings: there is no sexual generation involved, no mother involved, and no change implied within the Godhead. Origen came up with the crazy suggestion that the language of generation—parenthood—must refer to an eternal begetting. Who’s ever heard of an eternal generation? No one, then or now. Crazy as it was, the language was the best description we could come up with: the Father begets the Son eternally. Try to find an alternative that makes biblical and philosophical sense. You won’t.
Which brings us to feminist alternatives. I myself don’t care for gender neutral pronouns for God. God is not an “it,” but is “personal,” the living God—our “personalities” are a dim reflection of the One who is life itself. And, sure enough, I find most church members react to female substitutes with a horror that suggests they assume that God must be male (all the “he’s” you mention in Isaiah not the least reason why). Yet the church fathers insist God is not male, not a creature, has no sexual parts, is no more “he” than “she.”
So . . . where’s that leave us? Back where we were, trembling before the liturgy, nervous to show (not just tell) that God’s not a boy. Of course what we should really fear is unfaithfulness in the presence of the fiery One who meets us in Mary’s belly with judgment and grace. So as we lead those whom Coakley describes as “being progressively reborn in the likeness of the Son,” how do we name her? Maybe, when we put the question that way, the answer is clear.