Language is complicated.
The words we use have deep connections to past experience. At the same time we use them to create and shape the new experiences we are having in the moment.
For some people the language of the King James Bible and the Book Of Common Prayer are the symbols of their experience of an authentic relationship with God. For others, the antiquated language and penitential flavour of the liturgy are stumbling blocks rather than stepping-stones to relationship with the Life That Never Goes Away. Who is right?
Some people do not say the Apostle’s or Nicene Creed because they feel the words are putting them in a box of belief that they are uncomfortable with. Others say the same Creed in order to align themselves with the consciousness of Christ that they discern is embedded in these ancient formulations. Which is correct?
I meet a lot of people who thirst for spiritual engagement and yet avoid spiritual communities because they do not feel they “believe” the same things as they are expressed in the language of the community. So much energy and ink and now video is used up by trying to reassure the non-churchgoers out there that, “We don’t really mean that Jesus is the Son of God (or Divine or Resurrected or the Saviour etc.)” But I don’t think that helps. Because if we don’t really mean that Jesus is the Son of God why on earth would we bother showing up to worship? But it begs the question, what does something like “Jesus is the Son of God” actually mean? What does it signify?
N.T. Wright, the Bishop of Durham, has famously reported some of his conversations with Atheists. To the proclamation, “I don’t believe in God” Wright asks, “Can you tell me about the God you don’t believe in.” Usually after the Atheist has finished his description Wright reports he can usually continue the conversation by saying, “I don’t believe in that God either.” You see the problem with words is that we think we know that other people assign to them the same meaning as we do. This is a useful assumption to make when talking about “doors” and “dogs” and “donuts” but it begins to break down when we talk about things that are more experiences and events than they are tangible objects.
I think it was Schopenhauer who once observed:
“We only talk about the third-best things: The best things cannot be spoken about, they are ineffable. The second best things are the words we used to refer to the best things and are always misunderstood. So the third best things are what we spend our time talking about.”
The language of spiritual tradition is often in the realm of the second-best. It is not the ineffable experience of relationship with Ultimate Reality but it attempts to symbolize it so that it can be shared by human communities. But it will always and forever be misunderstood. It is the price of dealing with the Great Mystery of life. But, it seems to me, that it would be foolish to try and move the Church, or any other spiritual body, to the realm of the third-best because of the risks of being misunderstood. Nietzsche warns: “Be careful, lest by casting out your demon you destroy the very best thing you have.” Perhaps this is so with the Church and much of its language. Yes it is symbolic, yes it refers to ineffable experience and is not it, but we cannot escape the tension that leads to misunderstanding. Spiritual language must carry the risk of being misunderstood if it wants to communicate and convey the power of the first-order reality.
I suspect that the words themselves are only part of the problem. An equal part of the communication is the energy and intention out of which our language emerges. Eckhart Tolle writes,
“When one speaks from stillness, the words carry an energy transmission, a vibration. It is as if the words are secondary. It is the energy that comes with the words – or rather the stillness beneath the words – that is the greatest teaching.”
But we need to be willing to listen for the stillness beneath the words. Sometimes we will sense it even if we do not seek it but often our judgments and prejudices will keep us from hearing the silence beneath the words. Whence do our words emerge? What a great question to hold with us as we walk through our days. Is this not why Jesus has long been called the Word of God - because his life and teaching resonates with the primordial stillness of all being?
May we be given the courage to be misunderstood and the humility to know we don’t understand.