Should we avoid religious language?

When someone is beset by faith, especially at first, there is such a thing as the zeal of a convert. If that kicks in, he or she wants to tell everyone: the Great Good Thing is real, objective, full of truth the world needs more than anything. Until this is known, there is an emergency in progress that must be addressed, regardless of the usual decorum. The Owl knows this feeling from the inside, and has actually alienated his more conventional friends by succumbing to it.

Wiser heads say it is not to be done. Their reasoning is pragmatic. For the fact is, Christian language repels many. In our current fevered political atmosphere, it brings out some very ugly, sometimes dangerously violent reactions. We need not retail those here, but even in a benign context it is unconvincing, off-putting, and embarrassing. People hearing it will usually not engage with it. It seems they either have some visceral rejecting reflex, or they simply don’t comprehend, or they are polite enough to feign incomprehension.

Of all subjects that are really important to shared human life, why should that be the case with this one? Here are a few hypotheses.

In the first place, as the Owl has observed, the terms of the faith are hopelessly confused the others that are spelled and pronounced exactly the same, starting with “faith” itself, which (if you can get people to use it at all) usually means keeping faith, maintaining loyalty to a group or a cause, or embracing the beliefs that animate one’s group. That makes “faith” almost a synonym of belief, which might be arrived at logically, or taken on as a leap in the dark; intellectually creditable or irresponsible.

In another context we have summarized Christian ethics as life for others, as Jesus’ whole ministry appears to be. People take this to imply divine sanction for almost any interpersonal activity. The spectrum might run from the individual efforts one makes to take care of family, to the use of great wealth to found educational or charitable foundations. It is not necessary to doubt the sincerity of people who do any of these things, but it should be clear that Jesus’ obedient sacrifice, which sets forth the most radical paradigm for authentic humanity and has redemptive power for all, is of a different order. Thus the terms work at cross-purposes, defeating rather than making sense.

Second, perhaps especially in the United States, religious beliefs and emotions are jealously guarded, kept private. Freedom of religion is written into our Constitution alongside freedom of speech and of the press, as if they were all one thing. Not to have faith “shoved down your throat,” as the saying goes, is practically a cornerstone of the republic.

Meanwhile, the churches for their part have done a miserable job—indeed, positively worked against themselves when it comes to teaching any distinction between sacred and secular realms. Preachers turn into ordinary pols flying under false colors as clergy. The faithful are ill equipped to see that the discourse has having invaded through a side door.

When our fellow citizens overhear an explicitly Christian voice from a pulpit, or from a lay enthusiast, they are likely to reject it as a claim of privileged access to truth, or not understand it at all. It adds up to nothing more than a non-reverberant hole in the atmosphere. The wiser heads mentioned above are probably right, from a pragmatic point of view.

Still, my friend Ken made a point of not giving up so easily. Among ourselves, we Christians have the duty to teach and encourage one another. There are stronger and weaker members, members susceptible to misleading, who need to have their coats pulled and corrections pointed out. As the Owl has been at pains to point out, the no-man’s-land between truth and cultural obsessions is wide and dangerous. We owe it to others to shout our warnings loud and clear. It is hard to see how we can serve these necessities if we deny ourselves our distinctive terms. Among Christians they might be a much-needed note of solidarity. Some have vocations to evangelize, but one hopes that can be done without using obnoxious vocabulary. Others may have a vocations to avoid language altogether and let actions speak.

In either case, this must be remembered when claiming any “religious high ground”: There is none. If one finds oneself on high ground, Christianity has been left behind. Every day we hear voices from a myriad of nickle-dime Sinais, but when Jesus came to his final hilltop, his authentic humanity took the form of a criminal’s death, utterly condemned.

One thought on “Should we avoid religious language?”

  1. I have many friends who are professed Christians. Some are real pains-in-the-ass types, and others are low key and set good examples. Having religion shoved down your throat is not good, and the I-am-right-and-you-are-wrong is the last things. Street corners should be shunned. That said, I always like hearing about a person’s faith, Christian or otherwise, in the form of discourse, non-condemnatory, and personal. As we are all different, we all experience faith and such differently – to expect a cookie cutter conformity is what many people want, expect, and enjoy as it spares them the fact they have a brain, have the ability to choose. Obedience to a preacher is not the same as obedience to God – politics shows this all the time.

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