Language shapes reality.
The language we use is critical to how we understand and transmit knowledge and how we experience the universe.
It’s not something we think about very often…in fact, we generally take it for granted.
But words have meaning. And when we don’t choose our words or define their meaning well, we can not only create misunderstanding, but an environment wherein people will begin to invent their own meanings for the words we use.
That’s what happens when we use “insider language.” And in the church, it’s something about which we’ve often become fairly careless.
As someone who is working to build community for people who have lost trust and faith in the institutional church, this is an important point.
Because a lot of times, some of the language we cling to may actually be hindering, rather than helping, people’s understanding and experience of God.
Rallying around the golden calf
A few years ago a friend sent me an article (which sadly is no longer available online) by Rochester University professor Naomi Walters that discussed the incident in Exodus 32 where the Israelites erected a golden calf to worship while Moses went missing up on Mount Sinai.
The gist of the article was not so much that the Israelites were replacing God with an idol (as has been commonly taught), but that they had created an idol to represent God.
In essence, according to the author, the Israelites were genuinely trying to worship Yahweh.
They had become accustomed to God’s presence through a guiding pillar of cloud by day and fire by night.
And when Moses disappeared up on the mountain with God for 40 days, the people panicked.
It wasn’t that they were just fabricating any old god to worship.
They were trying to create an image of the God on whom they had come to rely in order to be assured of God’s continuing presence.
They wanted something they could see to represent the God they wished to worship.
But God had something better in mind for them. In the article, Walters states:
“Perhaps Israel did have good intentions, but God’s reaction reveals Israel’s attempts at representation for what they really are: an attempt to control God, to constrain God, to make concrete a God who is profoundly abstract. The sad irony is that Israel’s attempt to re-present God has ruined God’s plans to be actually present.”Naomi Walters
Which begs the question…if our attempt to represent God essentially creates an idol that is not God, and our words about God can be seen as an attempt to represent God, how can we talk about God at all?
Are we actually attempting to control and constrain God by the very language we use about God?
Domesticating the divine
And therein lies a difficult conundrum for the church as we attempt to adapt to the rapidly shifting thought patterns and cultural nuances of the Information Age.
How can we communicate our experience of God, our knowledge of God, the reality of God, without somehow creating something that is not actually God?
How do we avoid making God into little more than a domesticated image of our own inherent biases?
Has much of the church’s language about God become little more than a golden calf?
It seems we speak a from a lexicon that is exclusive to outsiders at worst, burdensome to newcomers at best, and widely misunderstood even within our own tribe.
This certainly is reflected in many of our doctrinal statements and theological pronouncements. But it also is manifested in some of the basic descriptions we simply take for granted.
What do our words even mean?
What does it mean, for instance, to speak of God as a loving heavenly father to a generation that largely has grown up fatherless?
When we call Jesus “son of God,” are we aware of the patriarchal societal/cultural context from which that figurative terminology comes, or do we conjure images from our own experiences of a literal parent-child relationship?
When we use words like “salvation,” or “righteousness,” or “forgiveness,” or “redemption,” or “sin,” do we understand how they are understood by those who have not been indoctrinated in our vernacular?
Do we really even understand the meanings of those words ourselves?
Or have we constructed idols even of our own language about God, adding yet more distance between our limited selves and our limitless Creator?
Describing or controlling?
Do we really understand how we are representing God?
Or, like the Israelites in the desert, is our language really trying to control God?
To create a God that’s “ours,” but not “theirs?”
“Mine” but not “yours?”
How many untold thousands have we sent running the other way from the intolerant, insensitive, backward, unreachable, schizophrenic god we have represented with so much of our language?
Is that how God wishes to be present with God’s people?
Obviously, we have to be able to talk about God.
We need to be able to share our experiences, our questions, our struggles, and our thirst for understanding.
But somehow we must also find ways to simply live in the tension of knowing that even our best efforts fall short of representing something beyond representation.
Again, I don’t pretend to have the answers. But I think if we want to recapture the true image of God, the imago dei at the very heart of our being, it has to start with love.
The way we love others creates a language that I think starts to come close to experiencing God as actually being present rather than re-presented.
The less controlled and constrained our expressions of love, the less we need to create our own image of God…because it’s in our love that we truly experience God’s presence with us.
Adapted from an article originally posted Oct. 10, 2013.