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‘Expansive Language’ Should be Disruptive

By Eugene R. Schlesinger

I love to confuse my students. I don’t mean that I like to befuddle them with convoluted arguments and difficult concepts, although I do that from time to time. What I mean is that I like to disrupt their often-unexamined assumptions about themselves, the world, and God (regardless of their belief in him). I teach Christian theology to undergraduates, who take my courses as part of their core curriculum. Hence, they may not have any background in Christianity, and they may not have any interest in my class, beyond checking a box on their list of degree requirements.

So, during the few weeks they are with me, I endeavor to keep Christianity weird. I keep it weird for at least three reasons. First, because pedagogically my best bet for enlisting their attention and commitment is to show them how weird and interesting our material is. Second, because this gives me the opportunity to invite my students to reconsider the Christian tradition: It isn’t necessarily what they’ve assumed it is, or what they’ve been led to believe it is. Finally, I keep Christianity weird because it is weird.

One of my favorite weird class sessions is when my students read chapters 58–60 of Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love. The text is significant enough because so much of the field of discourse is dominated by male voices and she is a woman. In fact, as is well-known, Revelations of Divine Love is among the first books in English whose author we know to be a woman. Additionally, these chapters are wonderfully disruptive, because in them Julian records a vision she had of Christ as our mother.

She beholds him on the cross, undergoing intense pains, which she construes as labor pains. Just as our mothers suffered to bring new life into the world, Christ suffered to bring us life. The wound in his side, from which blood and water flowed (John 19:34), is also the womb from which the Church is born. This is an elegant explanation of Christ’s sufferings, which are not an act of masochism (on his part) or retributive sadism (on the Father’s part). They are an act of love, specifically ordered to life for the beloved.

Julian goes further. In the Eucharist, Christ our mother breastfeeds us. Just as our mothers nourished us with their bodies, Christ feeds us with his very substance. Breastfeeding is a very intimate act, and explaining the Eucharist this way highlights the tender and personal character of Jesus’ gift of his flesh and blood to the Church.

With these images, Julian of Norwich stretches the bounds of language, and her experience of gendered differences gives expression to truths about Christ and redemption that necessarily exceed language’s capacities. She also really confuses my students, who are typically not accustomed to thinking of God in these terms. On more than one occasion, they come to class assuming that Julian must have been talking about Mary instead of Jesus.

Julian’s use of language disrupts our assumptions and opens fruitful new possibilities for thinking about the revelation of God in Christ. But, as I try to show my students by following up with Thomas Aquinas, all of our language about God stretches the boundaries of language. We consider his “Five Ways” (Summa Theologiae 1.2.1–3) and his treatment of divine simplicity and eternity (Summa Theologiae 1.3.1–8; 1.10.1–2). He is most clear about the nature of language about God in his discussion of the divine names (Summa Theologiae 1.13.1–12).

None of our language about God is fully adequate, because all of our language is determined by the proportions of our existence as timebound, finite creatures, while God is the infinite, eternal creator of space and time. None of our categories is adequate for him. As the classic analogy of being expresses it, for every similarity there is between God and any creature, there is still and always a greater dissimilarity (see Zack Guiliano’s recent explanation of this theme; also Lateran IV, “On the Error of Abbot Joachim” [1215]).

As the Episcopal Church considers the use of expansive language in liturgical revision, we would do well to remember a few factors. First, as the example of Julian shows us, there are certainly resources for expansive language in the tradition (though we should note that these resources tend to be theological and mystical, rather than liturgical). Second, when such expansive language disrupts our expectations, it can indeed open up new and fruitful ways of thinking about God. Third, all theological language is being stretched; all theological language, properly understood, is disruptive (see Michael Fitzpatrick’s recent post on liturgical revision and expanded language).

Expansive language is theologically fruitful insofar as it disrupts our expectations. That being the case, we need to be careful not to use it to fit God within the horizons of our expectations. I fear that is what is being called for in some cases. In our contemporary setting we are suspicious of paternity because of patriarchy, of lordship because of authoritarians, and so on. But if we shave off those linguistic rough edges, we risk missing out on their disruptive potential.

The liberation theologian Jon Sobrino invites us to see the disruption evident in the traditional Christological titles. The first Christians initially took titles that already existed in their world of meanings (e.g., Messiah, Lord), and applied them to Jesus to explain his identity and mission. Doing so, however, subverted those titles, because Jesus comes to provide their meaning. The confession, “Jesus is Lord,” comes to really mean “Lord is Jesus.” The contours of Christ’s person come to radically reconfigure the language we use to describe him.

I am — within the theological parameters set forth by the Memorial to General Convention (see the discussions by Jody Howard and Brandt Montgomery here on Covenant) — in favor of exploring how expanded language might be incorporated into our life of worship (see also Matthew Olver’s explanation of what sorts of liturgical changes have been authorized by General Convention). However, as we endeavor to be more reflective of the diversities of human life and experience, we must beware the temptation of using our liturgy to accomplish political ends (however worthy those ends may be). The liturgy’s purpose is the worship of God and the sanctification of human beings, and to turn the liturgy toward any other end is idolatry. Moreover, we should keep in mind that it may be precisely because the more traditional language is so out of sync with contemporary sensibilities that it affords us the opportunity for a renewed disruptive encounter with God.

 

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