Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Speaking the language of the Living Tradition

ChaliceChick offers this invitation to the Blogival: to write about "religion words that move us, religion words that don't."

What a great topic for a broad spectrum of religious seekers to address! I am looking forward to reading others' thoughts.

My own experience, growing up, was as the heavily-committed eldest child of an American Baptist minister. Committed, that is, to self-preservation, staying out of trouble with our small town and my family, and having fun within safe parameters, namely, church activities. I never felt particularly committed to doctrine, never totally bought the idea of virgin birth or resurrection or miracles or Trinity or other supernatural religious concepts, though I never openly admitted this, either. It seemed to me that it didn't matter much whether these things really happened or not. Wasn't the whole point of Christianity the teachings of Jesus? Wasn't that the miracle?

So I faked it a bit, talked a good game, gave the impression of a devout young woman, all because I loved my parents and siblings dearly and they seemed to believe this stuff. I never revealed to them my own questions, because I didn't want to be separated from my family. I could see that they really were devoted to the teachings of Jesus, not just the trappings, and that was the important thing to me.

What this created in my life was an interesting blend of preferences and problems. I avoided language which talked about saving souls or conversion or bloody sacrifice or subservience, ideas which really didn't seem to resonate with the teachings of Jesus.

During a stint as an American Baptist Home MIssionary in Denver, I began to feel strongly that saving souls meant providing after-school activities for kids, a food bank, optometric services, job opportunities, friendship and acceptance. Conversion for me wasn't a blinding experience on the road to Damascus but a gradual understanding of what I believed and was willing to commit to. Bloody sacrifice seemed as senseless as the war in Vietnam, which was itself a bloody sacrifice of young men, some of them my friends. Subservience---resentment by the subservient seemed to be its outcome.

As a Unitarian Universalist, first a layperson now a minister, I often choose metaphors to express my ideas of God. I love Brian Wren's hymn "Bring Many Names" in the grey hymnal (#23), with its loving metaphors: God as mother, father, aging, young, living being. But I don't only use human metaphors for God. For me, God is Cosmos, Nature, Universe, Power Beyond Human Power (PBHP). For me, "Trinity" is too few manifestations of the Divine. (I keep thinking there's a sermon title in there somewhere: "Three is Too Few")

Attending a United Methodist seminary (Iliff, in Denver) gave me a chance to improve my skills at translating, for I had decided by then that a Unitarian Universalist needs to be religiously bilingual, able to speak religious language freely, understanding others whose dialect or language is somewhat different, accepting of differences, not needing to hear only UU-ese. If we are a pluralistic faith, we need to be pluralistic in our understandings and acceptances and capabilities.

I remember when my best childhood friend told me that she used to think God's name was Andy, because of the old hymn we often sang in church ("Andy walks with me, Andy talks with me, Andy tells me I am his own....") and small children have been known to intone "Our Father Who Art in Heaven, Howard be thy name".

I like that-----my buddy Andy shares his garden with me, the garden of the universe, of Whidbey Island, of cats and eagles and flowers and trees. Though my father who art in heaven is named Merritt, it's okay if someone else's is Howard.


LinguistFriend said...

I like that Andy and Howard business. It reminds me of how the Renaissance Flemish anatomist Vesalius commented on one academic squabble over anatomical terminology, "Call it Peter, Paul, or John if you want!" The meaning of these terms is not inherent to particular patterns of pressure changes in the air, and its effect on others does not come through inborn reflex responses. It comes from histories of individual experiences, histories that are always unique.
That means that we never completely understand each other, of course, although sometimes we get close when we have worked hard to standardize terminology, as in logic, math, parts of science.
We also need to have care for the history of the words: the English word "Lord" carries a lot of extra weight when it is freighted with the Hebrew, LXX, NT, Patristic uses, and echoes of the Vulgate, together with those from oriental potentates and medieval history. No wonder that such terms are liable to capsize, overturning their speaker into cold water.

Bill Kennedy said...

(I keep thinking there's a sermon title in there somewhere: "Three is Too Few")

I like that! I have a file on my desktop called "Dread Sermonic Engine" where I store sermon ideas. "Three is Too Few" is going in there tonight!

Andy, on the other hand, is pure nostalgia. Although I never heard that sweet "error" before, it picked me up by the heart and dropped me back in what I call my "shepherd Jesus" period, when religion was so much simpler. Thanks, Kit