A world of words! We speak them, read them, write and sing them. Words express our thoughts and emotions. Poets paint pictures for our imaginations. Stories and lies can be told – curses and comfort conveyed.
Since words are symbols of our thoughts, we need to say what we mean. “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” may be true for Gertrude Stein, but for most of us a rose can be red, white, or yellow, hybrid or antique. (From “Sacred Emily”, 1913) The picture of a rose that comes to each of us may be different. The words we choose may or may not convey what we mean.
Words are constantly being invented. When I was a child my family referred to teasing as “kidology”. My spell check says that’s not a word, but it worked for us. “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” wasn’t a real word when it was first used in the musical Mary Poppins, but spell check says it’s okay now.
Words have always been important, and today we continue that pursuit by being politically sensitive to others by our choice of words and the issues we discuss. That is especially true when we speak of the ethnic and racial origins of people. We try to avoid words that denigrate a person’s dignity. We may also avoid words that raise “red flags” – words and issues that are so “hot” that an emotional response clouds objective thinking.
We are sensitive to language and images in the church as well. While we are not afraid to deal with controversial issues, and take risks to know the Truth, our choice of words is governed by what seems appropriate for any given congregation. We especially strive to use words that convey what we mean to say about God. For example, we are accustomed to praying, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”. That phrase is the traditional way to express the doctrine of the Trinity – God in three persons, yet one God. For some people, however, the word “Father” confines God to male gender. Since God is beyond the limitations of gender, God might also be called “Mother”. We don’t choose to call God “It” because that would imply that God is a thing that doesn’t understand the emotions of human beings. Trying not to limit God to a male or female role is a challenge for preachers. All of a sudden there are no pronouns that one can use for God. So if the word “God” appears several times in the course of a sentence, one chooses another name for God that is appropriate, such as Creator – or in the case of the Son, Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit as Giver of Life. The Holy Spirit is sometimes given a feminine image as well.
Perhaps the most important choice of words comes in the translation of ancient biblical texts into modern languages. Scholarship has brought clarity to new translations. Old translations said we were to forgive “seventy times seven” on any given occasion. More recent translations read that one should forgive “seventy-seven” times. Do we forgive 77 times or 490 times before lambasting our adversaries? The Greek number can be legitimately understood as “seventy seven times” as in Gen. 4:24. Jesus’ statement is a reversal of Lamech’s pronouncement of vengeance. Lamech, a descendant of Cain, said to his wives: “Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say: I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” Jesus’ point is that instead of vengeance one should offer forgiveness. The number of times is not a matter of math or linguistics, but of the nature of forgiveness.
One controversial word in biblical translations that does make a difference in the way we read and understand a passage of Scripture is the word “homosexual.” In the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Paul’s long list of wrongdoers who will not inherit the kingdom of God includes “homosexuals” as well as unbelieving civil judges. The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible uses the words “male prostitutes,” however, rather than homosexuals, not only to be more accurate to what Paul was trying to convey, but also because in those days there was little understanding of the genetic and psychological makeup of people who have a homosexual orientation. (First Corinthians 6:9)
Language changes can be troublesome. Unfortunately, there are those whose faith is attached to certain words, so that when the word is changed, so is their faith.
What, then, do words have to do with our religious life?
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) Those are the opening words of the Gospel of John, where the author sees Jesus as the “logos” of God – Word that is more than speech. “It is God in action, creating (Gen. 1:3; Ps. 33:6), revealing (Am. 3:7-8), redeeming (Ps. 107:19-20.” (NRSV Commentary). Such a passage reminds us that living into the Word is not a matter of words, but of a living relationship with God who is creating, revealing, and redeeming. One of our tendencies in religion is to try to get it right. We want to tack down everything we know about God, turn it into doctrines, dogmas, and creeds, and then to insist that everyone live by those formularies. That practice is perfectly understandable since people often prefer certitude to faith. They would rather think they have God figured out than to live into the unknown mystery of God, into a relationship of vulnerability, intimacy, and trust. Those latter qualities, of course, are essential for any relationship of love. One can attempt to follow a textbook on marriage, for example, but if a couple is not willing to be vulnerable to one another, to grow into the unknown together, to grant one another trust and unconditional love, the marriage won’t achieve the high qualities for which it was designed. Obeying the letter of the law in the words of the Bible won’t guarantee a loving relationship with God and with our fellow human beings either. Any attempt to capture God through words and a collection of books is as dangerous as molding a golden calf. In the Christian experience, words are tools of communication to tell the story of freedom and God’s love for us, and through that story to bring us into a relationship of love with God and one another.
The divisions we cause ourselves by organizing opposing camps based on proof texts from Scripture need to be broken down by seeing the bigger picture of the Word of God in action – creating, revealing, and redeeming – an action designed to reconcile us all to God in one body.
May the words we use, even in their imperfection, tell the story of God’s love, and lead us into the joy of the greatest mystery of all, the Word.