The Common Good
May 2006

Partial Language

by David Rensberger | May 2006

Brian McLaren’s article “Found in Translation” offers some delightfully thought-provoking new images for God’s way and our sharing in it, but I’m concerned that he ...

Brian McLaren’s article “Found in Translation” offers some delightfully thought-provoking new images for God’s way and our sharing in it, but I’m concerned that he seems to dismiss some of the old ones too easily.

The metaphor of God’s kingdom does carry some baggage, having to do with both the disappearance of kings from our world and with overtones of domination. But it also includes elements that are theologically vital. For one thing, it expresses God’s difference from us, the difference God chose to bridge in the incarnation. In Christ God became one of us, but in essence God is not one of us, and it is this difference, this transcendence, that draws us to worship and adore our Maker.

As McLaren hinted, Jesus’ use of the metaphor of kingship also contrasts God with earthly rulers and challenges their claims to ultimate power and allegiance. This challenge is something countercultural Christianity cannot afford to lose in its witness and action in the political sphere.

If “kingdom” sounds patriarchal, there are gender-neutral terms that work as well or better: sovereignty, reign, rule, etc. These carry the connotation of dominance, and concern about this is the reason McLaren also struggles with Jesus’ prayer “Your will be done.” The linking of will to coercion in the history of the 20th century is certainly something to be wary of. But I suspect the more basic issue has to do with obedience. As democratic, individualistic, autonomous Americans, we don’t like the idea of obeying anyone, including God.

A divine king who insisted on having his own way at whatever cost to us would indeed be oppressive. But the God made known in Jesus is a sovereign whose will is love and whose way is incarnational self-surrender and self-sacrifice. Service to this God is indeed perfect freedom. The joy in utter abandonment to the God who reigns over all is one of the deepest themes of Christian spirituality, and not one we should give up because we fear both obedience and paradox.

All metaphors fail, including God as king and God as dreamer. To say God is sovereign is not to say everything true of sovereigns is true of God, any more than everything true of dreamers or revolutionaries is true of God. That’s how metaphors work: They are all partial and incomplete, they all lead to paradox, and so they need to be hedged with other metaphors and direct statements. There are good reasons for creating new images for what we hear God calling us to be and to do in Jesus, but there are also good reasons for hesitating to throw away language from the past without thinking about what we will lose in the process.

David Rensberger

Atlanta, Georgia

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