I placed this text in the pulpit of Trinity Church in Mattoon when I arrived there this morning about 20 minutes before the start of the liturgy. Then, just before the Gospel, the congregation was asked to sing a hymn with the following lines:
Most loving Parent, Child of joys and pains
creative Spirit, life force that sustains,
in bone and flesh, we touch your gentle hand,
your face we see in water, air, and land.
In ev’ry making, each creative dream
and in the flow of life’s great healing stream,
when love is born or people reconciled,
we share your life, O Parent, Spirit, Child.
These are the third and fourth stanzas of #743 from the collection Wonder, Love, and Praise, an officially authorized supplement to the Episcopal Church's Hymnal 1982. The text is by W. L. Wallace (b. 1933).
I was distracted during the first two verses by the process of loading the thurible with incense for the gospel procession. Then I rose to join the singing and encountered these words.
First, let me say that I absolve both the priest-in-charge and the organist (who chooses the hymns) from any culpability. They can be forgiven for assuming that a hymn text in an authorized collection is "good to go." But I knew immediately that I couldn't just let it slide, and that I would need to avail myself of the impending opportunity to set the record straight. I needed to exercise my proper role as a teacher of the faith. Homiletics and catechesis are two distinct enterprises, and I normally endeavor to maintain that distinction. Today, however, I let the line get blurry, and I told the congregation exactly why I was doing so. What follows is a more carefully organized digest of what I said. It is intended to be more pastoral than academic, so it is neither comprehensive nor precise.
No language about God is adequate to denote the actual reality of God. There is only more and less inadequate language. Theological orthodoxy is about adhering to the least inadequate language available. The doctrine of the Trinity evolved over a nearly 500 year period, with an abundance of tears, sweat, and--who knows?--maybe even some blood along the way. The "least inadequate" language to emerge from that process was "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." Words matter, and those words are the foundational, non-negotiable standard of trinitarian orthodoxy. The reality of the Holy Trinity is vastly more expansive than those words. But the path to that vast expanse lies through "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." There is no shortcut. There is no bypass. There is no alternate route.
Many who are motivated by ideological concerns rooted in feminism have expended a good bit of energy in recent decades trying to find that elusive alternate route. They have argued that words like "Father" and "Son" are metaphors, and that the Church should be free to find other metaphors that point to the same underlying truth. One widely-used alternative to the traditional trinitarian formula is Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. Another is that which we encounter in the hymn that roused my ire: Parent, Child, and Spirit.
The central problem with this argument, as I (and many others) see it, is that it fails to recognize the distinction between the categories of metaphor and analogy. A metaphor is a poetic device. Its function is to be evocative, to stimulate imagination further in the direction toward which it points. A metaphor is, for that reason, open-ended and inductive. An analogy is a linguistic and pedagogical device. Its function is to serve as a sort of model, a mechanism that provides access to a reality that is not inherently accessible (such as the reality of God). An analogy is, for that reason, constrained and deductive.
To call God "Father" is not merely to employ a metaphor. God is not merely like a Father. An an analogical predicate, "Father" is God's proper name. "Parent" is a clinical abstraction; we conveniently group mothers and fathers together and label them "parents" for social and legal and other purposes, but in actual fact, there are no (presumably interchangable) "parents," but only mothers and fathers. So we can say that God is mother-like, or evinces maternal qualities, and to do so would be to speak metaphorically in an entirely appropriate manner. We may or may not experience God as father-like, but God is, nonetheless, properly denoted as Father. And however mother-like our experience of God may be, God is never Mother. We cannot name God as Mother.
Similarly, "child" is a genre abstracted from the concrete reality of daughters and sons. Jesus was born as a male human being--a boy who became a man--the son of Mary and, for purposes of public consumption at the time, Joseph. That much is fairly non-controversial (save among those who question the historicity of Jesus to begin with). But I will, in the boldness of the moment, push further, and suggest that, even before becoming incarnate in the womb of his human mother, the Eternal Word, the logos who was present and instrumental at the moment the universe was created (spoken into existence), was and has ever been the Son of the Father, and not the Child of the Parent. To employ an analogy is to acknowledge a layer of separation from the reality that the analogy predicates. But it is not to create an abstraction that can be divorced from that reality.
So ... I got a little more technically wonky here than I did in my actual sermon. And if there are any professional academic theologians reading this, there are probably some faces in palms. The safest thing to do on Trinity Sunday is not to say anything about the Trinity. That was my intention. Do read my originally-planned sermon! I regret the necessity of the detour. But I don't regret doing it. I would have been derelict otherwise.