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Becoming fluent in faith

We need to embrace the challenge of using religious language with comfort and integrity.
By Jeanne Harrison Nieuwejaar
Spring 2013 2.15.13

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Talking about faith

(Robert Neubecker)

The ways in which we use traditional religious language vary widely within our Unitarian Universalist congregations and families. In some congregations, worship and community life may be rich with the lexicon of God, prayer, salvation, and sin. In other congregations, although the hymns and anthems may be replete with words like “holy,” “grace,” and “soul,” it is only in the music that this vocabulary is used. For many, it seems easier to sing these sentiments than to say them. We allow a broader margin for metaphor and poetry in our singing than in our speaking. And, in still other congregations and families, these words may be not merely absent, but shunned.

It is because I cherish so deeply the life-affirming possibilities of Unitarian Universalism that I care about strengthening the ways we talk about our spiritual lives. Community and dialogue are at the heart of our way of being religious. It is through dialogue that we open to one another, speaking of our own spiritual journeys, insights, and questions and hearing those of others. This is how community is established and deepened. It is how we accomplish “acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth within our congregations,” as our Third Principle affirms. Inescapably, language is the primary vehicle for this process. Whether our spiritual growth is enhanced or hampered is influenced by the extent to which we use language deeply and well.

It is my dream that we might grow in our capacity to use a language of reverence in church and at home, at work and in the marketplace. When we speak only in vague terms, as we often do, we convey the impression that our faith is wishy-washy. When we use the language of philosophy, psychology, ethics, and aesthetics—often making strong and healthy affirmations—others may not hear these as affirmations of faith. When we are tentative and conflicted, as we often are, when we are apologetic about our language, the great power of our faith is compromised. I know that we—you—are thoughtful, sensitive, articulate people. We should be able to talk more easily about the religious matters that center and sustain us.

With those beyond our congregations, my dream is that we might be able to speak fluently and compellingly about our faith so that those in need of a community of strength and solace, a community to hold and guide their spiritual journeys, will have a clear understanding of who we are and what we can offer to them and to the world. But when talking about our faith with those beyond our congregations, I also long for strength and clarity, so that those who may never choose our path still will understand it and will respect it as a religious path with substance and meaning.

As one who has been dedicated to the work of faith development most of my life, I have a particular concern for how we nurture the religious lives of younger generations. Our children and youth deserve open and clear conversation about not only our personal spiritual affirmations and struggles but also our religious heritage. They need to hear our stories, prayers, and questions crafted in clear and imaginative language so that their own capacity to express their intuitions, prayers, and questions will grow clear and true, and so that the great gifts of our faith may become robust within them.

Our children need good words to bring their spiritual lives into focus and to engage with others about their religious journeys. The core concepts of many of the ancient words are as relevant to these tender, young spiritual journeys as they are to our own. Our work is to reach beyond the often narrow meanings attached to these words, to find the beauty in their depths. If we can talk comfortably about prayer, faith, and salvation with our children, we needn’t fear that they will adopt narrow, damaging notions of these concepts. These words will come to mean for them whatever they mean in the integrity of our minds and hearts. If we do this work well, our children will not learn rigid, archaic meanings but will adopt life-affirming meanings that are consistent with our faith.

We do not tell our children what they should believe, but we do them a disservice when we neglect to express to them the heart of our faith. We do them a disservice if we do not help them to develop the tools to explore and to create their own faith. One of the essential tools is effective language.

And I have one more concern; it is more subtle, but may be the most serious concern of all. I am concerned that our own inner faith as adults is weakened to the extent that we are unable to articulate that faith. The Rev. Frederick Buechner, a gentle Presbyterian minister, writes in A Room Called Remember, “It is not that you feel love and then say ‘I love you,’ but that until you say ‘I love you,’ you have not fully loved. . . . In some important sense the thing you are seeing or feeling doesn’t even fully exist for you until you have given a word to it.”

I call passionately for us to embrace the challenge of using religious language with depth, comfort, and integrity. But even as I invite you into this challenge, the truth is that I myself continue to struggle. Although I have grown in my ability to articulate deep matters of faith and to use time-honored religious words, it still is not easy for me. I write not as one who knows how to do this or as one who does it well. I write as one who continually seeks to express my faith more meaningfully.

When I was having my hair cut a while ago, sitting captive there in the chair with a bib around my neck, my heart sank when my hairdresser, knowing that I am a minister, said she wanted to talk with me about my church, my faith. Fortunately, she meant what she said—that she wanted to talk. I needed only to listen, nod, and murmur assurances. Even in that simple nodding and murmuring, I think I represented our faith—accepting her where she was, reassuring, conveying the sense that life and the universe are to be trusted, that all will be well, that comfort and strength are available to us.

But how small it feels to be unable to launch into an easy conversation when such an opening occurs. If she had asked me challenging questions about what it means to be Unitarian Universalist, I probably would have stumbled and stuttered, not because my faith is weak or confused but because it doesn’t translate easily into the way we talk about religion in our culture. I hope you will join me in working at that translation with an open heart and a creative mind until such conversations can flow more gracefully.

The vocabulary of reverence is broad and beautiful. Lists of such words abound. To be effective, our use of a vocabulary of reverence must flow from a place of comfort. It must be centered and genuine. For most of us, reaching this point will be a journey indeed, but one that is within our reach.

Some may consider my attention to the articulation of our faith to be a distraction from the more important dimension of living our faith so that we are a blessing to the world. I suggest, however, that how we express our faith and how we live our faith are tightly interwoven. A rich language of faith can deepen and ground us, leading us personally to a stronger, more generous, and more vibrant inner life, making us more receptive to the great gifts and the great needs that surround us. From that grounded place of hope and love, that place of health and wholeness, we will organically reach into the world with greater generosity, gentleness, and conviction.

This article appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of UU World (pages 50–51). Excerpted with permission from Fluent in Faith: A Unitarian Universalist Embrace of Religious Language (Skinner House, 2012). See sidebar for links to related resources.

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