I sometimes have problems with religious language. Ironically, there are times when I feel the kind of words we use to describe ‘the Sacred’ can actually detract from their own purpose.
The same happens with ‘green’ language. Environmentalism has its own idioms, phrases and jargon. The word environment actually means ‘the world or space around us’, but this assumes there is no connection between ourselves and that space. To think and act more holistically we need always to acknowledge our interconnectedness, both obvious and hidden.
At times, green words get in the way of our aspirations because they trigger inappropriate or inadequate responses from those who read or hear them.
Likewise, in our churches. For those brought up in a culture familiar with church customs and biblical expressions, there is an assumption that the religious words we use are obviously clear in their meaning. I no longer think this is true.
Some anthropologists distinguish between ‘high context cultures’ and ‘low context cultures’. The former are traditional societies where people share the same stories, customs and rituals which can be repeated over generations. But low context cultures are situations in which people are more diverse and do not know the traditions, which then need to be expounded and learned rather than simply reiterated.
This is where we are in Britain today, which means that churches have to unpack the language they use and the rites they perform. Religious education has replaced catechetical practice. So, figurative phrases such as King of the Universe, Lord God Almighty, Son of God, Saviour, Heaven, Sin, Gospel, etc. need to be explained to be understood.
Historically, these metaphorical terms have been comprehended distinctly at different times – and occasionally the modern descriptions vary significantly from their originators’ purposes. We now know the meaning of language can change over time and we need to continually translate into our modern situation if we are to comprehend it more deeply.
This is nothing new. Words used to describe ‘the Holy’ in Scriptures are diverse and frequently change according to the human experiences of the day. Thus, God may be seen as both a strict judge but also a loving parent; an inanimate object or a living creature; a transcendent being or a close reality. Some theologians talk about the semitic God that was experienced in the desert as being quite distinct from the same God after the Children of Israel settled around their temple in Jerusalem. The first was the divinity of poverty and uncertainty, the second one of plenty and security.
The early Hebrew view was that the Divine could not be named but only known indirectly through symbol or representation. There could only be glimpses of YHWH or G-d, who is so all-present and all-knowing that words cannot capture Her or Him.
If we endeavour to re-state what the Christian gospel is today by re-interpreting the obvious religious words (that might serve as short-cut for some of us), can we outline particular features? Where might a superficial unpacking of language take us? Does this help our ecological understanding?
Maybe this can be attempted through conventional Trinitarian theology: God as Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Creation can be seen as the development of physical expansion across the Universe in general, and biological evolution on Earth in particular. Humans are part of this ongoing process and participate in the creativity of energy and matter. If we believe in a purposeful and causal factor to this, we may use a word such as Creator. I believe this is consistent with the various creation stories or narratives found in Christian scriptures, from Genesis to Revelation.
Spirit is the force of life which energises the planet and beyond. She (Spirit is feminine) is that which nourishes and strengthens the potential of the Universe – its beauty and its capacity to love. The Holy Spirit is figuratively the breath of the numinous which sustains our capacity to respire and live; it is the energy that pervades our very being. Again, this is a part of modern biblical hermeneutics.
Son – Jesus, Son of Joseph from Nazareth, offers a model of what it means to become more fully human – embodying the importance of vulnerability and the struggle of wholeness for all. This is partly exemplified in his teaching and action, with their emphasis on just and peaceful relations with the sacred land, nature, history, family, opponents, friends, the rhythms of life and with the Holy. The term Messiah or Christ attempts to summarise this understanding. Sin is that which alienates us from God’s love and the way of the cross for Jesus (and for all of us) enables us to overcome our estrangement.
From these perspectives, those who question whether the Church should be involved in addressing climate change or species loss, for example, may reach unexpected conclusions. This change of linguistic emphasis can prompt us to re-explore our preconceptions, suppositions and prejudices.
So, if we are to be more effective campaigners for the cause of the whole inhabited earth and engage with the massive threats the planet’s life currently faces, let us be careful about the language we use – in church and without.
All best wishes for a plastic-less Lent
“We need a new theology of the cosmos, one that is grounded in the best science of our day. It will be a theology in which God is very present, precisely in all the dynamisms and patterns of the created order, in which God is not rendered absent by the self-organizing activities of the natural world, but in which God is actual as the one who makes and the one who is incarnate in what is made by these very self-making activities.” — Beatrice Bruteau