Does language always limit the way we talk about, think about, or even pray to, God?
This question has been on my mind for the past few days.
This past weekend I attended a service at a nearby Episcopal Church. The liturgy came from Enriching Our Worship, a contemporary, inclusive language resource approved for use in Episcopal Churches. For the most part it was poetic and lovely. However, one phrase during the Eucharistic prayer startled me — and not in a good way.
Glory and honor are yours, Creator of all,
your Word has never been silent;
you call a people to yourself, as a light to the nations…
“Your Word has never been silent.”
I was stunned. It felt like a slap in the face to the practice of contemplative prayer.
Is this prayer implying that God lacks the power to speak to us through silence, or values silence so little that it is always overrun by the noise of the “Word”? Or perhaps it is implying that God’s Word (i.e., Christ) never prayed in silence?
Because on the surface, it appears to be saying one if not both of these things.
Now, I can do a kind of interpretive dance around this. It’s not meant to be anti-contemplative, it’s just an affirmation of God’s loving word spoken throughout all times and all places. God’s Word is Christ, and Christ is never silent, because Christ always calls us to reconciliation and renewal.
In other words, blah blah blah.
This reminds me of how defenders of gendered language in liturgy make their case. When we call God “Father” this does not mean God is male, in a human biological sense. And when we call humans “mankind” that’s not meant to exclude women either. Yada yada yada.
Now, I doubt that the author(s) of the Enriching Our Worship Eucharistic prayer were setting out to write something that seems to attack contemplation. They were just trying to make a poetic statement abut the pervasive presence of God’s Word, Christ, in our lives. But by doing so, they inadvertently said something that sounds like bad theology (at least to me).
Maybe the idea that God’s Word is never silent is not a big deal to most people. But as someone who believes the problems in Christianity mostly stem from its rejection of its own contemplative heritage, language like that is stunning in its implication. Likewise, a lot of people don’t understand the importance of inclusive language, mainly because they enjoy and find comfort in traditional language, gender bias and all. But to others, such kind of language leaves them feeling excluded, or unhappy because it appears to exclude others.
My point is this: whether we’re talking about something as obvious as gender bias or even something as seemingly innocuous as “Your Word is never silent,” language — even the best, most traditional, most poetic language — always seems to fail us when it comes to talking about, or praying to, God. God is greater than language, so when we try to talk about (or to) God, we are trying to fit something infinite into the finite container of human speech and syntax. And the result is always messy.
So what should we do? Should we give up on talking about God? I don’t think so, although arguably that’s what atheism is all about. When an atheist says “I don’t believe in God” he or she is saying, by implication, “God is not worth talking about.”
A better approach, what I believe to be the more contemplative approach, is to continue to talk about God, since God is love, and justice, and mercy and forgiveness, and we live in a world that is starving for all these things. But we need to talk about God with great humility and non-attachment. Our language about God will sooner or later fail.
What we believe reveals God may inadvertently conceal God. Our human sin — our capacity to hurt one another, oppress one another, impinge on each other’s freedom — will creep into even the most mindful ways of talking about God. Knowing this can be an important step toward refusing to let our human language of God become an idol.
The essential key, of course, is silence. “Silence is praise” muses the Psalmist; and Elijah encountered God in “the sound of sheer silence.” Silence does not make language obsolete or unnecessary, but it does help us to hold our language lightly. This not only can keep us from turning our language into an idol, but can also help us to be forgiving when we hear God-talk that is limiting or exclusionary or oppressive.
In other words, I know that “Your Word is never silent” is a limiting way to talk about God. But when I pray in silence, I am reminded that I do not need to let that kind of language impact my own spirituality. As the Quakers say, “better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”
Perhaps this blog post has been a bit heavy on the cursing-the-darkness side — so I’ll be silent now. For silence — praying contemplatively — is a way of lighting a candle for God.
Is there language about God that you find limiting or exclusionary? Or language that you think is important to retain? Leave a comment to share your thoughts on this topic.