I’ve been translating the New Testament Gospels from Greek during the past year and naturally ran into several conundrums that I can’t resolve with any finality. Among them is one of the commonest phrases, “Our Father Who Art in Heaven.” That’s the classic translation. But the word for heaven is ouranos, which for the ancient Greeks happens to be the name of the Sky Father. As I translate I want to bring to the foreground some of the classical Greek images, and so I have been writing: “Our father in the sky.”
Since Ouranos is Uranus for astronomers and astrologers, I asked some friends who are superb astrologers how they might translate this phrase. One suggested “everywhere” and one, a surprise to me, recommended “heaven,” the good old traditional language. Sky is too literal, she said. Well, for me the sky is not literal at all. It’s a constant presence, day and night, reminding me of the wonder and mystery that surrounds my existence. I see the father as belonging in this sky. My astrologer friend did say that a Renaissance heaven, full of spheres and angels, might offer a better notion of heaven.
In the midst of this conundruming about the sky, I came across a painting by Rene Magritte that was not familiar to me. It shows two irregularly framed panels against a floor and a paneled wall. The left frame is an image of a blue sky. The right frame is very light blue and has the French word for heaven or sky, ciel. One is a visual image of the sky, rather natural, and the other the word for sky on a background that lightly suggests the sky.
Magritte said that he wanted to be a thinker who paints, rather than a painter who thinks. He was interested in ideas, specifically ideas about how we perceive and interpret the world around us. He understood more than most that our way of connecting things is not as rational and linear as we imagine.
Another painting of his, The Spirit of Geometry, shows a woman, presumably a mother holding a baby. But the mother has the head of a baby, and the baby has the head of a mature woman. The first impression is startle at the reversal. But when you think about it, some people are parents when they are quite young, at least emotionally, and some children seem quite old when they’re infants. The geometry of parenthood moves in several directions, and the painting reminds us not be taken in by ordinary logic. I would say that Magritte’s logic takes us to a deeper place.
I would like to translate ouranos as sky, but I don’t intend the literal sky or certainly Freud’s sky. He interpreted the father in heaven as a neurotic projection of a personal father into the sky. Similarly, some people think of the father in the sky naively; for them the father lives just above the clouds—literally.
I can see that I need to think and write like Magritte, suggesting a different geometry of sky and father. I want to use the image, as Magritte does, and yet mean something unfamiliar, as Magritte does. I can imagine a surrealist translation of the Gospel. On the surface it may sound absurd, but with a little reflection it might be effective in getting the meaning across. “Our Father Ben who is a huge airplane.” Footnote: My actual father’s name is Ben, and if you’re going to say “our” father, it has to be Ben. An airplane is a good image for a being found in the sky. There aren’t too many sky beings, though Magritte works frequently with clouds and birds. Either would do, and, in fact, the Gospel itself uses the image of a dove for a sky or spirit being when Jesus is baptized in a river and a cloud when he is transfigured on a mountain. These are indeed surreal moments in the Gospel.
One more painting: In The Lovers, a man and a woman are kissing, but the head of each is completely wrapped in a gray fabric. At first, the painting may look surreal or absurd, but with only a moment’s thought you realize that lovers usually know nothing about each other—they’re shrouded in mystery. Magritte’s odd painting may turn out to be more accurate than other paintings of lovers staring into each other’s eyes.
The lesson Magritte teaches with his paintings is not only important; it’s essential. We have to include the imagination in our logic and geometry. If we leave it out, we make significant mistakes in genre and meaning. How much religious foolishness goes on simply because people reading sacred texts have never studied Magritte.
One of Magritte’s most famous paintings is one of a realistic pipe. Beneath the image, written in script, is the line: “This is not a pipe.” No, it is not a pipe. You can’t smoke the pipe in the painting. Maybe it’s an image of a pipe, but even that statement is disputable. One thing for certain, it is not a pipe. There is no pipe in sight. Is God literally in the sky? I don’t think so, because the sky in religious literature is analogous to the pipe.
Let’s look once again at the painting of the sky showing both word and image. Notice the uneven, asymmetrical frames. Do they suggest that what we’re looking at should not be taken in clear, linear, symmetrical ways? Should we put that kind of frame on everything we encounter? Is there anything we experience that is not subject to the imagination? Is the sky in my translation considerably and primarily removed from the sky we see with our eyes?