People of the Word

Preface: “The Word” by Mary Oliver

How wonderful! I speak of the soul and seven people rise from their chairs and leave the room, seven others lean forward to listen. I speak of the body, the spirit, the mockingbird, the hollyhock, leaves opening in the rain, music, faith angels seen at dusk – and seven more people leave the

room and are seen running down the road. Seven more stay where they are but make murmurous disruptive sounds. Another seven hand their heads, feigning disinterest though their hearts are open, their hope is high that they will hear the word even again. The word is already, for them, the song in the forest. They know already how everything is better – the dark trees less terrible, the ocean less hungry – when it comes forth, and looks around with its crisp and lovely eye, and begins to sing.

In 1972, the comedian George Carlin first performed his monologue, “The Seven Words You Cannot Say on TV.” They were, of course, what we often times call swear words, or “dirty” words – words one is not supposed to use in polite company. With the advent of cable, of course, we have now heard them all on TV.

Words are powerful, as Kelly noted in her reflection. Sticks and stones and words can all hurt us, and the word ‘cult’ is often used as a verbal weapon to do just that: to dismiss, to label as aberrant, to separate out as illegitimate. There are other words in our lexicon that, like cult, we would do well to quarantine, but we often get a bit carried away with this, creating our own list of religious words you are not supposed to say, that some of us have rejected as “dirty” in a way. As I thought about what this list looks like, I realized that seven might not be enough for many of us. I also realized that this list would have to include one name, a bonus word.

So this is my version of “The Seven Words You Cannot Say in a Unitarian Universalist Church”:

God, Faith, Prayer, Sin, Atonement, Salvation, and Spiritual. And the bonus name? Jesus, of course.

Mr. Carlin could be more confident of his list than I can be of mine. I had to leave several good ones out, words that you might have included. Or else, in good anarchistic fashion, you would have felt unfairly confined to just seven and come up with a list of ten or twelve or a couple of dozen.

It is a fun little exercise to do. But I will be honest with you: personally, I find it sad that we feel we have to exclude religious language from our shared vocabulary because we do not like other people’s definitions of those words. It seems to me to limit what our congregations have covenanted together to affirm and promote, i.e. the “free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” as well as to constrain “encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.” But then, there is one of those pesky words…spiritual.

We should know, however, we are not alone in this, that there are those in the moderate to liberal Christian community who struggle with many of these words as well.

In 1998, Kathleen Norris published a book called Amazing Grace. Subtitled, “A Vocabulary of Faith,” it constituted Norris’ struggle to reclaim what she called the “dauntingly abstract . . . even vaguely threatening” words of traditional Christian language.

Not too long afterwards, in January 2002, then Unitarian Universalist Association president, the Rev. William Sinkford, preached a sermon in Ft. Worth TX in which he suggested that Unitarian Universalists need to reclaim a “vocabulary of reverence.”

I’m not suggesting that Unitarian Universalism return to traditional Christian language (he said). But I do feel that we need some language that would allow us to capture the possibility of reverence, to name the holy, to talk about human agency in theological terms.

I do not know about the effect of Norris’ book on her larger Christian community, but Sinkford’s sermon, and his subsequent statements, “touched off a theological brush fire” within our little UU Association. Reacting to his suggestion, instead of responding or entering into dialogue with him, many felt that he was trying to impose “God-talk” upon us all.

Well, not to be immodest or anything, but I have been getting this sort of reaction from people for years, so I welcomed Bill’s initiative. It is an initiative to conversation, not to conversion. It is an invitation to dialogue, not dogma. Bill suggested that we begin to reclaim religious language by exploring together what a language of reverence would be, and mean, for us.

I welcomed his initiative because I simply do not believe that we should abandon this language and these words to people who insist upon giving them rigid, intolerant, and confining definitions. I believe that we need to develop liberal definitions of this language; I believe that it is one of our jobs. I believe we need to add our voice to the dialogue by continually pointing out that these words are not the sole property of religious conservatives. And I believe that as we do this, we will introduce our perspective into the ongoing religious dialogue, thereby getting our own ideas into the mix, getting our own voice heard, and perhaps even having some effect and influence upon the overall direction of religious life in the United States. Imagine that….

Kathleen Norris relates a story that very well illustrates why many religious liberals reject traditional religious language. She writes of a time when she presented some of her book at a Catholic college and was asked a final question by a woman in the audience. Norris writes:

The discussion period was coming to an end and I was getting ready to call it a night, but the faculty member who had introduced me spotted her hand in the air. I’ll always be grateful to him for so carefully scanning the darkened auditorium and to her for allowing curiosity and frustration to overcome discretion. “I don’t mean to be offensive,” she said, “but I just don’t understand how you can get so much comfort from a religion whose language does so much harm.”

This is certainly one of the main reasons religious liberals reject traditional language. And there is ample evidence of the harm it has done in the past, and continues to do today. Yet, in a different manner than Norris, I still argue that we need to keep this language, recycle it as it were, be profoundly eco-theological, and not trash the good with the bad. Let us not throw away the infinitely possible because of some harmful occasions in a finite and unfortunate past.

Norris mentions stumbling into poetry in her college years and finding its vocabulary a suitable substitute for religion. I would say that it is far more than a substitute; I would argue that poetry is the language of faith and that such language, such a vocabulary of reverence, must be theo-poetic.

In her wonderful little book, Fluent in Faith, Jeanne Nieuwejaar, and UU minister and religious educator, writes:

Religious language essentially is poetry and metaphor, capturing elusive truths through image and intimation. The old theological words are more poetry than prose...

…and we need to recognize and embrace their power to point to that which can never be fully contained in any word.

Bill Sinkford suggested that “we need some language that would allow us to capture the possibility of reverence, to name the holy, to talk about human agency in theological terms.” I think we have the language, and that it is a shared method of understanding and interpretation that we need. Not shared conclusions, not even shared definitions, but a shared method we may use together, what I would call a theological poetics, or theo-poetics.

But let me back up a step for a moment and take a look at reverence itself, the very thing we seek a language for.

I understand reverence as the central attitude of the religious life. Reverence is an attitude of respect, humility, and wonder in and of Life. Think of Albert Schweitzer’s concept of “reverence for life,” for example. It recognizes that we are not self-created, but that we arise with and within Life, dependent and interdependent on more than we will ever know. It recognizes the vastness of this Life – the little bit we know about it, and the much larger portion we do not know – the Mystery in which we live and move and have our being. Reverence is just such respect, humility, and wonder amidst the very astonishment of being alive. It is the central religious attitude.

So how do we find a language for that? How might we craft a vocabulary of reverence while maintaining what Kathleen Norris calls “a proper sense of humility before the great mystery of language, this human venture that begins with the ear and the tongue and reaches for the stars?”

Jelaluddin Rumi once instructed his listeners “not to be contemptuous of old obediences; they help.” And I suggest that the answer to these questions may be made via a paraphrase of Rumi: “do not be contemptuous of old words; they help.” A vocabulary of reverence already exists, and it exists in words we too often dismiss, words like God, Faith, Prayer, Sin, Atonement, Salvation, and Spiritual. The vocabulary already exists; what we need is a shared method of understanding and interpreting that vocabulary. What works for me is to look at these words as poetry, as symbolic language that has grown out of humanity’s experience of reverence, as a language that suggests and does not dictate, as a language that thereby invites your own experience, as a language that draws you further into and deepens your own awareness and appreciation for the wonder and Mystery in which we live.

Jeanne Nieuwejaar says it like this:

...we must hold these words lightly, using them to point and suggest, not to define. The words will serve us best if we allow them to be elastic, perhaps not meaning precisely to me what they mean to you, or your Jewish neighbor, or your Lutheran in-laws, but pointing in the same direction, capturing the essence of a shared experience, a shared longing for a deeper spiritual life.

As the ancient Zen image tells us, we must not confuse the finger pointing to the moon with the moon itself. Religious texts and words are and should be starting points, places that point to and suggest but do not define our own growing experience.

For that to happen, however, we must be willing to explore them, to allow ourselves to engage with these words and engaged by them. So, by example of what I am trying to say here, let us explore and engage ourselves for a moment with the first word on my list, God. What could it mean to say the word, God, and mean poetry and not theology?

Well, for one, I cannot give you some abstract, systematic definition I believe to be true and accurate for all people everywhere. The theo-poetic approach to God means that I can speak only out of my own experience, perceptions and observations. You will hear them, compare them with your own, mull them around a bit, and see what sort of responses you have from your own experience.

Secondly, for me a theo-poetic understanding of God means that my present understanding of what that word indicates has been informed and shaped not only by my own experience, but by the experiences of others. The stories and poetry found in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, in the poetry of the Sufis, in the teachings of the Upanishads, and in the poems of the Tao Te Ching and many other sources have all had an impact on how I understand this word. And I include, of course, the poets themselves, as well as novelists and essayists, philosophers and psychologists who have all left for all of us a record of their experiences and encounters with Life, have left their understandings and interpretations by which we now may be guided along our own paths, not to reach their conclusions, but to discover our own.

So the poetry of the word, God, for me means a reverent acknowledgment of the Great Spirit of Life, the Engendering Energy of the Universe, of the Mystery, the Ground of All Being. It means, as John Spong has written, the inescapable depth and infinite center of all that is. Seeing the poetry in the word, God, enables me to see God as the Poet of the World, as the Mystery that reaches out beyond any distance I can imagine, as any- and everything that is not me, that I do not control. It opens me to understand and interpret the word, God, like my colleague, the Rev. Barbara Pescan, has written, as the voice of

flowers, trees, weather of all kinds, loss, dust motes in thin winter sun,… grief, a hand on my elbow,… sudden joy… --any voice that gets all the way into me and says, Stop. What you thought was all is not all there is.

And there is much, so much more. All that engenders and enlivens, that creates and destroys and creates again. All that is us and the vast Otherness that is not us. All that is deeply who we are and can be, all that draws us out of ourselves and connects us to one another. All that we do not, and never will, know. All. That. Is.

And yet, at the same time I wonder along with Joan Osborne:

What if God was one of us?

Just a slob like one of us?

Just a stranger on the bus

Trying to make His way home....

What Osborne does in her song is what I mean by a theo-poetic understanding and interpretation, one that blasts away the cobwebs of rigid and literal definitions and allows the Life that inspired these words in the first place to flow through them again. As Ralph Waldo Emerson urged in his 1838 “Divinity School Address”:

…let the breath of new life be breathed by you through the forms already existing. For, if once you are alive, you shall find they shall become plastic and new. The remedy to their deformity is, first, soul, and second, soul, and evermore, soul.

I do not know if seven people got up and left the room at that point or not – I only know that Emerson’s words have lived on and still invite us to contemplate a broader and deeper understanding of the vocabulary of reverence shared by so many of us.

We are a people of the word. So in our exploring and regaining the words of a vocabulary of reverence, we do not simply mimic old theology, but continue and participate in the ongoing work of liberal religion and the Free Church: that is, to encourage new ways of seeing and new attitudes of faith that recognize both our diversity and our unity – that recognize the diversity and unity and wonder of all Life – and thus more deeply connect us with one another and our world.

So may it be, and blessed may it be; amen.

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