"[Samuel] Coleridge believed that all religious language is poetic, containing many levels of meaning. The concrete, surface meaning is true in itself, but it is at the same time a symbol of something beyond language, an earthly lens for something eternal to shine through, Even the church is poetic-- it always points to a greater reality, and yet that universal truth is inseparable from the particular, historical, ever-changing flesh-and-blood reality of the church here and now." (Stephen Prickett with JenniferTrafton, in "A Faith That Feels," Christian History and Biography, Issue 86, Spring 2005)
Many have lamented the movement of our society from one rooted in words to one fascinated with images. And we can also note a trend for those who trade in words to use them for power, for manipulation, to simply persuade others to believe as they do whether or not the words they say are true. The latest example of this is author Dan Brown who, in The DaVinci Code, has the gall to state that what he is writing is historically accurate when much of it is a baldfaced lie. It is not truthful but, rather, what he prefers to believe (and apparently what many others prefer to believe as well).
What Coleridge believed about language is surely true. Words are a rich expression of what is true, both in the immediate, perceived sense, and in a mysterious as as yet not fully known sense. His comment is reminiscent of Dorothy Sayers' statement that "all language is analogical," that is, we cannot think about meaning except by analogy. Sayers' point also illustrates the richness of language.
For example, take the phrase "God is good." As a mere abstraction, it is unilluminating. To fill in its meaning, we need analogies of goodness. Perhaps good like a mother is good to a child, or good like a friend who simply is caring and honest and trustworthy. We can even think of specific examples of goodness -- the man who finds money on the floor of a restaurant and, rather than pocketing it, carries it to the manager, or the neighbor who cuts our grass whilewe are sick and unable to, not even waiting to be asked. Language is analogical.
All of this adds to the richness of Coleridge's point: Words are packed with meaning and are large windows into an eternity where we will really find out the meaning of words like "church" and "good"and "faith" and, best of all, "love."
Language is a gift. We should love it, cherish it, and order it well. God is one who is always speaking -- in words that matter and convey deep and rich truth. As those made in his image, so should we so speak.
The more I think about this, the more I am aware of the way words are used. For example, on the desk in front of me is a brochure about a place at the resort where we are staying today called "The Self Centre." The caption at the bottom reminds me that the purpose is to "Renew Your Sense of Self." The two words most commonly used throughout the brochure are "spiritual" and "self," and yet reading through the brochure it is apparent that there is no real understanding of what the true self is nor what the spirit is. It does, however, resonate with our modern impulse toward individualized, tailor-made religion or spiritual renewal and not one where we are held to account to a God who made us in His image.
Words. They swirl about us. They matter greatly. We have to pay attention to them. We have to weld them well and truely. And one day, when God says our name out loud to us, when he calls our name, we'll know in a way we can only know dimly now who we are, what our name means. Every word will be true then, every word rich with meaning and life.