Words come second

Words come second – Podcast #6

Salvation, redemption, sanctification, repentance, incarnation, conversion. What do these terms actually mean? We often treat them like technical terms, using each to signify a precise component of a constructed system of theology. But what if these terms are actually poetic terms about life? In that case, they’re not so tidily defined. But isn’t that a good trade-off? Isn’t it worth compromising some precision in favor of making them more relevant to our lived experience?

“Twenty people got saved that night.”

“Wow! That sounds amazing. Tell me more!”

“What do you mean? I already told you: they received salvation. They accepted Jesus into their hearts.”

That certainly sounds promising, but what does it actually mean? What did it then look like for those people as they went home? What changed in their lives? Were they happier? Healthier? More loving? More grateful? Did they transform in some way? What new impact did they have on others?

We often don’t ask these follow-up questions. We tend to stop at the certification, the “diploma.” It’s like deciding to hire someone based on a credential they got from taking a test, while ignoring their actual skills and experience.

This is a sure sign that our religion has become divorced from life. We go around speaking a code language, evaluating ourselves to make sure we’re speaking it correctly. That’s fine as far as it goes, but that’s often as far as it goes! Getting our theology right easily becomes a substitute for living a truly redeemed life. Not only that, but we are discouraged from talking about it in other terms. If, for example, we borrow a term from another religion, others look askance. We then focus all the more intently on how we’re speaking so as not to stray from the boundary lines. And lo and behold, our experience of God is diminished.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a sense of freedom around language instead of fear? Consider the freedom with which Paul spoke. Do you think he was trying to use only the accepted lingo? Of course not! He had direct, ongoing mystical experience of God. His words flowed forth like a fountain from that experience.

Now wouldn’t it be ironic if the people who were reading Paul’s words missed the point, thinking it was all about the words rather than the experience behind those words?

It’s not that we don’t care about experience. We do want to feel God. We do want to love God, to feel God’s love for us, and to love others. But we are stricken with a peculiar mental illness: we imagine that when we get our words, concepts, and beliefs just right, our life will fall into place. It’s like turning a secret code ring. In just the right configuration, God’s favor will be unlocked.

Not only does this illness limit our own experience of God, but we also fail to perceive the image of God in others. We check for their certification, their credentials. If they don’t conform to our requirements, then we completely distort or even shut down our perception of them as human beings! I’m speaking from experience here. When I saw people more loving than me who got “certified” at a different “school” or who weren’t certified at all, I had to do something quick to make sense of what I saw: I looked for the bad in them. Then I could tell myself, “See? There’s the sin.” My certification idolatry made me more, not less, judgmental.

Christianity is not God. It’s a formulation of our understanding of God. The key is to trust in the Reality of which the formulation speaks. If that Reality is truly real, we should not be surprised to find that there are other formulations. Indeed, we would expect this to be the case. Otherwise, we are no longer worshipping God but our own religion, our own formulation. “These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” (Colossians 2:17)

When you’re in touch with a great truth, you will find more than one way to describe it. When I say “we possess Infinite Intelligence in our very DNA” and “we humans are Magnificent Creators,” some Christians become uneasy. Yet if I say that we are “children of God” and “made in the image of God” and that God has “given us everything we need…to participate in the divine nature,” (2 Peter 1:3,4), they don’t bat an eye. Some verbal expressions of the truth are allowed and some are not. But is being “made in the image of God” such a trivial reality that there can be no other way to describe it? If we find ourselves policing our language in such ways, we should be highly suspicious that we’re not talking about known truths anymore. Instead, we’ve become dealers in static, lifeless words and doctrines. God, on the other hand, inspires poetry.

Since truth is only expressed—never captured—by language, we naturally are always finding new words to describe our experience. This is why Paul emphasized the importance of inspiration not only in writing the “words of God” but also in reading them: “The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 2:14)

We need a shake-up. We need real experience. We need to open our eyes, to look around, and to feel the sensations in our body. God is here right now! We need to spend time alone and with each other in a profoundly more present way. We need to see each other for who we are. We need to practice letting go of our thoughts for a time so we can begin to hear that “still, small voice.” We need to wake up! Then we can talk all we want about our experience and enjoy the new poetry and words that flow from it.