Along with a lot of other Christians, Presbyterians are too damn in love with words. Though celebrating the life of the mind as a way of faith is one of the things that drew me to Presbyterianism, I’m realizing now that sometimes we let ourselves get carried away. And, of course, we’re not alone.
Think about it. It’s often the case that a full third of a worship hour is filled with a single person preaching a sermon. In Presbyterian worship, this is the central moment of the service. And most of the rest of the service is words too. Sure, we set some of those words to music. And some of those words are prayers. But if this is the primary religious engagement of most Christians, it’s clear that we have a tendency to approach God through words.
The same is true about confirmation and a lot of youth ministry. We introduce and nurture faith through questioning and discussion. If we really think about the process of confirmation as a whole, and its culmination in written statements of faith, whether we mean to or not we are communicating to our young people that God is found in the words we use to talk about God.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how to articulate an unashamedly progressive understanding of Christianity. Without a doubt, traditional Christianity has been challenged and problematized by modern thinking. Fundamentalism is one response to this. It typically seeks assurance of God’s reality and presence through dogma and literal readings of the Bible. Liberal or progressive Christians take a different approach, but it’s still mostly done through words about God, words about faith, words about the church, etc. Either end of the theological spectrum and all points in between are wrapped up in talking about God. (“Theology” is, after all, “words about God.”)
While I fully intend to keep talking about God and articulating a progressive understanding of Christianity that isn’t afraid of modern or postmodern challenges to traditional Christianity, I’m no longer satisfied with simply playing word games. What I long for—and what I suspect many people in today’s world long for—is direct experiences of God’s presence. God’s all around us, of course. But it takes some intentional effort to recognize and name (with or without words) our experiences of divine presence.
Last night I began reading The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, which is edited and introduced by Bernard McGinn, one of my teachers at the University of Chicago Divinity School and probably the foremost authority on Christian mysticism in the English-speaking world. Sure, it’s another book full of words. But they are the words of Christian mystics across the centuries who have explored direct encounters with God’s presence. Ultimately, it is a search for God beyond words.
My life will probably always be filled with words about God and words about our efforts to gather in communities of faith. But coupled with this, I need experiences of God that are most definitely beyond words.