Language of Spirit
I don’t know how many of you will have shared my childhood love of I Spy books. For those of you who have never heard of them, they are small books on a particular topic – that encourage children to be observant, and to make a note of what they see. Some of my favourite topics included The Night Sky, Horses and I Spy on The Motorway. Every time you spotted something pictured in the book you’d award yourself points, 10 points perhaps for finding something simple or as many as 250 points if you discovered something really hard to spot. In the very early days of the I Spy books you could send your completed book to Chief I Spy who would then send you back a signed certificate. But in later editions you were trusted to fill in your own certificate and I was probably not the only child to start cheating, just a bit. If you’ve been in a bookshop recently you might have seen the latest publishing phenomenon – re-writes of the old Ladybird books. I’m pleased to be able to tell you that I Spy books are also being reworked for the 21st century – to entertain us later I have copies of I Spy The UK – While It Lasts and I Spy Signs and Instructions you Must Obey. In these books you can earn 20 points for a home-made sign and 30 for philosophical graffiti – of the kind once found on the back of university toilet doors.
These books gave me the idea for our own I Spy project for the rest of this year – I Spy Religious Language. So far I’ve only managed to make a list of words for us – of 36 religious words for us to spot – but there’s space for more. My draft version of it can be found on the back of today’s hymn sheet and you can use it in any way you want. Give yourself points for using a word maybe or highlight the words you never use, or really like or dislike, underline the ones you wish you knew how to use in a sentence. Are there words you used at some time in your life and now avoid? Or vice versa?
One of the aims for our year of thematic ministry was to deepen our religious understanding as a community and to do that I think we need a vocabulary of faith that we’re comfortable in using. Discomfort with using religious language has long been an issue for some of us Unitarians. I’ve described it at times as an almost allergic reaction to words like God and sacred and the divine. Though we know that Unitarianism emerged from the Protestant tradition, from the non-conformists of the 17th century onwards, yet in some of our Unitarian congregations there’ll not be a Bible reading heard from one Christmas to the next. Though we’d happily read a Sufi prayer or a Hindu scripture. We find it easier to sing words like ‘holy’, or ‘God’ or ‘mercy’ than to say them. The use of metaphor and other symbolic language comes more easily to us in song and poetry – in our everyday language we may be more tentative – because we’re less practiced in using a language of faith, a language of spirit.
We may want language to be precise. We expect when we speak to be understood in the way we meant to be understood. But dig a little more into human discourse, both spoken and written, and we come up against the limitations of language don’t we: the limitations of any language in conveying the multiple possible meanings that can be ascribed to any word. We may as well be shouting ‘Mulla Nasrudin’ and ‘Bon appetit’ at each other over a cruise liner’s dinner table as happened in our story earlier on.
We know that our language is shaped by our culture. In turn our culture, our ways of being in the world can be said to be shaped by our language. When I joined a Unitarian community it was because they’d asked me to join one of their small groups that met over a number of weeks to explore the possibility of building our own theology. I found it so fascinating to be creating community together, where we encouraged one another’s spiritual growth. At our best we do this well – make opportunities for exploration of deep spiritual questions together, feeling safe enough to tell our truths, knowing that we’ll be listened to and our views will be accepted for themselves, for ourselves. At our best in our small groups we are allowed to be curious about each other’s faith, to ask questions to help clarify meaning, to be questioned and not feel put on the spot. Never feeling we have to apologise for our thoughts but rather be encouraged to express ourselves more. Not pushing our own faith positions on to others, not needing people to agree with us, but valuing being understood, and everyone being open to the possibility of being changed by the process of communicating together.
That’s us at our best. And in Unitarian small groups I’ve also experienced most of the opposites – where poor facilitation or unclear group agreements leave people potentially uncomfortable, unwilling to speak their faith, confused by other’s language yet not quite safe enough to ask for clarification.
One of the exciting developments in Unitarian circles in the time I’ve been around has been a growing interest in mystical or contemplative paths – the unknown, the inexpressible, the inward journey to the heart. Unitarianism was for so long the path of the rational, the explainable, and yet we seem now more able to combine seemingly divergent paths, seemingly different languages of spirit, not so separate or irreconcilable after all.
I asked Antony to read the first few verses of John’s Gospel that are such an expression of the gnostic tradition, of knowledge through inner exploration, of the power of the word to create. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”
Language has creative power. The ‘word’ becomes embodied and when we speak and listen from the heart as well as from the intellect we engage in a shared process of creativity. When we make use of traditional religious language we are reclaiming ancient vocabulary and I believe we have every right to bring our interpretations to such words, acknowledging that ours will not be the only interpretation, remembering that no one group can ever claim to hold the one and only truth.
As Unitarians our sacred texts may be found anywhere and everywhere. They are open to interpretation and we recognise that interpretations will change over time because for us religion is a human construct as is language. Yet religious language points to something greater than us, words are in some way mediating the sacred for us and our use of words will shape our individual living, and our ways of being together in religious community. My hope is that engaging with language of the spirit
• will strengthen our sense of being members and friends together in our church,
• will give us a way of communicating more effectively about spiritual matters
• and will give us a greater ability to speak of our faith with other people in our lives.
UU Minister Jeanne Nieuwejaar has written powerfully of this task of reclaiming religious language in her book Becoming Fluent in Faith. Let me end with her inspiring words: “For those beyond our congregations, my dream is that we might be able to speak fluidly and compellingly about our faith so that those in need of a community of strength and solace, a community to hold and guide their spiritual journeys, will have a clear understanding of who we are and what we can offer to them and to the world. But I also long for strength and clarity in how we talk about our faith so that those who may never choose our path still will understand it, and will respect it as a religious path with substance and meaning”. So may it be for us here at Essex Church, for our community of faith and understanding.
Rev. Sarah Tinker
Sermon – 22nd February 2017