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Words – semantics sleight of hand

For the past many years, I’ve been struggling against the power of the Christian story within the traditional church and outside of it. Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Baha’i, and so many other religious streams ply stories of a cosmology that includes either a deity residing in a supernatural realm or a life that is more (or less) rewarding after this reality. They are all stories which, I do admit, can have a positive influence by controlling masses (through fear) and keep them in check thereby reinforcing the positive norms of civil society. But for me and for the many who no longer hold those stories as sacred, the cost is simply too high. The potential for posthumous reward or damnation has too often drained life of its beauty, wealth, diversity, and joy and the norms of civil society that are reinforced are often not in the best interests of humanity or, at least, significant swaths of it. So we need a way forward.

Slipping new meanings behind old words


Within the church, leaders often slip new interpretations and definitions behind the original words so the story remains palatable and they can keep using it. I did that for years without realizing how powerful the language was; powerful enough to prevent anyone from “getting” what I really meant. Many of my mentors and peers can offer new explanations for theological terms or new interpretations of ancient stories that make them ring with new life for me. But I learned, the hard way, that even as I shared those engaging and transformational new interpretations and explanations, the practice of wrapping them up in the stuff of antiquity – hymns and practices that reinforced all the old interpretations and explanations – prevented anyone from really moving forward in their understandings. It wasn’t until I dropped the language completely that we started really talking about the struggle to live a meaningful and rewarding life made up of positive relationships with oneself, others, the world around us, and the seventh generation. With the language went the pretense of being religious and the expectation of a rewarding afterlife. But it opened up the challenge of being human and the immensity of wonder this side of the grave.

Anyone who has shifted in their understanding of god from that of a creator, intervener, grantor of requests to an amorphous non-ish-being that represents good or meets the “god is love” criterion knows how easy it is to get away with using the same old language. My FB posts are riddled with people telling me their understanding of the nature of reality and then saying that they don’t have a problem calling that “god.” I don’t have a problem with them calling it that, either. Unless they are in a position of authority in the church; then I have a big problem with it. Then its what I call a semantics sleight of hand. We’re saying one thing but leading others to believe we’re saying something completely different.


We stole a word and made it a name


The word “god” refers to a deity, a being that inhabits a sacred realm and exists, for the most part and in most stories, in that supernatural dimension where he or she has supernatural powers. Gods interact with humans in specific ways. Most have had names and very human characteristics. Some could take human form to interact with us or even mate with us.

In our Christian tradition, however, our deity became known as the god called God. We seem to have stolen the generic word from the multitude of other traditions and made it the name for our special trinitarian god, a kinder, gentler version (we like to tell ourselves) of YHWH or Elohim, the god of the Israelites, who morphed into the god of the Trinity. When we use the word god in western society, we usually mean the god called God. And we’ve saturated public space and the public mind with that definition.

If we use that word to mean “a sense, a deep feeling and a belief in something more” as one FB poster recently argued and “can call that something more God”, we’re in complicated territory. Who is going to know that’s what is being meant when 99.9% of the population (more likely 99.999999999%) still think you’re talking about “the big guy” as he was identified on a radio show this past week? Surely, the woman who called god “the big guy” wouldn’t know you meant “a deep feeling” or belief in some indefinable “more”. Nor would she have known what the Executive Secretary of London Conference meant when during her phone in, she referred to the “god” the whole United Church believes in. Other callers, and, indeed, the talk show’s host, would have assumed that the Executive Secretary was talking about “the big guy”.


Obfuscation is the pretty word


If I do not believe in “the big guy”, I cannot think of a single reason why I would want people to think that I do. And so I continue to challenge those in The United Church of Canada who do not believe in “the big guy” to use language that clearly describes what it is they do believe in. When clergy obfuscate, we do more than just talk a fuzzy theology in a messy church kind of way. They allow others to interpret their words in ways that they do not mean them. I cannot comprehend the reasoning behind that beyond mere self-preservation. I do understand self-preservation, but I think it is deeply troubling that The United Church and the many other liberal denominations that teach contemporary critical scholarship in their seminaries would not create supportive environments or workplaces that are safe enough for clergy to speak of their beliefs clearly while caring for parishioners in the process of doing so. Encouraging ministers to obfuscate by not supporting them during the difficult times that will follow in their congregations should they share their true definitions for the word god, ensures a cognitive dissonance that can be terribly hard on clergy and and arrogance that is incredibly condescending to church members.

I recall a letter to the editor of The Observer many years ago. An article about the work we were doing at West Hill United had been published in the February issue. It provoked letters for a full year following. But the best letter of all was the one in which a United Church member wrote asking if ministers should really be that honest. Mainline denominations are complicit in preventing their clergy from being honest. By encouraging clergy to cover their true beliefs with language that neatly allows everyone else to believe they hold traditional ones, mainline denominations are complicit in a mass obfuscation. That’s the pretty word for what is a very serious issue indeed.

As West Hill United Church and I continue our course of bringing theologically barrier-free church to our small corner of Toronto, this conversation will continue to rage (that is the perfect word for it) across the country. It is my hope that we will find a way to encourage all clergy to speak openly about what they believe, both those who continue to believe in the interventionist being that created the world and all that lives in it and those who may never have believed that at all. May we create space with such integrity and security that it invites and allows each person within it – especially the clergy – to find the language necessary for him or her to speak clearly and truthfully enough about religious belief that no one in the church is ever again misled by those who lead it. And as we struggle to hold the diversity that will inevitably exist in such places, my we exhibit respect for one another even and especially if we do not respect the beliefs that are held.



on being an atheist minister


Had an opportunity to share some ideas with AM640’s Jeff McCarthur this afternoon.  Here is the clip.  Enjoy!


Originally Published here!

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