What We Talk About When We Talk About Language: Cultivating Faithful Speech with Faulkner, Taylor, Hauerwas, and Wiman

Caravaggio’s “St. Jerome Writing” (from Wikimedia Commons)

It’s been a long while since wrote anything here on this blog.  I took a hiatus, which I will probably write about at some point.  But for now, I would like to get back into this by quoting four passages that have stuck out to me lately (well, some I’ve known about for quite a while), all having to do with language–its necessity and its limitations–especially when it comes talking about God and our experience of him.

This is of interest to me because, ever since I was young, I have struggled with language, especially language used in church–language about God, faith, justification, salvation, etc. This struggle was never primarily an intellectual problem for me–more of an existential one, if I can make that distinction.  Existential because the language that was used to describe one’s, say, experience of God, never really seemed to do justice to the complexity of my experience. Words or phrases used over and over again, a kind of code, created much angst for me because I couldn’t find my own voice that would match what I encountered.  Much of the language of my church community was worn slick with overuse and I needed to find my own.  That wouldn’t happen until much later and still continues to this day.

So because it’s been a while since I last wrote, I want to include here some quotations regarding language and faith that mean something to me–help me delve deeper into the mystery of life with God and his Son, Jesus.  I like to think that all of these voices here are in conversation with one another.  Put all together–at least to me–they help me make some sense of something so fundamental to our lives, and therefore common, that we often don’t stop to consider its (i.e. language and communication’s) influence on how we understand reality and what’s true.  Faithful speech is difficult in a world of complex realities–especially when those realities bump into the ways we talk about God and our faith (see Hauerwas below)–but it is a task that Christians, foremost of all people, are called to embrace as we seek to cultivate a community of faithful followers of the Word made flesh.          


“His voice was not unkind.  It was not human, personal, at all.  It was just cold, implacable, like written or printed words.”

                                                                                 ~ William Faulkner, Light in August, p. 130

“I know that the Bible is a special kind of book, but I find it as seductive as any other.  If I am not careful, I can begin to mistake the words on the page for the realities they describe.  I can begin to love the dried ink marks on the page more than I love the encounters that gave rise to them. If I am not careful, I can decide that I am really much happier reading my Bible than I am entering into what God is doing in my own time and place, since shutting the book to go outside will involve the very great risk of taking part in stories that are still taking shape. Neither I not anyone else knows how these stories will turn out, since at this point they involve more blood than ink. The whole purpose of the Bible, it seems to me, is to convince people to set the written word down in order to become living words in the world for God’s sake.  For me, this willing conversion of ink back to blood is the full substance of faith.”

                                                                   ~ Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church, p. 107 

Recognition of truthful speech begins when readers identify the words they encounter as an honest expression of life’s complexities.  The theological trick is to show that speaking honestly of the complexities of life requires words that speak of God.  Theologians betray their calling when they fear using such words and begin to think that they are not necessary.  Often the result is desperate shouting…as John Howard Yoder would have it…the task of theology is ‘working with words in the light of faith’…one can draw from his description the conclusion that words do not constitute the ‘light of faith.’  In fact, faith is nothing more than the words we use to speak about God.  And yet the God to whom and about whom we speak defies the words we use.  Such defiance seems odd, because the God about whom we speak is, we believe, found decisively in Jesus of Nazareth, the very Word of God.  Still, it seems the nearer God draws to us, the more we discover that know not what we say when we say ‘God’…How theology can at once be about God and about the complexities of human life is never easily rendered.  Some theologians in modernity have tried to split the difference between speech about God and the complexities of human life, with the result that their theology is more about ‘us’ than about God.  When that happens, it is not clear that you need the word ‘God’ at all.  If my work has seemed to be ‘in your face,’ I think it has been so because I have tried to show that ‘God’ is a necessary word.”

                                                                    ~ Stanley Hauerwas, Hannah’s Child, pp. 235-236   

“The purpose of theology–the purpose of any thinking about God–is to make the silences clearer and starker to us, to make the unmeaning–by which I mean those aspects of the divine that will not be reduced to human meanings–more irreducible and more terrible, and thus ultimately more wonderful.  This is why art is so often better at theology than theology is.”

                                                                                ~ Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss, p.130