a winding trail in the desert
During a recent conversation, someone said to me, "I completely understand what you are saying." I was really struck by this response because I knew it wasn't true. The person may have thought that he "completely" understood me, but he didn't.
None of us ever "completely" understands what another person is saying. Words are ambiguous and imprecise, and every word we use carries all sorts of personal baggage. So in every conversation (any time we use words) we can only "sort of" understand what the other person means.
Even if I use very "concrete" words (house, car, street, restaurant, market) another person can never completely understand what I mean. I bring my own experience to these words; these words are packed in my baggage, and the other person does the same. So we can only "sort of" understand one another.
If this is true of concrete words and language, how much more does it apply to our use of more abstract words like religious words and theological language (God-talk). When we use this language we always only "sort of" understand the meaning of the words.
Yesterday I made a list of some theological statements (God words) I have heard or used all my life.
Jesus died on the cross to take away the sins of the world.
Let's pray really hard and maybe God will cure his cancer.
God has a plan for my life.
It's God's will that it happened this way.
Don't be sad, she's gone up to heaven to live with Jesus.
God is offended by my sins.
At one time I actually thought I completely understood what these words meant, nowadays I actually have no idea as to what they really mean.
I recently listened to a sermon and after it was over, I said to myself, "I honestly have no idea what the preacher was talking about." It's not that the sermon was hard to follow, it was very clear; however the words being used were essentially meaningless to me. After the sermon, I looked around at the people in the congregation and I wondered, what did they hear? What did those words really mean to them?
"Sin," "salvation," "God's will," "heaven," "God's plan," I don't have a clue about what all this really means any more.
It's not as if I have become an unbeliever in my later years - in many ways my belief has been strengthened. Rather now, I have become an explorer and an adventurer as I make my way through the intricate maze of religious language so I can "hear the words again for the first time."
So, I look at the "God-words" I have used all my life and I think of them as some strange foreign language that has to be translated into words I can understand. I look at all the words I used to "completely understand" and ask "what do they really mean? "
I am re-thinking all the "God-talk," and re-imagining all the theological certainties. It is an exciting adventure, and the exploration is fresh and exhilarating.
I think all religious people nowadays should become explorers.