A Spirituality of Language

I’ve been reading Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, by Kathleen Norris. As someone who has spent a lot of time thinking about the weight of the language people use to describe God and church (and really everything), I find her book refreshing and meaningful. She sinks into the layers of story and connection that words like “salvation” and “conversion” evoke for many of us. I appreciate that the chapters are generally short and don’t attempt to provide overwhelmingly theological or scholarly definitions for the words of our faith. Rather, she uses experiences and reflections on Scripture to illustrate what these words mean, in a very real and tangible sense, not an intellectual exercise.

There are certain authors I read who approach language with a sense of mystery and awe for its depth of impact on the very elements of our being. While words can never hope to describe God accurately (and indeed believing so is like trying to fit the heavens into one’s head–it will simply explode), God can somehow encompass words to the point where simply uttering them is a profound revelation of the divine. The holy name of Jesus is such an example. The unutterable name of God, YHWH, is another. In one sense, that is what the whole concept of Scripture is about, that words can take on not just more meanings but deeper ones, ones with cosmological significance.

Wendell Berry, Marilynne Robinson, Kathleen Norris, Dostoevsky, and Henry Nouwen are some of the writers that I get that sense from. It’s what I strive for every time I write anything down: to consider how each word could possibly evoke God’s presence for another person reading. Certainly the ideas are important. I wouldn’t be so taken with any of the people I love to read if they didn’t have compelling thoughts. But I read plenty of books that excite me or motivate me to change that don’t leave me feeling like the words themselves were an invocation of the Holy Spirit.

I also read plenty of philosophy of language scholars and in them find a cold and manipulative spirituality, people who understand the potential of words to illuminate meaning in life and choose to juggle them as if they were glass globes, people who mock both the value and fragility of this thing we call language. Words can contain a certain mystery, and to be humble before that mystery is to be prostrate before the Great Mystery, the Word which was and is and is to come.

It is no surprise, then, how the opening lines of the Gospel of St. John are perhaps the most mysterious, wondrous, deeply meaningful, deeply spiritual words in all of human history. “In the beginning,” immediately conjures up histories, stories, Scripture, and a grand sense of origin. We are told the story of creation all over again but from a different perspective. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God.” As we keep reading, the Word is transformed into Life, Life into light, and then light back into the Word which became flesh among the children of God. The Word became Flesh and the flesh became Word.

All things were made by this Word. Nothing has been made without the Word. Indeed, if we follow this language carefully (and I dare not demean the value of this poetry by calling it mere metaphor), the children of God are also being formed into Words. Together, we are the song of God (a la Aslan in The Magician’s Nephew), we are the essay of God in the true sense of the word “essay;” we are God’s attempt, God’s try. I am captivated by this imagery, this very intimate connection between God’s utterance and our beinghood.

Yet words are not gods, nor are they God. The supremely magnificent paradox, that GK Chesterton’s analogy about getting the heaven’s into one’s head (that I mentioned before) gets at, is that while word is not God, God is Word. It’s important, I feel, to recognize that paradox whenever we “essay” at writing or speaking to another human. We have the capacity to offer a lingering fragrance of the Word or the foul sacrilege of hatred. I do not believe language is ever neutral.

It is important to differentiate between spirituality and theology in this case. Someone could make the case for the importance of theological language or they could develop a theological understanding of language. I am not uninterested in this notion, but when I say spirituality of language, I refer to the potential for encountering and experiencing God de vocabula (my own Latin idiom…).

There are many implications for taking language this seriously (which can be quite fun as well! Ask Peter Maurin, another master word smith), but that is not what I’m after presently. Within a phrase, an essay, a chapter of a book, whether or not it’s Scripture, we can encounter the living God, and we need more authors who both understand that and work harder to allow that to happen more authentically. Bookstores are filled with absolute trash in both content and construct; Christian writers should strive for more because we claim to have the truest Word, the Word whose truth is beyond explaining and imagination and must be experienced.


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