The Song of Songs is very different from other books in the Bible. It is full of romantic speeches, containing sexually provocative language and imagery, between a woman and her suitor. The couple present an experience that elaborates unashamedly and unapologetically the physical pleasures of love. Elsewhere in the Bible human sexuality is generally regarded as requiring careful control, and female sexuality in particular, serious restraint.
But the Song of Songs is not simply a collection of love poems, rather in the Songs sexuality is delighted in so as to make some very specific assertions about female sexuality, to counter some notions about beauty, and to insist in a rather dramatic manner on a woman’s and man’s right to love whomever their heart chooses, irrespective of prevailing cultural norms. So it is a book subversive of exclusive male control in both the bedroom and in daily life.
It is a book too that does not mention God, and its author is probably a woman.
The Church, as you might imagine, has over the centuries not been inclined to read this book in any literal sense. Rather they’ve seen it as an allegory of the love of Christ for the Church, or, in medieval times, between Christ and the Virgin Mary.[i] Hebrew scholars also, predating Christian scholars, allegorized it as the love of God for Israel or Torah.
I would like to suggest to you this morning that the book’s inclusion in the canon [the authorised books] of Scripture, both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, might be to do with love [literally or allegorically] being encouraging of faith. Love – human, romantic love – was evocative for faith. Love for many Jews and Christians has been a window, a pointer, into the inexplicable nature of God.
I was listening to John and Yoko’s song Imagine last week. It’s about dreaming of a different way of being – like Jesus’ Kingdom of God here in the present. ‘Imagine there’s no countries’ sings Lennon – no nationalism, no barriers of race, religion, or economic self-interest, ‘nothing to kill or die for’. ‘Imagine all the people living in peace’. ‘Imagine no need for greed or hunger’… ‘and the world will be as one’.
I was thinking the writer of the Song of Songs might have added to Lennon and Ono’s song: ‘Imagine there’s no sexism, no cultural/gender barriers determining choices, income, and outcomes’. ‘Imagine that love is all we need’. ‘Imagine that love is the best [only?] avenue to God’.
Robert Fulghum once wrote an article about crayons.[ii] You know, those little stick-like things made of petroleum-based wax, dye, and little binder, which give so much joy to children and adults alike. Billions of these sticks of pleasure are made every year. And they are cross-cultural – you can find them in just about every country in the world…
Fulghum made it a habit to give boxes of crayons as presents to both adults and children. And invariably the gifts would evoke a smile; and be used.
Fulghum suggests that the US Defence establishment develops a crayon bomb; a happiness weapon. And every time a world crisis develops, a crayon bomb would be launched. It would explode softly high in the air and send millions of little parachutes sailing down to earth each carrying a box of sixty four crayons [and each of the sixty four a different colour]. And people would smile and get a little funny look on their faces and cover/colour the world with imagination. For imagination is needed in low and high places. And no one would die.
I was thinking about love and imagination and crayons as I opened my mail the other day. Two letters. One from a Christian and one from an atheist. Both telling me about God and no-God. And a picture started to emerge in my mind:
I imagined a group of seven year olds. They have been asked to draw God. The teacher has given them a piece of paper with an outline of a happy old man. The children will colour it in. They know about colouring in. They will use a variety of crayons and try not to colour across the line. They will also try to imagine what colours God might be.
I imagined too another group of seven years olds asked to do the same task. But their teacher gives them a piece of paper with nothing on it. God begins as blank. They are puzzled. They are asked to use their imagination. Some children will use the opportunity to create a happy old man. Others will draw squiggles and shapes. Others will be flummoxed by the task and won’t draw anything.
The piece of mail from the Christian telling me about God is like the first group’s teacher - believing that God has a clear and defined shape. Some contextual colour might be lacking but God is basically unchangeable from age to age. Christians, he tells me, are to be F.A.T. – faithful, available, and teachable.
The piece of mail from the atheist is like the second group’s teacher - for him God doesn’t have a form. It’s just blank. Therefore, so his logic goes, if God doesn’t have a clear and defined shape God doesn’t exist. I wonder what he’d think of the F.A.T. thing?
A few years ago I went to the funeral of a fellow minster, called David. He was one of those very gentle souls. His grand-daughters read out a letter he had written to them when, as seven year olds, they’d asked who God was and where God lived.
God doesn’t have an address like 130 Remuera Road. Mummy and daddy love each other. God is the love between them. Where there is love there is God, so God couldn’t have just one address. You can’t see this love but it’s a pretty powerful force.
I don’t think that I can talk directly to God, and I don’t think you can either. The reason for this is that God doesn’t have a body with ears on so I don’t try to talk to God. I like to be quiet a lot, and in the quietness I think about all the love I see all around me. This makes me glad and happy and helps me to be more loving myself. I feel I am a part of that love.
I wonder what the atheist would say to that. So, I write and ask. Then I wonder what the Christian would say to that. So I write and ask too. Both reply. One accuses me of being overly simplistic. The other asks for more explanation.
I once heard a lecture by Dr Alison Gopnik, a naturalist philosopher, who spoke about what we can learn from children under the age of five.
One of the more interesting experiments she had [seen on video] was when an assistant brought a complicated toy into the room, handed it to a four-year-old and left. The child then spent half an hour exploring everything that toy could do.
This was compared with the same assistant bringing the same toy into another room, handing it to another four-year-old, but this time explaining that if you squeezed one part of it the toy would honk. The child then spent half an hour honking the toy, and failing to find out how it did anything else.
Sometimes I think that’s what the Church has done to God. We’ve told people that God is like a toy that makes a honking noise. You squeeze and God honks. True believers, to elongate the metaphor, might celebrate honking and be dismissive of any other understanding of God. They are F.A.T. honkers.
If God is not creatively explored but limited to one dimension like honking, it is not surprising that people feel more comfortable with the atheist label. Such a limited ‘toy’ hardly expands the imagination and the heart. Mind you an atheism that limits knowledge to what is currently known, observable and verifiable is not much better. Is atheism a philosophy that promotes mutuality, justice, and self-giving love? For that matter, what’s the evidence Christianity is?
I am one of those strange Christians who look forward to this church season of Trinity which we are currently in. Not because I believe in a triumvirate of divine beings who share socks and rule the universe, rather because of my unbelief in the literal possibility of it all.
For me Trinity points to mystery rather than revelation, to art rather than reason, and to a musical movement rather than a clear, defined theology. It suggests to me that God is more a way of participating in sacred communion. In history this way has been called love.
Trinity therefore is a code word for a very big canvas on which to draw God. This God can’t be drawn in a fixed form [like a golden calf]. This God can’t be drawn by one person. This God exhausts the colours on offer – even 64 colours! This God is a-theistic [theism gets stuck like that gold calf]. This God is ever-changing [can love remain static?].
I posit these ideas about Trinity in the hope that no one will take them as true or orthodox. [We’ve had an overkill of ‘true’ and ‘orthodox’ in the Church]. I posit them simply as one who keeps trying to open his heart to explore, question, and wonder. If they resonate with your experience then like useful garments put them on for a while. But when they no longer work for you, adapt them or toss them away. Be faithful to the quest not to ideas, or the promulgators of ideas, along the way.
I posit these ideas too in the hope they will assist in creating a safe space for others to explore, question, and wonder upon the vast mystery called God. That’s what I took from Dr Gopnik’s research: build safe environments for investigative learning, rather than making students into memory sticks for others’ ideas.
In a similar vein David concludes his letter to his grand-daughters:
Grown-ups might not know all the answers but it’s important to keep asking the questions. I’ve tried to answer yours as best as I can. If you have any more questions, or want to talk any more about the questions in your letter and my replies to them please write again.
Your loving Grandpa.
[i] George A. Maloney, SJ, Singer of the New Song: A Mystical Interpretation of the Song of Songs, Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1985, p.14-15.
[ii] All I Needed To Know I Learned In Kindergarten p.48