How Language Forms our (Un)Faith

So many of us, supposedly standing for law and order, are merely clinging on to old habits, sometimes to a mere parrot vocabulary, its formulae worn so smooth by constant use that they justify everything and question none. It is one of the most mysterious penalties of men that they should be forced to confide the most precious of their possessions to things so unstable and ever changing, alas, as words. — The Diary of a Country Priest, Georges Bernanos

Growing up, a few words and phrases formed my faith and spirituality – words that were used at every corner of my church and school life:

1. Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ
2. Salvation/saved
3. Sin
4. Bible believing
5. Eternal life
6. Personal relationship

By the time I reached my junior and senior year of high school, the constant reverberations of these terms, from Disciple Now weekends to weekday chapels at school, failed to pierce my heart and soul. It wasn’t as if these words lost their inherent power, but they had “worn so smooth” — sliding past my imagination and collecting in some amorphous, inaccessible pool in my mind and consequently, my soul.

As this pool collected more and more of these words and phrases, the barrier sealing these words from my imagination increasingly felt language’s pressure. The constant use of a language void of significant, personal meaning left me dissatisfied with the very thing the language tried to communicate – the love of Jesus. In other words, since the language was empty, then the thing itself was empty.

Entering college, I had a choice to make:

1. Leave the faith. If this thing – this Jesus – is empty since its particular language can’t fully indwell the essence of his message in my imagination, then the message must be a farce.
2. Hold tightly to a vapid language. The language is not the problem – it is me.
3. Find a new language that may properly communicate the message I instinctively recognize as true.

For my second year of college, I enrolled in a Catholic university. Words like virtue, sacrament, eucharist, image of God, and grace were bandied about in the classrooms and dorm rooms – words I had undoubtedly heard, but had no framework in order to ingest and subsume. The texts I read and the people I met used these words and embodied this language in such a way that the thing – Jesus – began to look and feel fresh again. The old, insufficient language was drained, and the new language filled me with the reality of Jesus, the cross, and the resurrection.

The Christian gospel is rooted in language: God spoke a creation into being; our Savior was the Word made flesh. The poet is the person who uses words not primarily to convey information but to make a relationship, shape beauty, form truth…Words create. God’s word creates; our words can participate in creation. – Eugene Peterson

The language of my youth, over time, was no longer a language that forged a relationship with the Creator, but instead was only useful if the doctrines were disseminated into my intellect. Dissemination lacked the power to transform – to touch the part of the heart longing to be fully human in Christ. Nothing new was created in me.

On the other hand, the purposeful, intentional language of the Catholic church gave me new eyes to see Jesus and his people. While the connotations of the church’s language led me toward certain ecclesiological and sacramental understandings of the faith (hence finding my home in the Anglican church), the power of the church’s language re-imaged my love for Jesus. Their words rekindled and created a refurbished relationship with God.

Language will always drive us to a place of decision in regards to our faith. At some point, especially for those who grew up in Christianity, the words will become stale and dry – failing to create anything new in us. This experience requires a response from us. If we believe language has static meanings and connotations, we will probably choose to abandon our faith or hold rigidly to a faith that lacks meaning and fulfillment in Christ. But, if we believe in the elasticity of language, our faith can be renewed and restored semantically.

There are realities in this world that our words cannot always and fully communicate, but as limited as our language is, paradoxically, it is expansive and powerful enough for us to constantly renew the truth of life and the world. As George Steiner recognizes, language “is in the most naked, rigorous sense of that unfathomable banality, to invent, to re-invent being and the world.”

If language is unstable, yet nonetheless holding the power to create and invent the very nature of reality – a cruciform reality:

Let’s remake the world with words.
Not frivolously, nor
To hide from what we fear,
But with a purpose.
As Wordsworth said, remove
“The dust of custom” so things 
Shine again, each object arrayed
In its robe of original light.

And then we’ll see the world
As if for the first time.
As once we gazed at the beloved
Who was gazing at us.

-Gregory Orr


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