Words: What are They Good for?

For all our “walk the walk” encouragement, we Christians depend deeply on words. Trans and con. Faith and works. Predestination and free will. It’s too bad. Our misunderstandings center around single words, biblical phrases. Ask a writer—they know words are inherently weak, metaphors for the real stuff at best and easily confusing. Our litanies, vows, creeds—they’ve been responsible for most of our schisms and War: Religious Style in Christian history, more like cancer than communication. It raises the question: Do we need words?

Add in words and things get complicated—that part’s easy to see. Anyone who has had a true spiritual experience knows it goes beyond words, right down to the blood. Problems—if they rise—show up when we try to clothe revelation in description. We immediately lose something. The meaning twists in our hands. We chata’, as Christ said: we miss the mark.

Our modern reliance on words as a foundation for Christianity stems from a Western focus on empirical observation and duality, which helped science out but faltered when backing religion. Eastern methodologies do not show the same respect for anything written down, and dodge tying themselves in the resulting knots. Religious thought in Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism can offer valuable lessons for bogged-down Christians. Gautama Buddha was famous for saying his teachings were like "a finger pointing to the moon," but always added the problem was mistaking the finger for the moon itself. The truth, the "suchness" of world, mattered to him, not its descriptions.

"The name that can be spoken is not the eternal name," warned Lao Tzu. But how often do we forget it, chanting our songs in church or mumbling prayers over and over, as if the sounds themselves were somehow connected to heaven? Christian roots did not always place so much weight on words. The concept of Tao and the Hebrew utter-plurality Elohim share much in common—both try to get away parsimonious obsession with what to call something by calling it everything.

Both the Old Testament prophets and the parables of Christ also show a mistrust for mere words, choosing instead to paint living pictures through stories, symbols and song. The Talmudic origins of our faith traditionally called for a rabbi to be at least 40 years old before beginning to study concepts like the Shekhinah (the holy and feminine mystery of God’s presence), because the time would teach a necessary connection with the idea itself, the moon instead of the finger.

So, have we lost this reality-basis in our search for the right words? It looks like we have. Hundreds of denominations depend on the difference between a few modern English phrases alone. The higher up in Christian doctrine you go, the more it centers on battles between tenuous translations. Rob Bell started a wildfire with a few thoughts on what the word "hell" meant. Harold Camping began a panic by using his own bastardized word-formula to predict an apocalypse. They’re the latest in a long list.

The Zen masters used to say a student who became caught up with the theories and descriptions of spirituality had caught the stink of Zen. It was not a compliment. When we get ourselves wrapped up in what we need to say, the exact words we need to use, the precise way something has to sound in order to be true, we lose—well, everything else. We lose the magic God puts in every moment, and start trusting in names that will change connotation within this generation, let alone this century.

Some Christians have begun to feel this. The emergent church, although it does not say so directly, bases much of its thought on a healthy fear of dying words. The more we look, the more it seems the commandments, litanies and confessions of the faith are designed to frame reality, not be it. Illusions evaporate when we look across borders to find our kin in other nations. Not everyone’s songs are the same. Not everyone shares the same signs. Not everyone calls him Jesus.

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The counter to a wordless faith is the cult-fear, the sensible worry that if we lose our grip on words we will lose truth and start to make it up as we go. After all, Paul told us that Scripture is "God-breathed, and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training," so it must have purpose, right? Paul did say those things (in Greek, actually) but it sounds more like a careful warning than anything else, an emphasis to use Scripture, not worship it. And a tough lesson, too: Listen to Christians today, and you may think we worship a Quadrinity—God the Father, Son, Holy Ghost and Bible. So maybe the danger goes the opposite way. We can fall into the love of incantation, giving phrases way too much power, crowns our little words were never meant to wear.

For the eastern religions, the solution was going directly to the here and now, all movement and action. If a priest asked for the creed of their beliefs, the student would go out and water the flowers, work on math problems or keep on eating dinner. It was thought a good answer—it worked surprisingly well in preserving core beliefs. Maybe the Church could use such action-answers to help overcome its problems … and maybe it already is. But as individuals looking in the mirror, we need to decide how we personally deal with words and all the chains they bring with them.

Do we need a "Word of God" Christianity, or just a "God" Christianity? Do both have the potential to last from now through eternity?

Tyler Lacoma lives in Bend, Or. and writes articles on a variety of topics, including spirituals, the environment, business and fiction.

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