Saturday, April 19, 2014

My Name is Carolyn, and I'm a Wordaholic by Carolyn Arends

You may have noticed that many of the Canadian Writers Bloggers this month have been offering (rather delightful) glimpses of their pathways to the writerly life. I have resonated with so many of their stories. It seems appropriate to share here my most recent Christianity Today column ... all about the power of words, the need for silence, and the relationship between the two.

Listen. Write. Rinse. Repeat!

Knowing God Means More Than Describing Him

Sometimes, our spiritual experiences can't be put into words

the-ocean-4In the April, 2014 issue of Christianity Today

 I tackled my first English essay in college with enthusiasm, a thesaurus, and a naive disregard for page limits. The paper came back with the following comment: "Carolyn, you've made some fine points, but unfortunately they are lost in a sea of circumlocutious wordiness."

 I've always loved words. A well-turned phrase can replace chaos with cosmos. Solomon likened words aptly spoken to apples of gold in frames of silver (Prov. 25:11). When a preacher parses some Greek or Hebrew, I'm astonished at the vistas of meaning that hide within a bit of syntax. Words are teachers, Swiss Army knives, and painters' palettes. Given the right choreographer, they dance.

Yet, for all my love of language, I've been troubled by a growing sense that I need to pay more attention to wordless things. I don't mean simply that "actions speak louder than words"—although they often do, and we should all be required to balance each use of "compassion" with at least ten compassionate acts. Lately I've been wondering: Have I reduced the scope of what I can know to what I can articulate?

Occasionally, something—a strain of music, a friend's touch, a sunset, or simply a sudden sense of Presence—will "speak" to me. When that occurs, I have an overwhelming urge to put whatever's happening into language. Otherwise, it doesn't seem real. This impulse is particularly noticeable in my devotional life. Give me a prayer list or a passage to study, and I'm there. But ask me to sit silently in God's presence, and I get anxious.

Ronald Rolheiser, a Catholic writer, distinguishes between meditative and contemplative prayer. In the former, he argues, we are active and verbal. In the latter, we are passively inarticulate. When we try to perceive God, Rolheiser suggests, we're often like a fish who asks his mother, "Where is this water we hear so much about?" First, the mother might set up a projector at the bottom of the ocean to show pictures of the sea. Then, she might say, "Now that you have some idea of what water is, I want you to sit in it and let it flow through you." That difference—between thinking about water and actually attending to it—is like the difference between meditation and contemplation.

Epistemology (the study of how we know what we know) often emphasizes knowledge rendered in propositional statements: I "know" that 2 + 2 = 4. But there is also "acquaintance-knowledge," gained through direct encounter with another person, place, or thing. Many non-English languages have a distinct vocabulary to signify the profound differences between these ways of knowing. For example, the verb for knowing something factually is wissen in German and sapere in Latin, while "acquaintance-knowledge" is designated kennen (German) and cognoscere(Latin). The first kind of knowledge is general, abstract, and easily put into words. The second is individual, particular, and often hard to articulate. You find wissenin textbooks and creeds; kennen comes through relationships and experience.

One of my favourite preachers says that, by Tuesday, he must "break the back" of whatever passage he's going to teach on Sunday. In this mode he's seeking wissen—knowledge of the text that he can codify, control, and explain to his congregation.

Alternatively, one of my favorite contemplatives says that his faith only flourishes when he lets a passage break him. He uses the practice of lectio divina ("sacred reading," or dwelling on a text to listen for the Holy Spirit) in order to pursue a more direct encounter.

I believe both modes are essential. God indeed invites us to "come . . . reason together" (Isa. 1:18, ESV). He also implores us to "be still, and know" that he is God (Ps. 46:10). In the earliest Latin Bible translation, the verb for "know" in this passage appears as cognoscere—acquaintance-knowledge—not sapere.

Perhaps it's fitting that I devote my final Wrestling with Angels column to exploring the power and limits of words. We've exchanged a lot of them over the past five years, and I'm deeply grateful. Rest assured, I'm not giving up on language—you can count on my circumlocutious wordiness in future pieces for ct and, Lord willing, in songs and books to come.

Yet I hope to write without the assum­ption that everything knowable can be named in words. Our God is both the Word who became flesh (John 1) and the Spirit who "himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words" (Rom. 8:26, ESV). Let's swim not only in the sea of our own words and ideas about him, but also in his fathomless ocean of love.

300x250 Arends - high res


Peter Black said...

Carolyn, I've always enjoyed your CT pieces when posted here. This word study is no exception, and it is more than academic: fodder for the mind, food for the soul and an uplift for the spirit.
Thank you.

Tracy Krauss said...

As Peter said, there is a lot to chew on here. (Only he said it much more eloquently!)

Glynis said...

What a lot to contemplate! Carolyn, how wonderful that you took the time to share your heart and a little of how your brain works with words. 'Epistemology' - admittedly - is a new one to me. I've often wondered about how we know what we know - fascinating! Thanks for this great post!

Kathleen Gibson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kathleen Gibson said...

(Carolyn, I deleted my comment while trying to edit it, in case you're wondering.)As always, you make me think. I appreciate your balanced approach to communion with God and his Word. I've observed that too often the teaching of contemplative prayer encourages chasing after an experience instead of wrangling for biblical truth. It's a fine balance, isn't it -- being still before God and training one's mind to focus on what the Holy Spirit wants to say to us through His Word, rather than emptying the mind. For me, it's rather like taking my cat out on a leash some days. Keep the circumlocution circumlocating. ( that a word?)

Peter Black said...

Carolyn, s'me again (more correctly: 'tis I again ;) ).
If I might respond to Kathleen's " that a word?"
Even it wasn't, it is now -- you wordsmith, Kathleen!
That's the beauty of language, isn't it? It's dynamic and allows for innovation and growth.
Hey, even the name we bear -- "Christian" -- was coined to denote "followers of the way."
I'd better quit 'circumlocating' and cease making feeble attempts at grandiloquence, eh. :)~~+~~

Eleanor Shepherd said...

Thanks Carolyn for your comments on contemplation and meditation. I have often thought that we need to try to keep these in balance, since both are essential for our spiritual growth. Thank you for encouraging me to think deeply.

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