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.