Grammar, Meet God

Michelangelo, “The Creation of Adam” (1508-1512)

Although I care deeply about language and am passionately interested in its origins and characteristics, I have no claims as a linguist. Therefore, what follows comes more from my heart than my head–mostly emotion tempered with a bit of knowledge cobbled together from lifelong interest, a graduate-school class on modern English grammar, and a few quick searches on Google. And I suppose it includes a smattering of faith as well.

Let’s start with nouns. No matter what our level of linguistic expertise, we all have a strong sense of what it is to be a noun. We learned in the third grade that a noun is the name of a person, place, or thing. Then we expanded our understanding of “thing” to include abstract ideas like . . . well, interest and grammar and faith, and even metaphors like heart and head. And we pretty instinctively know how nouns behave, so we are willing to accept the existence of gerunds and infinitives–i.e., that verb forms can actually act in a sentences as nouns. Linguistically, a noun can be the subject of a verb, the object of a verb, or the object of a preposition. Syntactically (in English), nouns can occur with definite and indefinite articles and with adjectives.

Speaking of which, let’s move on, back to the third grade again, where we learned that an adjective is a word that modifies (or describes) a noun. In linguistics, of course, it gets a lot more complicated than that. For example, adjectives were historically considered as a subclass of nouns, but for now, we’ll leave it at that. In English, we also have adverbs, similar to adjectives in their modifying or qualifying property; they modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs.

But I digress. My concern here is one of instinct and gut rather than the niceties of grammar and syntax. Nouns seem to give weight to a sentence. There couldn’t even be a sentence without a noun. They can be and do. Along with verbs, they are the building blocks of any language (at least any language I can imagine).

Resorting to the imagination is a fairly accurate representation of my grasp of linguistics, but even that minuscule understanding dwarfs what I know about ancient Hebrew. Nevertheless, we’ll forge ahead to the Sinai Desert–specifically to the scene on Mount Horeb where Moses encounters God in the burning bush:

Moses said unto God, “Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them, ‘The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you’; and they shall say to me, ‘What is his name?’what shall I say unto them?” And God said unto Moses, “I AM That I AM”: and he said, “Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, ‘I AM hath sent me unto you.'” And God said moreover unto Moses, “Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, ‘the Lord God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, hath sent me unto you’: this is my name for ever, and this is my memorial unto all generations (Exodus 3:13-15 KJV). 

Eugène Pluchart, “God Appears to Moses in the Burning Bush” (1848)

There are several interpretations of the cryptic I AM in both the Judaic and the Christian traditions (I am who I am, I am who am, I am he who is, I will be what I will be, I will create what I will create), each of which expresses a slightly different understanding of the nature of God. Again, despite the niceties, important though they be, what I want to take from this discussion is simply the parts of speech involved. From what I can glean on Wikipedia, the Hebrew word translated here is the first person of the verb “to be,” which is at once in the past, present, and future tenses. The point I am making is that in both languages, even God refers to himself as a noun (well, a pronoun) plus a verb–the basic grammatical sentence.

This utterance by I AM conforms with my instinctive feeling about nouns and verbs–as well as my instinctive faith about God as the sine qua non of being, the material cause, the “but-for” of existence itself. God does not use adjectives in referring to himself for the same reason we do not: omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience admit no qualifiers.

The Book of Common Prayer (1979)

Leave it to a group of overly politicized Episcopalians, always obsessed with the issue du jour, to decide otherwise.

Every Sunday during most of the liturgical year, across the Anglican Communion, the eucharistic service begins:

Celebrant: Blessed be God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
People: And blessed be his kingdom, now and forever. Amen.

These words confirm in fact and in spirit the foregoing discussion, using nouns to identify the three members of the Holy Trinity. Further, the name (noun) of one of those members is modified/qualified/described by an adjective; precisely this association is one of the linguistic qualities of a noun. Another is the ability to replaced by a pronoun, and the “his” in the people’s response not only does just that, but it also provides subtle grammatical corroboration of the oneness inherent in the trinitarian mystery.

Of course, it’s the other grammatical quality of “his”–gender (in former, more reasonable times, by the way, a purely grammatical term)–that has led my left-leaning coreligionists of the Episcopal faith toward prayer-book revision. At the 79th General Convention of the Episcopal Church in July of this year, in “respon[se] to the needs [sic] of Episcopalians across the church” and by a vote of 167 to 33, the deputies voted to authorize “new liturgical texts” for trial use until the next major revision of the Book of Common Prayer, “so God can be celebrated in all genders.” All the approved changes disturb me from semantic, political, and theological points of view, but the following is the most egregious:

Celebrant:      Blessed be God: most holy, glorious, and undivided Trinity.
People:            And blessed be God’s reign, now and forever. Amen.

Yes, I am deeply disturbed by the politics of the decision–that God should not be referred to as Father or Son or by the masculine possessive pronoun. But I am also disturbed by the grammatical choices behind the language. Not only are there profound and far-reaching theological implications of an apparent refusal to name God as the Father (and of course, the concomitant unwillingness to call Jesus the Son is just silly; he was a man, after all–at least son if not Son). Gender politics aside (I bite my tongue as I use the phrase), there are further ramifications of the decision not to name God with a noun but to describe him with  adjectives. Even my current crop of students, virtually unschooled in grammar, can feel with me that a noun has weight and substance (i.e., expresses something they might call “real”), while adjectives are often empty or even fluffy filler words. In a similar vein, one can represent–or attempt to represent–a noun in painting or sculpture, as the masters of Western art have been doing for centuries. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit can be touched, seen, and experienced, but holy, glorious, and undivided can only be guessed at.

Peter Paul Rubens, “The Holy Trinity” (c. 1620)

“Trinity Statue” (France, late 1400s)

When we turn God into an adjective, we take one more step toward church as country club, Holy Communion as metaphor, and God as comforting fiction or opiate of the masses. In the process, we lose not only the majesty of the Elizabethan language, but also the quality of piety inherent in the definition I memorized in a long-ago Sunday-school class: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 KJV).

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