Limitless Faith, Limiting Language

This weekend I offered a keynote presentation (as Martin Loser, Martin Luther’s fictional childhood friend) at a junior high youth gathering in my synod.  But I also gave a workshop on Christian denominations.  In both cases I sought images, metaphors and activities that could illustrate grace, sin, forgiveness, Theology of the Cross, and the unity/diversity shared by members of the Christian family.  And you know something?  That’s really hard to do.  These are immensely challenging topics to present to anyone, let alone a sugar-high group of junior high kids teetering on the brink of abstract thought.

As my wife and I brainstormed possible images and activities I could use to illustrate these themes, we constantly found how this image or that activity was inadequate, usually because it over-simplified the concept or had unintended implications for other aspects of God, life or faith.  And then I got to thinking . . . I’m not the first person to face the challenge of articulating God and faith through the medium of an imperfect and culturally-conditioned language.  I’m sure the Church Fathers, St Paul, and others struggled with how to express limitless faith through limiting language, not to mention the countless pastors and teachers of the church over the centuries . . .

And so it seems odd to me that some in our church want to enshrine certain linguistic forms as if they were the divine words themselves.  Perhaps I would have greater respect for this position if it sought to retain the Biblical Hebrew or Greek rendering of the words, but those who insist (for example) on exclusively masculine language for God or a Jacobian-era style of prayer place a culturally-narrow over-emphasis on linguistically antiquated forms of a translated text.

I am not saying that language is bunk and we are incapable of expressing anything about God through our words.  However, I am saying that language is imperfect and no words can capture the full meaning of God, grace or any other concept essential to our faith tradition.  In fact, it is in the layering of multiple terms and images (rather than a select few) that we can get a sense of the fullness of God and richness of our tradition.

God is bigger than our words, even if we only have words to express such an idea . . .

About Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. National Guardsman. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.
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One Response to Limitless Faith, Limiting Language

  1. LP says:

    No need to enshrine Jacobean language…the only place I think we even offer the option is with the Lord’s Prayer. (though I quite enjoy the cadence of the psalter in Jacobean language)
    I think a distinction needs to be made when it comes to langauge however. The Church Fathers and all theologians since have struggled with language. Many analogies and metaphors have been used for God. Even the Biblical witness gives us a plethora of images. However, I think there is a difference in using a multiplicity of terms in speculative theology or in theological discourse, and using those same terms in the liturgy.
    For example, I can recall in seminary a woman stating that she thought God was a black lesbian from a poor neighborhood, for that would really being God casting God’s lot with the truly oppressed. IT led to great discussion, and the analogy made a point the led to a higher discourse. This seems great as an academic exercise. However, the same language used in the context of liturgy would seem more than merely inappropriate.
    Words mean things…so the question is: what words do we choose?
    I would pose a secondary question that I think underlies all of this: Is the Christian faith truly limitless, or did it come with a set of limits imposed by the Divine?

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