son of God?

Often it’s illuminating to look for the original meaning of a religious phrase. Often you find that it’s been distorted beyond recognition–but then you also find that the new meanings it’s taken on have an illuminating power of their own.

So. The “Son of God” once meant simply the “King of Israel,” period. Like “the Son of Heaven” was ruler of China.

To call someone a “son of” anything can merely mean that he somehow resembles whatever he is “son of.” Like the “Sons of Thunder.” But there’s also that metaphorical family relationship.

Jesus led us to understand ourselves as “God’s children.” Outside of John, he doesn’t go around sounding like: “I’m the Son of God and you’re not.” He tells us to look on God as a good father to us, to trust God, depend on God, love and obey God, not as a ruler or a boss but as one truly akin to us.

Ursula Le Guin in _The Lathe of Heaven_ quotes from Chuange Tse XXIII:

“Those whom heaven helps we call the sons of heaven. They do not learn it by learning. They do not work it by working. They do not reason it by using reason…”

The good news for us is that we are all God’s children in this sense.

But if we don’t believe this… then we don’t believe it.

It’s hard to help someone who’s too busy struggling, dispairing, or frantically maintaining denial of imagined horrors. And for the “wicked,” mercy can look a lot like wrath.

{A friend of mine, counselling men whom courts had referred in cases of wife-beating, found many of them utterly unrepentant, sure that what they’d done was entirely right and proper. All he could do for some was to pray. At the moment he was praying for one particularly bad example, the man was on his way to his wife’s with every intention of killing her. The police caught him on the way, and he ended up spending a long time in jail, time enough to think things over and sort them out differently. Our jails and prisons are a scandal, an accustomed atrocity, institutions that should be abolished. But the effect, this time, was good.}

Theological types have gotten fond of calling God “wholly other.” This is valid in the sense of “wholly unlike our habitual selves”–even when our habits are good ones. But we can understand God better as “wholly akin.” Wholly akin to what is deepest in us, most alive, most creative and unexpected.

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2 responses

  1. Our jails and prisons are a scandal, an accustomed atrocity, institutions that should be abolished. But the effect, this time, was good.They are called penitentiaries — I believe — so inmates could become penitant there — do penance. Individual cells, like monk’s cells, offered the isolation time for contemplation and repentence. At least in theory.Like you I have serious doubts about the effectiveness of this practice.

  2. Thanks for your post, Forrest. I love confessional messages; as a professional preacher I came to believe that it was the only valid type of preaching.Re jail: long ago I was a probationer officer with hundreds of alcohol offenders (drunk drivers, wife beaters, you name it) under my supervision. We had the AEP (alcoholism education program), a sort of AA meeting under my control.One of my boys came in drunk. I took him over to the jail had him locked up. The next day I sent the ‘gentle’ leader of the group to get him out.He became one of our group leaders and never drank again as far as I know.Jail therapy in small doses can be therapeutic. But in general prisons tend to brutalize and dehumanize the inmates.Often prayer is the only thing.

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