Not too long ago I received an email that was pretty critical of me. This, of course, has happened before, but it’s also not an every day event. Either way, it always stings - words hurt.
This particular letter used words like agnosticism, atheism, humanism, belief and teachings, disprove, Christian, archaic text and imaginary savior.
The gist was that I can’t be who I really am at church, or say what I really want to say - which is a humanist, agnostic, potential atheist - because my livelihood is tied up into trying to bring some credibility to my Christian biases.
To sum up: someone considers me to be fake.
No one likes to be called fake. But I really don’t. Especially as a pastor. Pastors have been known as fake for as long as water has been known as wet. I despise the connotation. But I tried to listen anyway. I read the email many times.
To be honest, after thinking about it, the only way I could respond to the email was “What do you mean by all those words? You might be exactly right but I’m not sure.” I don’t think I’m fake, but depending on the author’s definition of the words used, I could potentially understand how he/she might think so.
After some back and forth emails the person writing told me I had “big balls”. So, I went from “fake” ‘to “big balled” which, again, I’m not exactly sure what it all means.
Or how about this one? A requirement for a foundation of Christian faith is “Faith in the divinity of the historic Christ (not only prophet and perfect man, but also object of love and worship).”
Agree? Disagree? Depending on what we mean by divinity, faith, historic, and Christ I might agree. You might.
But, I also might not. You might not.
And this is so much of my life. Well... what does that word mean? I might agree. Or might not, depending on… This is so many of the conversations with my brothers... well what do you mean by beauty, by truth, by art, by good?
I’ve fallen in love with the word polysemous. (Not a sentence I thought I would ever type.) My friend Matthew Roy (master of Russian Literature, piano, and many other things) introduced it to me in some emails we were sending back and forth.
Polysemous refers to words with many meanings - like bank, crane, speaker, or bat (if it’s not immediately obvious read those words again).
But there are many more words with multiple meanings than just the obvious. Here are a few I have found to be pretty important:
We could go through the entire list but what if we just start with the word “god”? Every human being either believes in a god, doesn’t believe in a god, or isn’t sure if they believe in a god and the word “god” might be the most polysemous word ever spoken.
What the hell does god mean?
Zeus, Allah, or Mystery?
How do we know what we do, don’t, or might believe in? We could probably tell an Atheist they do believe in a god and a Theist that they don’t, depending on how we define god. (Ignosticism might be on to something here with the claim that both Theists and Atheists are off until they define the concept of the word they are both using.)
Even if I think I’m using the right word, someone else may think something completely different than what I had hoped. When I use a word today, it might mean something different than when I used the same word a few years ago and I will probably mean something different in a few years from now. And that’s just for me and my perception of words via my culture, experience, and perspective.
Which makes language and our use of words (and their power) even more fragile, and yet, powerful than we think.
There is an aversion to some words, no matter how right a definition, because of past pain and trauma associated with them. Others may say the same word has “saved” their life. They are in love with the word and will express bewilderment at anyone who “doesn’t know what they mean” or finds the definition offensive.
All of the words on the list above are prime examples of both of these experiences. There are words that we just don’t want to have a relationship with anymore and we can’t understand why anyone would. And there are words that we are so in love with that we can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t love them as much as we do.
Put all of this together and you end up with some interesting combinations of words. How about this fine collection: “My pastor at church tells me that god loves me and has granted me salvation from hell if I repent of my sin and that I will be righteous and holy and go to heaven where there will be no heretics because god is full of justice. Jesus died for my sins. God Bless America...”
I honestly have absolutely no idea what that means because it could, quite literally, mean anything… but I can also honestly tell you I have a strong distaste for everything about that paragraph. The words are stained and toxic. Still, if you gave me 10 minutes, I could agree with them with certain definitions of the words... definitions that not everyone might agree with.
So, words matter, and yet, they can’t matter. Not to the extent that religion has made them matter.
They are... just words.
And often excuses. We sometimes throw them out like a flare hoping they will distract from the missile headed toward our deeper selves or ourperceived responsibilities - a distraction from the things we don’t understand or don’t really want to talk about. A perceived solution to our shame… that only make us feel more unworthy in the end because we’re faking what we’re even saying.
Of course, I believe in Jesus! Now stop asking me any more questions about things that actually matter... like... what does it mean to believe in Jesus.
We can speak so many words but what do we really know?
And yet, I’m asking all of these questions... with words.
I don’t know.
It feels like the world gets a little lighter every time they are uttered by a human being.
I don’t know.
Wait, what? You don’t know either? Thank God.