But as it confesses God the Church also confesses both the humanity and responsibility of its action. It realizes it is exposed to fierce temptation as it speaks of God, and it realizes it must give an account to God for the way in which it speaks. The first and last and decisive answer to this twofold compulsion consists in the fact that it rests content with the grace of the One whose strength is mighty in weakness. But in so doing it recognizes and takes up as an active Church the further human task of criticizing and revising its speech about God.
– Karl Barth (Church Dogmatics; 1.1.1.)
This is the second paragraph of the entirety of Barth’s incredible work “Church Dogmatics.
I have thought a lot in the last two years about our language we employ when we speak about God. I have wanted to come up with a good rubric for discerning our language about God before we go public with it. I feel this is especially important for me, as I often speak and preach and teach about God. My task of creating a working rubric is still in process, but here are some beginning “measures” that I feel are important.
1. What fruit does our speaking about God bear? Proving someone wrong is not fruit. God does not exist so that you may stand correct before your adversaries – political, religious or otherwise. Rather, our language about God ought to bear fruit on his behalf. When we speak about God, we ought to discern at least the sowing of seed that bears the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. When Paul offers us this list in Galatians 5, he is not saying “These are good things. Be this.” He is saying, if we live life in the Spirit, we will be able to discern these things coming to bear in the world around us. This, I am convinced should be the first measure. And it is important to note here, that fruitfulness is a different “measure” than effectiveness. Effectiveness will not work as a moral calculus for grading our language about God. For example, if our aim is prove someone wrong on Facebook, publicly shame them etc., then we might be very effective using language about God to do so. However, we failed to bear fruit for God. It is a moral victory and a theological failure – in that instance. I need not point out that the “feeling” of satisfaction that comes with being correct will not work either as our guide.
2. Does it honor our father and mother? It is important that our theological language – language about God – be historically accurate. What we say about God ought to be weighed against the history of faithful speech about God. I realize this is a daunting task. But in the mold of Paul, we must not permit a lazy man to eat. In other words, if we say something on behalf of, or, about God that is unfaithful all because we were too lazy to check our speech against the history of speech about God, then what reward is there in that? The early church fathers, the saints, and scripture itself help guide us, like loving parents toward faithful speech about God. And I am not talking about grabbing a quick text, robbed of its context, that seems on the surface to support us. I am talking about the self-sacrificial discipline of working on something for weeks and months before you open your mouth to speak it. I am talking about submitting our language about God to God in prayer. Go on. Ask yourself this question. Do I think before I speak about God? It should be a fearful thing to speak about God. God is not a political tool. Cover your mouth before you speak. Honor your Fathers and Mothers in the faith.
3. Does it endorse “the world as it is?” I cannot say this strongly enough. If our language about God underwrites or endorses “the way things are” or “the way things used to be” then it is not faithful speech. God is not trying to orient us around the way it was 50 years ago. God is not trying underwrite this or that stance to justify this or that political move. God is trying to move humanity toward the New Heavens and the New Earth. God is trying to aim us at his will being done “on earth as it is in heaven”. God is calling all things to submit to the Lordship of Jesus the Messiah of Israel. God is breathing the life of his Spirit into all things. The world “as it is” will not do, and language about God never endorses the way things are. The reason God favored the prophets, was that they had the courage to speak into the world the reality of the way the world was. When the rich are getting rich, the rich don’t want to hear that the world is not as God wants it to be. Rather, they want you to say that God endorses the world as it is. But that is not faithful speech regarding God. Prophets spoke truthfully about the plight of the poor and the weakness of religious systems that ignored such a reality.
4. Do we ever change? When was the last time you spoke about God in such a way that it demanded your own transformation? Or does your language about only demand that others change? Who are you when you speak about God but a person of unclean lips. Repent and turn to God.
5. How do you know? If I have learned anything from Stanley Hauerwas, it is to ask the question “How do you know?” What a great question! I ask it all the time in teaching contexts. And when you speak about God we ought to have the self-discipline to ask ourselves the same question. “How do I know that is right?” Well because it says so in I Timothy. “How do you know it says that?” Well because it just does? “How do you know that is what it means?” Well it just seems like the right interpretation. “How do you know what seems right to you isn’t actually wrong?” I know what you are thinking – this sort of obsessive questioning has no end. Well… that is exactly the point. It never ends. Who says it should? What? You mean to tell me you can be certain about all things “God?” That is what you call idolatry. The opposite of faith is not doubt. It’s certainty.
Are there other “measures” that you would add to my rubric that would help us discern the faithfulness of our language about God?