Thursday, June 28, 2012

Human language does not limit God: A note on Agape.

Some interpreters claim that the Greek noun agape or the Greek verb agapao, translated as love in English, is the ultimate or sole designation of divine love or God’s love.  Simply, not true, at least not in the biblical book the Gospel of John.  In fact, humans, as well as God, are the subjects of the Greek verb agapao in John’s Gospel. And sometimes the verb agapao is used in a positive sense and sometimes in a negative way.  Sometimes the Greek verb phileo (also translated love) is used to describe God’s love and is not limited to human love.  For example, “ for God so loved (agapao) the world” (3:6); “the people loved (agapao) darkness rather than light” (3:19); “the Father loves (phileo) the son and shows him all that he himself is doing” (5:20); “those who love (phileo) their lives lose it” (12:25); or  “as the Father has loved (agapao) me, so I have loved (agapao) you” (15:9). The writer may have preferred one word over the other at times or used one word more often, but that does not make one word significantly different in meaning than the other word.  And if by chance it did, such significance need not be God’s, but ours.
God is not and will not be limited by human language, whether that language is Greek, Hebrew or English. The author of John’s Gospel seemed to know the limitations of language when it comes to describing God’s love, even if we try to interpret his Gospel to make it “preach” a certain way.  Language is for our benefit to communicate with one another. God does not need language the same way we do.  God created the world with speech and is not to be equated with whatever “speech” God may have used.  The Word that was with God and was God at John 1:1 is not to be equated with human language.
God can speak to us and manifest God’s self in any language God chooses, whether it is English, Spanish, Arabic, Swahili or Coptic.  No language is theologically superior to another any more than any ethnic group is superior to another.  And God can choose not to “speak” but to act.  In fact a reading of John’s Gospel shows that John’s Jesus prioritizes action above speech. How we treat each other is more important than the particular language and words we use. No language can contain or perfectly express the love of God, only imperfectly.  So it behooves us once again to be more humble about our speech and our interpretations and to be more concerned with how we embody or practically express God’s love as we interact with each other.   It was the Apostle Paul who wrote at 1 Corinthians 13:1, If I speak with languages of humans and angels and have not love, I am nothing but noise.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

A Personal Note on The problem of Decontextualized Public Readings

 I was recently asked to read a scripture at a public event.  I chose my scripture, as requested, and submitted it. A day later, I was sent a “recommended” NIV scripture reading. I looked at the text and knew/felt instantaneously that I could not read it. I asked the sender of the email if it was really “recommended” so that I could stick with the text I originally submitted at their request.  Her boss replied that he “preferred” that I read the “recommended” scripture.  I replied that they should choose another person to perform the public reading; I could not. And I did not think the venue the proper place to engage in an un(sus)expected critique of the guest’s text.

Having just completed my lectures for a new prep course “Postcolonial Biblical Criticism” in which I challenged students not to simply reinscribe oppressive, imperialistic and/or unjust relations, descriptions, characterizations, and representations found in the sacred scriptures without contextualizing, unraveling and critiquing them, I could not do it. I barely blinked between the time my heart said no and my fingers keyed the words with my final reply; I could not read the text. Please choose another person to read it. 

Over the years, I’ve challenged my students to do the same critical and contextualized reading in different courses.  I could not with enthusiasm, spiritual fervor, or oratorical sophistication recite a sacred text in which God is likened to an exacting slave master, even if the translation reads servant instead of slave (both translations of the Greek word doulos).

In my past life as an uncritical, doctrinally circumscribed, and passive bible reader whose consciousness about oppressions in the text, beyond the issue of women called to preach, had not been raised, I would have read the text without blinking.  And no doubt many of my students will read such texts without critique and without a second thought (just as many seminarians revert to using nonexclusive language in their sermons and writing). But some will be uncomfortable, at the least.  And they should be uncomfortable with such “texts of terror” (a phrase derived from Phyllis Trible), for slavery often allowed for the social and bodily dismemberment of people as well as the brutal rape and murder of human beings considered as property to be bought, sold, used, and abused at will.  And ancient Roman slavery was no less brutal and inhumane than slavery in any other slave society. Slavery in any context is an ideologically justified systemic and institutionalized commodification of human beings who are seized, dehumanized, brutalized, and sexually abused; it involves the exacting of under- or unpaid-labor from one human being by another.  Slavery is no less terrorizing than the rape and dismemberment of a Levite’s concubine wife or a sister of Judah. Just because it is in the Bible, does not make it okay. Just because some biblical writers had no problem likening God/Jesus to a slave master, does not mean we should not be bothered. If I have contributed to a student’s discomfort with “texts of terror,” then my learning and teaching is not in vain.