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The Inadequacy of Words

Sunday, January 31, 2021


The Inadequacy of Words
Sunday, January 31, 2021

My thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways are not your ways. . . . As high as the heavens are above the earth, so my ways are beyond your ways, and my thoughts are beyond your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8–9)

Jesus had been formed by this quote from Isaiah, which teaches Jews humility before the mystery of God (see Ecclesiastes 3:11; Job 11:6; Psalm 139).

When we presume we know fully, we can all be very arrogant and goal oriented at the expense of other people. When we know we don’t know fully, we are much more concerned about practical, loving behavior. This has become obvious to me as I try to observe human nature. Those who know God are always humble; those who don’t are invariably far too sure of themselves (which is different than grace filled self-confidence).

When we speak of God and things transcendent, all we can do is use metaphors and pointers. No language is adequate to describe the holy. As in a familiar portrait of Saint John of the Cross, we must place a hushing finger over our lips to remind ourselves that God is finally unspeakable and ineffable. Or, sharing Jewish tradition, we may even refuse to pronounce the name “YHWH.”

In my experience, the people who find God are usually people who are very serious about their quest and their questions, more so than being absolutely certain about their answers. I offer that as hard-won wisdom.

The Bible, in its entirety, finds a fine balance between knowing and not-knowing, between using words and having humility about words. The ensuing Christian traditions have often not found that same balance. What I’ve called “Churchianity” typically needs to speak with absolutes and certainties. It thinks it has the right and the obligation to make total truth-claims and feels very insecure when it cannot.  Thus, it is not very well trained in insecurity and trust.

I understand that early psychic need for clarity, certitude, and identity, especially to get us started when we are young. Religion, though, also needs a balancing agent to unlock itself from the inside, which most of us would call the mystical or prayer tradition. (“Mystery,” “mystical,” and “to mutter” all come from the Greek verb muein, which means “to hush or close the lips”). Without this unlocking, we will not produce many mature Christians, and certainly not Christians who can build any bridges to anybody else.

This internal balancing act emerged as two streams in the world of spirituality: the knowing tradition and the not-knowing tradition.  The formal theological terms are the apophatic or “negative” way, where you move beyond words and images into silence, and the kataphatic or “affirmative” way, where you use words, concepts, and images. I believe both forms are necessary, and together they create a magnificent form of higher consciousness called biblical faith. This great and healing balance is still rather rare, however, because the ego insists on certitude and perfect clarity (as if that were even possible with things divine).

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Franciscan Media: 2008), 110–111, 113–115.

Story from Our Community:
My calling in my retirement years has not been my choice—I am sole caretaker for my husband who is physically disabled, has dementia and multiple medical diagnoses. Some days are good and some days I have less patience, stamina and hope. Reading Richard Rohr’s words first thing in the morning helps keep me fortified. There is such beauty in this world and small miracles and blessings occur each day if we quiet our minds enough to notice them. —Eileen A.

Image credit: Ladder and Chair (detail), Photograph by Thomas Merton, copyright the Merton Legacy Trust and the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University. Used with Permission.
Image inspiration: How do we look beyond what we think we already know? At first glance the shadow of chair and ladder may be confusing, but shapes and meaning begin to emerge upon a longer contemplation.
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