Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Faith with words, words without faith

The news article stated that presidential candidate Mitt Romney has trouble speaking about his faith.  Is that because he is a Mormon and some people think Mormonism is a cult or is it because he doesn’t like talking about what happens  inside himself?  

Many people have trouble speaking about their faith. Faith is intensely personal to them, like bathroom problems,  not something openly discussed.  It’s okay to talk about sex to the smallest grasp or gasp.  That intensely personal experience  is displayed  openly on movie and TV screens.  

But faith – keep that to yourself.  Instead people ask “How’s your sex life?”  To ask about their faith would be a faux pas of the highest order. Sex is public, faith is private, if there at all.

I grew up in a religious culture leaning toward fundamentalism where it was important to have a religious language you could use with ease, especially with people of the same orientation.  They expected it, and if you didn’t use such language you were suspect.  Not quite in the fold.

So some people were always sprinkling God-words over everything: “God told me to do this,”  “The Lord was speaking to me ....” “How are things between you and the Lord?” was not an uncommon question. “Do you have a testimony for the Lord this day?”  was another.   You were expected to exchange God-words. 

Testimony meetings were common, so if you didn’t want to be considered a backslider you had a “testimony” ready to produce on the spur of the moment. I think of the great revivalist and church builder John Wesley who  admonished his listeners he didn’t want any testimony that was older than a week. In other words,  living the faith life meant having new experiences  all the time. It meant having an ongoing connection with God. He didn't want worn-out faith words.

An older preacher-friend called  unthought-through  God-words  a “manufactured” faith – faith that consisted of words pasted together in the right combination to make people believe you had faith.   They were memorized faith-words but without faith. The once popular writer A.W. Tozer called it “conventional religious chatter.”

In semantic classes I tried to teach college students that the word is not the thing. The word “chair”  is  but a symbolic representation of that item of furniture we sit on.   To be able to speak  the  sounds for the article  “chair” does not mean the sounds are the chair.  Because of language we can speak of concrete items through symbols.  We need symbols to be able to communicate.

To have the words for  a recipe for chicken soup does  not mean being able to put the soup on the table for lunch.  In  Herta Mueller’s The Hunger Angel the  starving inmates in forced labor camps in the former Soviet Union list and describe all the ingredients of  former much-enjoyed meals to one another, slowly, in great detail. But  these words carefully chosen have  no calories in them. They are words only.  The symbol is not the thing.

Similarly, to be able to say the words of faith does not mean having faith.  Some people  have faith but lack words.  I don't know about Romney's problem. I'll leave that up to him.

As I add years to my life I ask myself  if  I have more words about faith?  Or more faith without words to describe it?  Do I have better words?    

Words are important to faith. But empty words are meaningless.  True words are powerful.  I pray that my faith language might always  be true words.  Fewer. Clearer. 

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