Excerpt from Theology in Aisle Seven

I tack­led my first Eng­lish essay in col­lege with enthu­si­asm, a the­saurus, and a naïve 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 favorite 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 Chris­tian­i­ty Today 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. 

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Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in Chris­tian­i­ty Today, Wrestling with Angels,” April, 2014. Also avail­able in the ebook, The­ol­o­gy in Aisle Sev­en.

Originally published March 2008