Bad language (2): missing the point

I’ve been exploring the importance of learning and using the language of our faith. Last week I considered one potential danger: being exclusive in our use of language. Today, I want to consider a second way language can go wrong.

Words have limits

Words are great. I love them. I used to spend my free periods in 6th form playing Scrabble. I used to go to the pub at university with friends and play Scrabble. I still really enjoy a good game of Scrabble. It’s great. I love words. (If anyone wants to get together for Scrabble, I’m in.)

But words have limits. They are tools – they’re the means, not the end. We use words to express something deeper than the words themselves. Words and phrases are like signposts which point to truths. They aren’t, in themselves, the truths. My pastor has said that ‘words are the clothes our thoughts wear.’ It’s the thoughts that matter. We just use the words to get there, to provide a framework with which to understand those thoughts and to communicate them with others.

An example. I can say the words ‘I love you’ to Mel (my wife). It’s true, and it’s one way I can express my love. But what matters aren’t the words, rather the truth that underlies them – that I do in fact love her. Take the words away, and it’s still true. If it weren’t true then knowing and using the words wouldn’t suddenly make it true.

Words point to things that are true. If they don’t, they’re meaningless. Words are limited.

Missing the point

So what, Dave? Well, as I think about growing in our understanding and use of language, there’s a real danger that we miss the point. I think it’s important to pursue greater understanding of our faith, and part of that is language. But the language isn’t the point – it is just a helper to get us to the point.

I want to grow in my relationships with God. I want to know Him deeply. I don’t just want to know lots of words or things about Him – I want to know HIM.

I believe that books, study, words and theology can help massively in that pursuit. But I also know – from my own experience and others’ – that they can get in the way. We can get fixated on the framework of language and systems that we’ve built up to help us understand God, so fixated that we never really get to know God any better. It’s like getting so focused on the scaffolding that we forget the building behind it.

This series of posts wouldn’t have started if it weren’t for a slight frustration with a lack of interest in theology and theological language in some quarters. But I don’t want to swing from lack of interest in theological language which leaves us without valuable tools in growing deeper with God to the other extreme: an excessive and unhealthy interest in theological language which distracts from really growing deeper with God.

Words are great. Theology is wonderful. But they are only ever the tools, helping us understand more about God. We must never stop there. We need also seek to know God. Let’s not miss the wood for the trees.

I have one more thought on language going wrong, and that will come soon.


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