Sunday, March 19, 2023

Father Almighty?

Preached at Cathedral Evensong on Sunday 19th March 2023 (Mothering Sunday evening)

In the opening line of the Nicene Creed, Christians declare, “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty”.  On Mothering Sunday, it would be perfectly appropriate to query the adjective ‘Father’ – and I did enjoy this morning’s Radio 4 service, during which the Canon Vicar of Guildford Cathedral referred to God as our ‘parent’, rather than Father.  But my primary focus is on the word Almighty.  What do we mean by this word?  It implies that there is nothing which God cannot do, and nothing he does not know.  The all-seeing God can do whatever God wants.  He is omnipotent and omniscient.  Our magnificent Cathedral Choir will recognise the Latin form of Almighty God, which is Deus Omnipotens.

For those who are interested in the origin of words, it might be useful to know that the word most usually translated in English bibles as ‘almighty’ actually means nothing of the sort.  The Hebrew words most often translated as ‘Almighty God’ are ‘El Shaddai’. which has a range of disputed meanings, from ‘the God of the Mountain’ to the ‘God of Two Breasts’ - which is a lovely image for Mothering Sunday.   

While it is generally agreed (by all theistic religions) that God has this ability to simply do whatever God wants, it is also generally agreed that there are limits on what God will, or won’t, interfere with, not least because of the divine principle of free will.  It’s important to note that this agreement does not apply to Islam. Muslims believe that everything that happens is the will of God.  The word ‘Islam’ means ‘surrender’, specifically to God’s active will and activity in the world. 

We have inherited, through church tradition, this core belief in an Almighty God, which, I suggest, is more Islamic than many of us would care to admit.  As a result, I posit, much of our relationship with God can often reduced to a rather desperate pleading for a bending of the self-imposed rules of non-interference.  Our prayers of ‘intercession’ are a prime example of this.  We implore God to act in the world – to make it a better place, to solve the problems of hunger, the climate, corruption, sickness, or any other great evil.  We amend and re-craft our prayers in the hope that they will fall favourably on God’s ears. “If only,” we think, “we can find the right turn of phrase, or the right praying position, or the right amount of diligence to persuade God to act.”  It’s as though we are trying to select the right coin to get a gift from a heavenly vending machine.  But, our own experience is that Almighty God appears to be largely deaf to our pleas.  The great evils persist, Putin still marches on the Ukraine, and God appears to be either (at best) silent and waiting or (at worst) uncaring.  The middle ground between these two positions are those oft-repeated (and awful) phrases, such as ‘God always answers, but sometimes he says no’, or (the even more guilt-inducing) ‘you need to have more faith’.

Of course there is much about the nature of free will involved in this dilemma.  If I pray that God will stay Putin’s hand, for example, I’m actually asking God to ignore the divine principle of free will.  Let us note, then, that the adjective ‘almighty’ is used rather more out of hope than out of experience.   

Rather, and I think more correctly, we more often associate God’s actions with other human beings.  When we give thanks for the healing of a friend, most of us, in truth, are often more grateful for the skill of the medical professionals who tended to them.  I recently had a triple heart bypass, and I must confess, I was rather more relieved to know that my surgeon was a professor of cardiology than I was to know that people were praying for me – as grateful as I was for their love and care.

It is perfectly proper to say that God has acted through the hands of the surgeon, or through the hands of the rescue team in that collapsed building.  In Paul Tillich’s phrase, God is the ground of our being, the inspiring and motivating force behind all good deeds.  In that sense, God’s action in the world is expressed through our hands, and our free-will actions.  God does not act alone, smiting or healing with almighty power.  Rather, God acts in co-operation with humanity, upholding the law of free will, and inspiring us to be agents of God’s will in the world. 

The word ‘almighty’ also carries with it the language of battle.  Mightiness is essential for the winning of wars.   In the eyes of the religious warrior, victory is only achieved by having an almighty God on your side.  Let’s stop talking about God as if he is going into battle for us.  Countless defeated armies (from all sides of the religious wars) know that this cannot be true, as both the Ukrainian and Russian armies could attest today.  So let’s stop describing God as if God is an almighty warrior, fighting for us.

I propose, therefore, that it is time for us to stop throwing around such a fundamentally unhelpful description of God, in our worship and in our prayers.  From our actual experience of God at work, it would be much more accurate to speak of a ‘loving God’ or ‘co-operating God’ or ‘inspiring God’.  Any of those adjectives speak more truthfully of our experience of the God who is, after all, the two breasted God (as one translation of El Shaddai suggests).  I propose, therefore, that it is time to jettison the adjective Almighty, and to re-write the opening line of the Creed.  “We believe in the loving, inspiring, co-operating God” would be a start.  Then, perhaps, our theology would better reflect our experience.

And, on this Mothering Sunday, what about the adjective ’Father’ for El Shaddai, the two-breasted God? Well, you’ll have noticed that I’ve jettisoned ‘Father’ from the first line of my Creed, because I’m profoundly uncomfortable with the God who created both male and female (and all those caught between such poles) being described with such a confined and patriarchal term as ‘Father’.  But that, my friends, is a topic for another sermon altogether.  Amen.