What is another word for theology, incarnation, resurrection, salvation, sacrament, and every other theological word that the most people in the pew can’t define much less the person in line at Starbucks?
Several years ago, a good friend of mine, the Reverend Daniel Richards and I would regularly meet for coffee. Somehow the conversation always turned towards the theological end of the table. We talked about life among young adults. We asked big questions. We talked about God. We were doing theology. We carried those conversations into our Thursday night gathering with young adults; something we called Peregrini. The topics for those caffeine stoked nights were always built on a question; “God?” “Life after Death?” “Resurrection?” You know. Those small topics. What Daniel and I were discovering was that theology is best done out of the context of a conversation. The problem is, no one knew what the word ‘theology’ meant—much less words like Eucharist, incarnation, resurrection, salvation, or sacrament. Most of all, they didn’t care. They did have some reactions—mostly adverse feelings towards words like baptism, conversion, and sin. While words like grace and forgiveness felt better, few had little experience with those words when it comes to the church. But, having conversation, that was another matter. Young adults, and truthfully, most people, want to have a conversation, even about God. A conversation between two souls wrestling with God, questions can be helpful, even hopeful.
The word theology is typically a turnoff to anyone but certain clergy and academic types. Theology, simply put, is the study of religious faith, practice and experience. Words, especially religious words, are so loaded with negative baggage that most everyone, including those in church, has lost interest. I’ve begun to wonder if we could find ways to re-ensoul these ancient words with new life? Or do we have to find new words, or forgotten words without baggage in order to have soul conversations about God?
At times our Peregrini group got close to re-ensouling words. Peregrini reminded me of a more famous gathering who struggled with faith and words. I can imagine the Inklings gathered around a pint in Oxford. C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams working at changing the course of art, thought, and theology. Instigating a revolution by evolution. They were doing theology through conversation. They were using old words in new ways—creating a fresh look at language to express their musings, fears, wonderings about the divine. They took bold risks. They made up words. Used ancient words in new ways. They didn’t think outside the box. They created a new box.
Barfield said that words have souls—souls that contain the souls of the ancients of the past; as such, they tell the story of consciousness; the souls of the words carry the consciousness of the ancients into the future. (Fellowship of the Inkling, 107) Something like what Saint John the Divine was imagining when he wrote, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” God is a verb, not a noun. That changes everything. I think Saint John was struggling just like we do to find a poetic artistry in order to describe our evolutionary experience of the divine. The Anglican poets John Donne, George Herbert, W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, R.S. Thomas were also crafting alchemical artistry through the words of life to tell us about their spiritual experience. They had a soul-centric worldview. A word-centric worldview. They had mystical experiences. They crafted their words. Their work was bathed in soul conversations with others who dared the same experiment.
Con-versation is the idea of creating a living poem—of verse flowing from one soul to another soul, through time. Having a vulnerable soul conversation in a public setting, a coffee shop, a pub, on a sidewalk, on Facebook can invites others and the holy to listen in. These soul conversations can create the possibility for words to evolve. We can explore how to use language to describe our experience with the divine. This public action of doing soul conversation about God with others, which includes God, is similar to what the Zohar teaches—rabbi’s interpreting scripture (doing Midrash) in community. They were practicing a personally felt spirituality of the soul that was steeped in the murky milieu of conversation. (Meditations on the Tarot, 267)
Words matter. The words we use in conversation matter. The words in soul conversation can matter the most. Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, Old Testament theologian Walter Bruggemann, Franciscan monk and Roman Catholic priest Richard Rohr, and post-postmodern philosopher Ken Wilber agree on one at least one thing—words matter, a lot, more than that, words are the I, the She/He, the IT, the We in human understanding. I suggest that we must be willing to have public conversations about God. Now is the time to have these public conversations using words of the “World Come of Age.”
We must search for words that are devoid of Renaissance, Reformational, Enlightened, Modern, and even Postmodern baggage. We may have to reach back for those words to a time even before Jesus. Or we may need to strain forward to find new words. We definitely will have to re-ensoul heavy theological words. Old words and new words, words that are open to new meanings and new interpretations. We must do this work for a time in the future we can only imagine but may never experience. We are compelled to do this work in order to have vital conversations about God—today—so that we may have conversations about these soul experiences, today, and tomorrow. If words like “theology” have lost their souls, then we have to either re-ensoul them or bury them. I wonder, what words do you imagine we could use to describe our conversations about God, with God?