Fr. Thomas Reese—former editor in chief of America magazine and now a senior analyst for Religion News Service (RNS)—recently promoted an essay on why our preferred pronoun for God should be “they.” The essay by RNS blogger Mark Silk was short and direct. He asserted that terms for God such as “Father” are metaphorical—and thus easily replaced. According to Silk, we should call God “they” rather than “he” to avoid patriarchal language: “A phrase such as ‘God the Father’ should be treated as a metaphor—and for those concerned about the embedded misogyny of the tradition, to say nothing of post-binary folks—a deeply problematic one.”
A great online cloud of witnesses quickly spotted Silk’s error: politicizing God to fit with the gender ideology preferred by the powerful, but condemned by Pope Francis as “demonic.” Silk’s argument seems to hinge on the view that all language for God is derived from human experience, and so works principally as metaphors that project human experience onto God. If our words for God are really words about us, it follows that we can only change ourselves (to become more inclusive, less patriarchal, etc.) by changing our words for God. The argument that our language for God can be a mere projection of our own experience is not new. One of the greatest modern critics of Christianity argued that all theological speech is projection. In the preface to The Essence of Christianity, Ludwig Feuerbach states his thesis clearly: “I show that the true sense of Theology is Anthropology, that there is no distinction between the predicates of the divine and human nature.” Feuerbach would be nonplussed by Silk’s preference for calling God “they”—since in his view, all the divine pronouns or predicates are really just reflections of ourselves writ large.
Writing in the wake of the Kantian turn to the subject, Feuerbach concluded that if we can really only know things within “the immanent frame,” then God too is just a projection of ourselves. Since he saw the “essence” of religion as the divinity of human nature itself, he would likely approve of Silk’s proposal.
Feuerbach was mainly wrong about religion, but he was at least partly correct that we humans do name God with words derived from the created order. St. Paul notes this in his Letter to the Romans: The invisible things of God can be known through visible things (Romans 1:20). There is no way around being embodied human beings who learn about the world and its causes through the things that have been made.
Yet God’s ways are not our ways. If our words for God are utterly tied to our creaturely understanding—wedded as they are to a visible, changeable, fallible world—how can they hit the target of divine reality? How can we avoid the Feuerbachian problem—Silk’s problem—of merely projecting human categories up into the dark sky? Rather than adopt the categories of human experience, even fashionable ones, we must purify our words for God. The quintessential articulation of our need to purify the divine names comes to us through St. Thomas Aquinas—though he is, of course, summarizing a great tradition of reflection from Aristotle to St. Augustine and especially Dionysius the Areopagite.
St. Thomas charts a middle path through two great temptations. One he calls “univocal predication” and the other “equivocal predication.” The univocal error is holding that the words we derive from the created order can travel a metaphysical superhighway to hit the target of divine reality perfectly. The opposite error is equivocal predication. Those who hold to the equivocal view of divine names tend to think that none of our words hit the target of divine reality, and so we might as well regard all God’s names as metaphors. It’s easy to see how this ancient error actually lends itself to the problem of Feuerbachian projection. If you believe you cannot really know God through the divine names, then your language for God takes on a different purpose altogether.
St. Thomas’s middle path is through “analogy,” a mirror that reflects both similarity and dissimilarity. As St. Paul teaches, we know God through the mirror of the created world. This presupposes that God is supremely knowable, but because we see through a glass darkly, we must navigate between our likeness and unlikeness to God. Analogical predication requires that we purify our names for God by identifying first what the divine name affirms (via causalitatis) about God as cause from the things made, and then what must be denied (via negativa), since the word is derived from the created order. Finally, we make the “eminential” turn (via eminentiae) in understanding the divine name solely as a divine perfection. The tradition calls this process of purification the triplex via—the threefold way of purifying all our words for God so that they can truly hit the target of the divine reality. Speaking well of God requires that we speak analogically so that we can avoid idolatry: confusing the Creator with creation.
We know God as Father, then, by analogy. As Aquinas puts it, God is the “primary analogate”—human fathers are only fathers by way of their analogy to God, who is “Our Father” as the uncaused cause and governor of all he has made. When we call him “Our Father,” we are not saying that God is like a human father, but rather that human fathers are like God. Contra Silk, then, the phrase “God the Father” is not metaphorical but literal. The name is said more truly of God than us. As Chesterton pithily put the same point: “God is not a symbol of goodness; goodness is a symbol of God.” Finally, Aquinas teaches that the most proper names for God are the ones he reveals. In the Old Testament, the most proper name for God is YHWH, while in the New Testament, the most proper name for God is revealed by Jesus Christ, who in the most intimate way calls God “Father” and teaches his disciples to address God as “our Father,” too.
To speak well of God, we must not conform ourselves to the rapidly changing fashions of the woke world, nor should we project those fashions onto God lest we fall into idolatry. Rather, we must conform our words to God’s revelation of himself in Jesus Christ. Changing our pronouns will not heal us. It is we who must be changed through the washing of the Incarnate Word, who alone can heal and carry us to the arms of our Father—on earth as it is in heaven.
C. C. Pecknold is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at The Catholic University of America.
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