Wrestling with words that work: sin, simulacrum and other sabbath ramblings...

Let me follow-up my periodic and meandering reflections on alienation (or sin) that I have been sharing on and off for a few months.  Words matter - words can help or hinder - and words regularly fail to express the fullness of a thought, experience or truth.  In her book, A History of God, Karen Armstrong speaks of the early church fathers searching for a way to most precisely describe the mystical truth of God.  Realizing the limits of language, they employed the poetic wisdom of simulacrum - creating a metaphorical likeness or image of the truth - that is always reasonable albeit incomplete. 

In doing this the mystery of the Sacred came to be described as Holy Trinity - three in one and one in three - or Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There is both precision and imagination in this expression - depth and even playfulness, too. And while there is much more that could be said about God as Trinity - and often should be articulated, too - this poetic interpretation always points to a deep relational truth that lives beyond the limits of language.  Such poetry was never meant to be calcified - although that has happened - but rather was to be evocative in ways that opened the heart and soul of people to the blessings of the Lord that are experiential but never fully comprehended.

It is my contention that contemporary problems with theological language are rarely just the fault of our earliest imaginative poets. To be sure, these first century thinkers had as many blind spots and disconnects as do we in the 21st century. But that is up to each contemporary era to understand and correct -  to reform and remain reforming - throughout the ages.  Without this, the upside down values of God are buried under fear, rules and habit.  Small wonder, as Phyliss Trickle and Diana Bass have noted, that the church seems to need a profound revolution every 500 years in order to reclaim the creativity of our poetry from the confines of tradition.

Which brings me back to the word sin - and all of the baggage it carries.  The poet John Berryman wrote:  every generation is unwell in a new way.  Eugene Peterson goes on to note that one of the ways our generation is unwell has something to do with having "little consciousness of being a part of a community that carries in its Scriptures, its worship and its forms of obedience a life twenty and more centuries in the making." (Contemplative Pastor, p. 126) That is, not only are we certain that everything we are experiencing in life is totally unique, but that none of the old words apply or work.  Like Chrissy Hynde of The Pretenders sings: I'm special...oh so special!
But that's only part of the truth:  we are simultaneously made not only a little lower than the angels (Psalm 8:5) but also dust and ash to which we will return (Genesis 3:19) Indeed, there is nothing new under the sun as the wise old trouble-making preacher of Ecclesiastes observes.  "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun."  Peterson pushes the implications of this further noting that people who are certain they are special:

... are subject to consistent trivialization. They find it impossible to tell what may be important. They buy things, both material and spiritual, that they will never use. They hear the same lies over and over again without ever becoming angry. They are led to entertain, and for brief times, practice, all kinds of religious commitment from magazine moralisms to occultic seances. In none of it do they show any particular perseverance. But neither do they show much sign of wising up - of developing a historical sense - of becoming conscious that they are part of a continuing people of God and growing beyond adolescent susceptibilities to novelty and fantasy. (p. 126)

That is why in the past 10 years I have found myself returning again to the old words of tradition like sin to describe part of the human condition.  I have to wrestle with them in my context - and sometimes point out their inadequacies as poetic simulacrum - but also own the fact that rarely are there better alternatives.  These words are time-tested and work reasonably well when given careful and compassionate contextualization.

About 20 years ago, for example, I realized that all my understandings about God were incomplete.  How could they be otherwise, right?  But it seemed to me that I could not adequately express the fullness of awe, power, mystery, love and judgment by simply saying "God."  So, for a year I quit using that word.  It was a helpful exercise.  It forced me to rethink what I wanted to communicate about the Sacred over and over again.  And then, after a year, I realized that God was the best word available to me to speak of the Divine.  It wasn't the only word I used, but it was the best short cut that remained reasonably true.

Like Rabbi Harold Kushner once said about the traditional words of his tradition: they are time-tested, dragged through the sands of history until all the dross has been worn off.  His context was being in community and rewriting the words of the Yom Kippur liturgy.  The first year they did this, the new words were fresh and exciting.  In year two, the new words were mostly ok but seemed a bit dated.  And by year three they were stale and one dimensional.  So the community chose to reclaim the ancient words because they had poetry, nuance and depth.  We've done much the same thing in our Sunday morning liturgy:  we use new and old versions of the Lord's Prayer, the Doxology and other traditional expressions. Sometimes the old ways just work better - not always - but when they do we should honor them and use them wisely.

So I wrestle with sin - and use it alongside some of the contemporary alternatives like brokenness and alienation.  Fr. Keating of centering prayer fame speaks about sin as "our false self" and that has resonance, too. Those who work in faith communities must be tender and clear because this tiny word has done such great damage.  And perhaps that is its power:  it can both unlock shame and guilt and bind it, too.  It can set the captive free or damn her to a life of hell.

I suspect that throughout time people of faith have wrestled with the double edged sword of this word - and it was no more acceptable or comprehensible by society in Paul's time as it is in ours.  After all, he spoke of the Cross as being "foolish to those who are perishing but to those who are being made whole it is the very word of God." (I Corinthians 1:18)

For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

I think Peterson's contemporary reworking works well, too: While Jews clamor for miraculous demonstrations and Greeks go in for philosophical wisdom, we go right on proclaiming Christ, the Crucified. Jews treat this like an anti-miracle—and Greeks pass it off as absurd. But to us who are personally called by God himself—both Jews and Greeks—Christ is God’s ultimate miracle and wisdom all wrapped up in one. Human wisdom is so tinny, so impotent, next to the seeming absurdity of God. Human strength can’t begin to compete with God’s “weakness.”

With all sorts of qualifications and explanations, I continue to find that many of the old words work better than almost all the new alternatives.  So I am curious to know your take on all of this:  drop me a note when you can.

1) www.keithsrevolution.com
2) www.triarchypress.com
3) www.dreamstime.com


sandhilldiary said…
A few more thoughts:

I don't think of it so much as rejecting the traditional language as translating it for the modern ear. Not because the old language is inadequate but because it is so easily misunderstood and can so easily further alienate people who are already wounded in spirit at the hands of the sick part of the church.

It's like.... Peanut butter cookies. Love 'em. Have a great recipe. It consists mostly, in proper proportion and no particular order, of butter, sugar, eggs, flour, peanut butter and a couple of sundries like salt and soda. Don't need to mess with a classic.

Except, of course, if one is allergic to peanuts, or to wheat flour, or has an ethical objection to eating dairy or eggs.

So.... sometimes one might need to substitute ingredients: if no eggs, use another binder like flaxseed or arrowroot; maybe rice flour instead of wheat or coconut fat instead of butter.

After awhile it stops being the original recipe at all. A substitution might not work, or it might work badly - really I have yet to find a good workaround for eggs - but when the original ingredient renders the end product poisonous to a person who could be nourished by it...

So it is with language.

RJ said…
This is really interesting... A couple more thoughts, too.

I don't think there is one size that fits all in food, sexuality or religion. And at the same time I believe that there is a truth that runs deeper than subjectivity.

As with all wounds, the invitation and challenge is to invite and encourage healing. My hunch is that for some time - with the best intentions - part of the larger church has not encouraged deep healing, for those who have been wounded by the church and/or its language. In fact, my experience suggests that sometimes this tenderness is afraid to push the issue of healing. And so, like some benevolence programs, the wounded become pauperized in their brokenness and remain in this state forever.

And in this process, those who are less wounded never get to be fed with solid food. Like Peter writes: we are not to stay as children forever but must learn to nourished as adults. (Paul says much the same thing re: when I was a child...)That is to say, I think we've kept many people in an adolescent state of affairs.

I am of the AA world that says we ache for the hurting AND we don't enable addiction or even encourage the broken to remain in their pain.
Rather, there is a wisdom of our wounds (another subject to be sure) that invites growing up, growing stronger and living beyond the limits of our pain. That's one thought.

Re: peanut butter cookies - clearly they are not for everyone -for a variety of reasons. And it may be true that while substitutions for the allergic can be explored, it may be that they simply can't have them. Period. Not because they are bad, but rather because given an allergy they don't work. I think that is true re: spirituality and religion. I value the variety of Protestant faith expressions; and while I wish we could find a way to honor all of them and share things like Eucharist, I think it is healthy for people to have options.

My spouse has a number of food allergies and we search for substitutes all the time. And when the kids are home we also cook things that she can't eat, too. It isn't cruel to do so, it is just how our family works. I think that is true with words: there is a delicate balance between talking about hard and deep matters like brokennes and avoiding these things because a few have been hurt. I think we must acknowledge the hurt and invite/facilitate deep healing lest we operate on the basis of the lowest common denominator.

I hope that doesn't sound crass. Do you know what I mean?
sandhilldiary said…
I hear you, man, and I think we are at least kind of on the same page. It is not a one size fits all thing for sure. And I do not intend to suggest that - to stretch the metaphor - that nobody should ever eat peanut butter cookies because some people are allergic to peanuts or don't want to eat eggs. (That could be a whole 'nother rant wherein I show my petty frustrated shadow side indeed!) On the other hand, if the only thing being served is peanut butter cookies...

I do like the image of a pot luck meal where everything's neatly labeled and people who can't or won't have this or that ingredient can still find an abundance of things that will feed them and nobody needs to leave the table hungry.

So with spiritual discipline and religious practice, maybe. I don't begrudge anybody the deep places of Christianity if they can find a way into them - or of any other tradition. And I cherish the leadership that can guide people into those depths.

But I am discerning that my role, maybe, will be in a different part of the landscape - not the deep core of traditional faith but the rugged and unpredictable boundaries between the clear spaces. So for me a big part of this conversation is teasing out where those boundaries are and learning the landscape on both sides of them. And a big part of what I see in the landscape outside the traditional church - where I have spent most of the last twenty-five years - is the hurt and fear and anger that festers as a direct or indirect consequence of the church's failures. I would be remiss to lose sight of that. The people of God yearning for the holy are out there too.

And so coming back to the delicate balance of - how is it so often put? comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable? I think I get what you are saying about people getting stuck in whatever state or degree of brokenness they are in, due to not wanting deal with whatever hurt is there. (Maybe I am mis-paraphrasing that, but that is how I am reading it.) The hazard of making things too easy and too mushy and not adequately feeding or challenging people who are ready for something chewier than what they have had so far. This keeps turning up in discussions of spiritual growth (and how to keep people coming back to church when their immediate spiritual needs have been met) - growth and healing have to mean different things depending on what kind of shape a soul is in when she wanders in the door: in critical need or walking wounded, a new hurt or something ages old and festering, all the different ways it happens. You know far more than I do about this.

So where I am going back around to with all of this is that for me, as a seeker, and using my experience to feed back into my formation as a leader -- for me, if it's the language of the traditional church that's getting in the way of communicating a deep, healing idea, then it's time for new language. Not to permanently chuck the traditional language, not to say that nobody should use it ever, but simply that for now and in this moment, the water is more important than the vessel that carries it. I can come back for the traditional words later, after someone is used to the idea that, say, separation from and yearning for the holy is a normal part of human spiritual experience, something we're built with, something to lean into even though it's uncomfortable because that way lies wholeness. Attach the words "sin" and "redemption" to those ideas as you see fit.
Peter said…
A paradox: the old terms are, as Reb Kushner says, time-tested and honed over centuries, and yet are dragging all kinds of baggage with them. I accept the tension that these opposites generate--prevents taking theology for granted. I like Sandhilldiary's idea that what the old terms are trying to convey is more important than the terms themselves, that "calcifying" them, to borrow James's term, does no good whatever.

I call myself a Christian Unitarian because the Trinitarian formula stopped working for me-- it was like a pair of glasses that fogged up and actually prevented clear vision. That said, I greatly respect the Trinity as a pretty fair Description (emphasis mine) of how God seems to work. Trouble for me is, nearly all of our liturgy and hymnody treats the Trinity not as a description, but as a prescription, or Reality.

I remember back in the day at a lay ministry theology class, when I raised the origin of "sin" as borrowed from a Greek archery term (which it is), as in "off the mark".

"Yes," exclaimed the prof, "but what a mark!"

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