Have you ever wondered at the peculiarity of language? It is a tool for communication to be sure, but that which it communicates is the cause of a labyrinth of meaning and significance. Now the purpose of this post is not to dive into etymology per se; instead I wish to raise the question:
How does our use of words define, categorize and even restrict our understanding?
I see three challenges with language.
Firstly, language confines. A simple example like the word tree which is used for a very tangible object we can all see, touch and even smell is prone to failure from the outset because the word itself cannot encapsulate all that a tree is. It becomes all the more difficult when we name something increasingly intangible such as summer, sky, night. No one word then can fully bear the full weight of meaning that it seeks to define.
Secondly, language changes. The denotive meaning of a word may change with time depending on many variables. For example the word earth in the Middle Ages was denotive of a flat surface on which we live, but through scientific study this denotive aspect changed to round. In addition to the denotive meaning changing over time, the connotations that surround words are endless. For my generation the use of the word sick can literally mean not well, but it can also be slang for something great, radical, awesome or disturbing.
Thirdly, language varies culturally. For many words there are no direct translations from language to language. For example, there is no Thai word that corresponds with the english word integrity. Thus as we move from language to language with a certain frame of thought, it will inevitably be impacted by the etymological reach of the language at hand.
All this to say, we must understand the confines of our language. When we acknowledge this it gets interesting, really interesting.
GOD. That 3-letter word we use to depict the Creator of the universe, the Savior of the world, the Word, the Healer, the Comforter, the Trinity and so on. Does our use of language in depicting God confine our understanding of all that He is? Do we suffer from a form of reductionism where we need to simplify and compartmentalize God so as to satisfy our own finite impediment? Barth writes:
“As ministers we ought to speak of God. We are human, however, and so cannot speak of God. We ought therefore to recognize both our obligation and our inability and by that very recognition give God the glory. This is our perplexity.”
Karl Barth. 1957, The Word of God and the Word of man, p.186
Walter Brueggemann in his book, Theology of the Old Testament (p. 230), reflects on how Israel approached their understanding of God:
“In Israel’s testimony about Yahweh, nouns stand in relation to adjectives as adjectives stand in relation to verbs, so that nouns are an even bolder, larger, and more generalizing testimony to Yahweh. Thus if Israel can say about many occasions that Yahweh “saves,” and then moves to an adjective, saying “Yahweh is saving” (with a participle), Israel can eventually use a noun: “Yahweh is savior.”
In other words, their approach to God was of an inductive nature: as they experienced God to be time and time again, so they derived names that denoted such action. These names then were not to confine but to give voice for the action of God in their lives that they passed on from generation to generation through narrative. This kind of rhetoric opens a wonderful world of approaching God not from a pre-conceived and finite categorization, but from an explorative premise.
With this I am not saying that we should be re-defining who God is or adding to what the Bible reveals about Him. Instead we should be looking at the biblical texts that convey God to us and understand that they are written on a level comprehensible to our finite minds and cannot fully emanate who He is. At best they can convey God only as well as a drop of water can convey the ocean. So let us say that God is good, but let us also dive in exploration of that goodness knowing that it will always exceed that which we can comprehend.