As my faith has grown, changed, expanded, and, I believe, matured, one of the most significant discomforts I’ve experienced has been with language.
Do you dare to enter the tangled thought web that is my mind? Come along, brave soul.
The word “deconstruction” carries baggage for me. I would never use that word to describe what has happened with my faith. For me, the word denotes a breaking down, or a disassembling, when I feel more like there has been an expansion and a broadening. The very nature of human growth and development–the only way that any living thing survives–is by evolving and adapting. Science, baby! The minute we stop growing and developing is when we begin diminishing and falling into decline.
Some people use the “it’s just semantics” argument about thoughtless, throwaway utterings, meaning “it doesn’t really matter, it’s just a word.”
But words are not just words. They carry weight, meaning, and nuance. A particular word for you might evoke feelings of safety and joy, while the same word for me might feel scratchy and dangerous.
One of the most surprising struggles for me personally during this time has been with navigating God’s pronouns. I don’t want to use he and his and him all the time, because it sounds patriarchal. And clearly, if God is all, then it’s also inaccurate. I also hesitate to use she and her and hers consistently, because that apparently relegates me to a category to which I don’t fully belong either. I’m still adjusting to the use of they and theirs for a solo-entity, because, grammatically-speaking, these were plural words in the English language until very recently…although, arguably, a tripart God could certainly be called they and theirs.
I’ve tried interchanging regularly between he, she, and they, but that feels weak and watery. Indecisive. Lately, I’ve avoided the issue altogether. Instead of employing pronouns, I’ve tended to restructure sentences so that I never have to choose. Kind of like when I cannot remember someone’s name, so I say “Heyyy!!”
If we were to employ world languages as a template, then we might better grasp how the words we use to describe faith, God, and our spiritual experiences, don’t need to divide us, or become grounds for conflict. The words water, agua, l’eau, and vann all mean the same thing. Not one of them is wrong. Not one of them is better. They are all linguistic and cultural expressions of the same element.
Why can’t a comparable dynamic exist in religious contexts? In my experience, there seems to be little acceptance and understanding for diverse expression. What I’m purporting—perhaps too simply—is that there is a very real possibility we are all talking about the same thing; using unique and beautiful language to do so.
Go ahead and stone me if you must. This is not new thinking for me. It’s a space I’ve lived in most of my faith career.
For me, the words “God the Father” and “Father God” feel warm and comfortable, safe and loving. Not angry, or patriarchal, or imposing. But this is not true for everyone. And also, sometimes you need the Mother. God is all. Masculine, feminine, father, mother.
The book, “The Shack,” was a phenomenon that pitted parties against one another in the way it portrayed God. I loved it. I rarely re-read books, because I remember storylines in detail, but I have read this book three or four times.
In “The Shack,” the trinity is represented with three different characters and personalities, just as I believe is true of God. All God, but all different. The personality who would traditionally be called the Father is portrayed by a woman. In the movie rendition, it’s the brilliant Octavia Spencer. The reason this is done–the reason God reveals themself as female–is not to push a particular envelope or agenda, but because the very nature of God is Love. The main character in the book, Mac, had issues and heartbreak in his relationship with his own father. God as a man would have been triggering and problematic for Mac, so God chooses to reveal herself as a woman. Out of love. Out of kindness.
Back to “not deconstruction.” I hesitate to construct with inadequate words what I’ve experienced in the last few years, but I want to try. I feel like I’ve zoomed out into space. Not in an “I’m so enlightened and so beyond you” way, but in a manner that has entirely altered my perspective. It was a hard departure. I felt like I was hurtling away from the solid ground I’d always known, and zooming up through Earth’s atmosphere for a lengthy amount of time. I was hit by debris, colliding with all of the elements orbiting the Earth. I felt jostled and jarred and pummeled. But when I finally exited that atmospheric gauntlet, it was quiet…dark and bright at the same time, peaceful and glorious. In this wide open space, the things of earth became strangely dim.
Up in the universe, my perspective on human interpretations of God and faith seem rather tiny and insignificant. All of the human structures–the rules, the social norms and worries associated with church and religion–are just that: human inventions. I can hardly even see them from this view point, let alone discern why they’re of any importance. I like it here. I have no desire to go back to Earth.
Even though my experience and the day-to-day practical working out of my faith has evolved, there continues to be a very close presence and relationship with the Divine, or Source, or Love. For a while, I completely went off the word “God,” because of what it connotes for so many people. I tried on other words, but for me, it all felt a bit contrived.
One day I heard/felt God say “Ellen, it’s okay to call me God.”
And I realized that in my culture, in my first language, this is the word I use to describe the person, the presence, the divine, the ultimate expression of Love. I don’t have to find another word. God works for me.
It’s no different than British versus American spelling. Both are correct and acceptable. As a Canadian, I am British spelling all the way…humour, neighbourhood, valour, centre. My American friends would likely view this as poor spelling or an editing error. But it’s not. It’s how we spell here in the Great North—or are supposed to. However, as I prepare texts for larger audiences, I question whether or not I should I choose spelling that is accessible to the larger group? Or do I use the spelling that feels correct to me?
I feel the same about trying to explain God. From my perspective outside the Earth’s atmosphere, none of this really matters, but what does matter to me is people. I love people, and I want the lessons I’ve learned and the stories I’m sharing to be open and helpful; not closed off or dangerous because of the words I’ve chosen.
I’ve been spiritually lonely in many ways these last few years as, once again, I’ve found myself in No Man’s Land; that space in between the two sides. I don’t fully belong in either camp. More traditional people of faith perceive the growth not as “growth,” but as a diminishing, weakening, watering down, or, god-forbid, “backsliding.” But those on the other side (perhaps with wounds from church or a disdain for religion) still think I’m churchy.
(Public service announcement: Hey everyone, I’m okay. This is where I have always lived, it’s just that now you know. Don’t worry about it. It’s all good).
It has taken time, but I have found (and am finding) my people. Some of them are in the church, just as I was all of these years. Some of them are not in the church. People like the Liturgists, Sarah Bessey, Jen Hatmaker, and many involved with “Evolving Faith,” just to name a few, have become a safe place for me. When I read their words, I feel the relief of being understood and known.
As I’ve explored what I perceived to be No Man’s Land, I’ve begun to notice all the other nomads who have come to abide here in the middle space. There are full communities and support systems…there are so many like me!
It’s a beautiful place. I think I’ll stay.