How is it That God Speaks? by Kelly Brown Douglas


Rev.-Dr.-Kelly-Brown-Douglas - Version 2A few weeks ago, after delivering a sermon, a young woman approached me and said she had a question about my sermon.  I of course braced myself for the question as I ran my sermon back over in my head trying to remember what I could have said that might have troubled her in some way. As it turned out, hers was a rather thoughtful question, reflective of an insightful theological observation. She said she noticed as I preached that I never used a pronoun for God. She asked if this was intentional. She went on to say that by not using a pronoun for god I forced her to try to image “the way god is, not the way god looks.” I complemented the young woman for her keen observation and astute theological insight. I responded that my avoidance of pronouns when speaking about god was in fact intentional. I explained to her that given the limitations of our finite language in trying to speak of a god who is infinite, that not only are we better served, but perhaps god is also better served when we avoid pronouns, or even nouns when speaking about god.  Why, because we should try to speak about god the way in which god speaks to us.  And so this begs the question: How it is that god speaks?

The god in which I have faith does not speak to us as a static being. Rather, god speaks to us as a dynamic, restless force in our world. This, for me, is what god’s revelation in Jesus is all about.  The gospel of John tells us that in the beginning was the word and the word was with god, the word was god and the word became flesh. Inasmuch as Jesus is the incarnate word of god speaking to us, then for us to speak about god the way in which god speaks is for us to enflesh that very word that became flesh for us.  What then does this mean? How are we to speak about god?

We are to speak about god by first and foremost acting in ways that are Worthy.  Being worthy starts with recognizing that each and every one of us is a child of god.  For regardless of whatever or whoever else claim us,  we are claimed first by god, we belong to god, we are god’s, that fact alone is what gives us worth, sacred worth, it is what makes us worthy, and so we are to act as the worthy people we are. Fundamental to doing so is recognizing the sacred worth of all others. It cannot be said enough – there is no human being that is not worthy, worthy of being treated with divine dignity even as they are worthy of acting with divine dignity. Put simply, what we expect from ourselves we should expect from one another, and what we expect from each other, we should expect from ourselves—it is an expectation of worthiness. It is in being worthy that we speak of god.

And it is in being Opportunistic. We must seize every opportunity in time to act in ways that make god’s loving presence real in the time that is ours.  Time is precious. It is precious, I believe, not because it is fleeting but because it is filled always with the possibilities of making real that which is most precious to us, that is the love that is god. I think of time as being pregnant with the possibilities of god’s love.  So at all times and in each time we have the opportunity to speak of  love that is god, which means at all times, and in each time we are to be nothing less than loving..

To speak about god means for us to also be Receptive – receptive to God’s forgiving grace. To be human is to mess up, to make mistakes, to sin. No matter how great we think we are, sin is an unavoidable reality of our human existence. Yet, as unavoidable as sin is, we do not have to be defined by it. For there is no sin committed that is not a sin forgiven, forgiven by the forgiving grace of god. This is a grace that frees us. It frees us to grow into our better selves. It frees us to believe in ourselves the way in which god believes in us, that is to believe that we are good and that we can be who god has called us to be.  Through forgiveness god frees us to become better people, and it is through forgiveness that we can help one another become better people. It is through forgiveness, not condemnation that we grow into our best selves.  And so, we are to be receptive to god’s forgiving grace as it applies to ourselves and to others. In doing so, we speak about god.

And finally if we are to speak about god we must be Daring. We must dare to live proleptically, that is, as if, god’s promised future is already. The manner in which we conduct our living should be but a foretaste of god’s time. This means that we must live as if every single human being, regardless of their language, their color, their country of origin, their income, their education, deserves food, clothing, shelter, care, because they do. We are to live as if the bigotry, fear, stereotypes, and hateful ‘isms’ that separate us one from another are no more. We are to live as if compassion not condemnation, justice not judgment, and righteousness not self-righteousness are the watchwords of our humanity. We are to live as if the peace of god that is justice has come to earth. Even if these ways of acting are not the ways of our world, we must be daring enough to make them the way of our living

To speak about god is then more than a matter of using words, it is a matter of embodying the very word that was god. We do this when we are at least worthy, opportunistic, receptive daring forces in the world as was the word of god that some confess as becoming flesh.

Now, why am I talking about this on this day? Because, it was as I thought about Martin Luther King, Jr. yesterday, that my conversation with the young woman at church came back to me. Why?

Because I realized, that as eloquent as a speaker as King was, the most powerful words he spoke about god were not those that came through his speeches. Rather, they were those that came through the way in which he was a force, a movement for god’s loving justice in our world. King was clear that it was his Christian faith that propelled him into the civil rights movement.  For him, his commitment to the struggle for black freedom was nothing less than his testimony of faith, that is, his way of speaking about god.

As much god-talk as there is in our world today, not many people are really speaking about their god or gods for that matter. For if they were, I have little doubt that our world would be a much different place, perhaps more reflective of the “beloved community” about which King spoke—a world more reflective of the god that is always more than a pronoun.

“Yes,” I said to the woman after church, “I am purposeful in not using pronouns when I speak about god.” Why? Because I try my best to use words that reflect the word of god to us, words that inspire and empower us to speak about god in the worthy, opportunistic, receptive, daring way in which god speaks to us. These are the words that I am thinking about on this day.

Kelly Brown Douglas is Professor and Director of the Religion Program at Goucher College where she has held the Elizabeth Conolly Todd Distinguished Professorship. She was recently awarded The Goucher College Caroline Doebler Bruckerl Award for outstanding faculty achievement. Kelly is a leading voice in the development of a womanist theology, Essence magazine counts Douglas “among this country’s most distinguished religious thinkers, teachers, ministers, and counselors.”  She has published numerous essays and articles in national publications, and her books include The Black ChristSexuality and the Black ChurchWhat’s Faith Got to Do With It?: Black Bodies/Christian Soul.  Black Bodies and the Black Church: A Blues Slant is her most recently released book (Palgrave Macmillan, Fall 2012). Kelly is also a priest in the Episcopal Church and has served as Associate Priest at Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Washington D.C. for over 20 years.



Categories: General, God-talk, Theology, Womanist Theology

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12 replies

  1. I appreciate your use of lower case when speaking of god and Upper Case when naming the qualities by which we embody god. Would love to hear you preach!

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    • Thank you Elizabeth and thank you for noticing my emphasis. In actual fact the word god is meaningless unless it signifies certain embodied realities or activity in the world. Tillich was right long ago that god is simply a symbol that must point beyond itself. I tend to place god in lower case as a reminder of that, thus resisting the worship of god, forgetting the reality or realities that it is pointing to.

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      • I really like that description of god as “a symbol that points beyond itself.” One of the issues I have with people who follow mainstream religions is the tendency to take things too literally, rather than thinking about the myths/symbolism and trying to expand one’s mind. One of my favorite quotes is from the “Charge of the Goddess” that Starhawk wrote: “If that which you seek you find not within yourself, you will never find it without.” There is a certain tension between looking beyond ourselves and looking within ourselves.

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  2. The sex of god is indeed a tricky notion. Even using the terms “god” and “goddess” are limiting. I have always appreciated the Native American approach, i.e., “The Great Spirit”. Once in a mythology class, after talking about Native American stories, I asked the class to draw a picture of “god” as Native Americans viewed god. One student in particular created a brilliant image. It was a cloud of many colors, emanating an energy from its core. Ever since, that is how I have envisioned this energy, a whirl of many colors, filled with the essence of all life. I have tried many times to paint this myself, but alas, I don’t have the talent. Perhaps some day. Thank you, Kelly, for evoking that slim, lovely memory.

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  3. I’m with Elizabeth here. I could hear your voice ring out as I read this post, Kelly, and thought to myself, “Wow! I wonder what her preaching sounds like!!”

    Great post. As a Unitarian Universalist (UU), I resonate especially strongly with your paragraph on “Worth.” Our first principle holds that “we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” And as a feminist witch iI resonate with it as well. In the “Reclaiming Principles of Unity,” it states that “All living beings are worthy of respect.” I think this expansion of worth and dignity is also implicit in the UU 7th principle that states that “we affirm and promote the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”

    God/dess for me is also “a dynamic, restless force in our world.” As Mary Daly said so long ago, “God is a verb.” As a feminist witch, I experience myself as an embodied manifestation of the living being who is Gaia, our sacred Mother Earth. Her immanence calls me to live out my spirituality in the world, just as the “word made flesh” calls you to do the same. We both are called to be “Daring.” If there had been ministers like you when I was growing up, maybe I would still be Christian. Thanks for this stirring call to be the future we want to see.

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  4. Yes, loved the description of god as a “dynamic, restless force in our world.” It is increasingly the only way I can think of the divine. So why has our impulse through the ages been to reduce the divine to voiceless statues, embellished to excess even in the midst of extreme poverty and suffering?Felt this keenly
    in Argentina as we travelled through a hurting country so filled with veneration for the Virgin of Lujan. http://dawnmorais.com/2014/01/21/on-the-road-to-lujan/

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    • In reading your comment as well as Mary Ann’s I am reminded of Karen Armstrong’s work that makes clear to us that in the period she describes as the “axial age” religious commitment was not a matter of right thinking, or allegiance to particular doctrines, etc. rather it was a matter of doing and was about a way of behaving in the world. Religious belief and commitment was inseparable from following some version of “The Golden Rule.” This movement away from religion as a way of living not thinking is no doubt related to the movement toward seeing god as a static being and the object of abstract theological speculation. somewhere above us, essentially seeing god as a noun as opposed to a verb. To see god as a noun/pronoun means that our focus becomes right thinking about that god as well as the proper worship of that god, as opposed to being in right relationship to that god which is a force in our world, such relationship of course implies that we must be in right relationship with each other and the rest god’s creation, and thus require us being where god is in the world, i.e in the strife and strivings for justice.
      These are my thoughts for now. Thank you and Mary Ann for your thought provoking responses.

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  5. Wow, gorgeous! I would love to use this as a sermon for our mosque! I would love to be present at one of your sermons!

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  6. (I tried to comment, but it got lost, so forgive the repeat if this gets posted twice). This was absolutely gorgeous. I would love to present it as a sermon at our mosque. It speaks exactly to our vision of the divine. Thank you.

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  7. Thank you for your kind response Laury.

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  8. My home is in Northern Virginia and I intend to hear you speak soon.

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