Religious Language

In an era when the art of poetry has fallen on hard times, one of the biggest problems facing religion is its language. Many people have ceased to be believers because they somehow were given the idea that the language of the Scriptures or the Creeds has to be taken literally. The language of religion, if anything, has to be understood poetically, or it will not be understood at all.

Take for example those hallowed phrases of the Nicean creed that round out the celebration of the Easter season: "He (Jesus) ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father". How are we to make literal sense of that?

It could be argued that in ancient times, when people thought heaven was up somewhere in the sky beyond the clouds or beyond the stars, that such language made plain sense. But seated "at the right hand" of a God who is everywhere? How could that phrase be taken literally, even in ancient times? Obviously it meant something else quite beyond the words themselves. In a word, religious language, like poetry, is sacramental, conveying through its symbolic power something of the reality it signifies.

Nevertheless there are those who feel that things have come to such a pass in our times that all such symbolism has become "broken" and the language in which it is expressed needs to reformed and modernized, if not abolished entirely.

I must say that while I'm sympathetic to this radical view (not being much of a poet myself), something tells me that we might lose something precious in the process. After all, how many of us would feel comfortable with, much less inspired by those who might insist that we longer speak of "sunrises" or "sunsets", even though we know that these phenomena are but illusions produced by the spin of the earth?

So too, even if the church steeples had their origin back when people thought we occupied the second floor of a three-storied universe, still there might be an even better argument for keeping them as a prominent part of church architecture now that we know that ours is not an "earth-centered universe" but not even our solar-system or even our galaxy are the center of attraction.

In much the same way, the language of worship and belief, while it could use some updating here and there, must not be reduced to the prosaic level of our everyday world. While the "horizontal" dimension of religion, helping make this world a better place, is important, it is the "vertical" dimension -- the reaching beyond the confines of this world to the God "in whom we live, and move and have our being" - - that gives it life.

R W Kropf    June 6, 2000                                                Language.doc   00-06-06.html