Sermon, October 25, 2015                        Watch your language

Given that it can be such a contentious issue, particularly in our Unitarian Universalist context, I thought it would be useful if this morning I preached about religious language.  Words are our primary medium for communication, but often they also lead us down the path to misunderstanding each other.  I am frequently made very aware of that as I reacquaint myself with American idioms, and am reminded of George Bernard Shaw’s famous epigram that the United States and England are two countries divided by a common language.  If, for example, I were to tell you that I was mad about my flat, would I be very cross about my puncture, or enthusiastic about my apartment?  And let’s not mention my promise to knock you up in the morning.

The use of correct language is important in our Unitarian Universalist context.  We are a people of the word, we tend to like words and plenty of them, but because we have a broad diversity of theological beliefs, and lack of, it can be difficult to find the right words for all situations.  And as if our diverse theologies were not challenge enough, we are also uber sensitive to language which might be is sexist, ageist, able-bodyist; nationalist, racist, or pretty much anything else-ist.

But particularly this morning, when we are about to welcome people into membership of the congregation, I want to be very aware of my Australian tendency occasionally to say things rather too bluntly for your delicate American sensibilities.  Especially this morning, I don’t want to use any language in talking about religious language which might in any way offend, exclude, confuse or alienate a single one of you.  I hope to say only that which will meet with universal approval.


Oh, forget it, let’s pray.  I mean, meditate.  I mean, have a time of quiet contemplation.  Oh, do whatever you want, call it whatever you want to call it, but while you are doing it, I will share with you some famous and ancient words.

A second try

You know, maybe it isn’t good enough for me not to say anything for fear of causing offence.  Maybe settling for the lowest common denominator, resorting to the innocuous and inoffensive, is a negation of what can be most exciting in religious dialogue.  Maybe the real challenge in using religious language is to learn ways not only to speak one’s own truth, clearly and unapologetically, but to listen with genuine openness to another’s truth.  Maybe the real challenge in communication is to see beyond the words, to understand that as all theology is actually autobiography, so words are no more, or less, than our best tools for telling the story of our journey to whatever beliefs, principles or values have come to form the foundation for our faith.

I am sure many of you have travelled to countries where English is not the native tongue, and perhaps even to countries where English has not become the default second language.  I know, isn’t it ignorant of people not to know how to speak to us so that we understand them!  So, there you are, trying to tell this other person what you want, and they are not understanding you, they are looking blankly at you and perhaps replying in their unintelligible gibberish.  So what do you do?  You raise your voice, of course.  You shout louder.  As if an increase in volume will penetrate the other person’s obtuseness.

A lot of conversations about religion and theology are like conversations with someone who does not speak English.  You just shout louder, thinking that somehow that will get the other person to understand you and be persuaded by you.  And once they hear you, well of course they will know what you are talking about, they will understand you, they will agree with you.  And if they refuse to agree with you, if they persist in interpreting the world differently from you even after you have very clearly explained it to them, and loudly at that, well the only reason is that they must be stupid.

One of the things I find most intriguing about so many religious conversations is that, with regard to God, for example, they start with the humble assertion that God’s ways are beyond our knowing, that God is inscrutable and mysterious, and then almost immediately come the categorical statements about exactly what God is like.  Insisting that only our language is the right language to describe God, only our experience is the true experience, and to use other language is wrong, and other experiences are invalid.

God, of course, is the most contentious of all religious words.  What do we mean by God?  Is God a noun, or a verb?  Is God real, or imagined?  Is God poetry or prose?  Is God to be dissected, delineated, described, defined to fit neatly into our comprehension?

The other day I was having a conversation with my partner, Vail Weller.  She is also a Unitarian Universalist minister, and we were talking about the difficulties and challenges of preaching in our context so that we were being faithful to our own truth, but doing so in language which you, the patient people in the pews, could hear and translate into your own truths.

(Phone rings)

Hello.  That’s extraordinary, I was just mentioning you.  I can’t talk now.  You of all people should know that.  It’s Sunday morning.  You know where I am and what I am doing right now.I’m in the middle of my sermon.

What?  Really?

Um, okay.  Wait, let me get a pen so I can write it down.

Uh uh.  Uh uh.  Yes, I got it.  Uh uh.  Yes, I will.  What?

Yes, I know you do.  I can’t, people are listening.  I don’t want to.  It’s embarrassing.  OK.  I love you too.

Um, that was God.  And she has asked me to tell you a few things.

First, she loves that you want to think for yourselves when it comes to religion.  She loves that you don’t believe things simply because somebody else has told you.  She understands that many of you can’t believe some of the things people say about her.  She can’t believe some of the things people say about her either.  She wants you to keep using your intelligence.  She loves that you like to think about things, to be rational.  Keep thinking, learning, growing in your knowledge.

But, she also wants you to know that she wants to be not only in your head, she wants to be in your heart.  She wants to be in the smile with which you greet others; she wants to be in the impulse you feel to reach out to help your neighbour; she wants to be in your indignation at injustice; she wants to be in the tenderness of your love.

She is very happy that you worry about using respectful language when discussing religion, especially when discussing her.  She thinks you are smart, and she likes that.  But she wants to remind you that she is found not only in words but in silence; not only in speaking but more so in listening.

That’s pretty much all she said.  I figure that there is not much I can add.

St Francis of Assisi told his followers “Never cease from preaching.  Use words if you have to.”  Seems like pretty good advice to me.  “Never cease from the conversation.  Use words if you have to.”