Kathleen Norris’ recent book, AMAZING GRACE, is subtitled, “A Vocabulary of Faith”. What’s implied here is that Christian faith, timeless in content, needs to struggle to articulate itself meaningfully today. Eternal truths must still find a vocabulary so that they can be spoken and heard within a particular time and culture.
We need that today, a working-vocabulary for the faith. The primary missionary task for us in the Western world is no longer that of sending missionaries to foreign lands but that of trying to evangelize our own children, of trying to communicate the faith within our own homes.
That’s no easy thing. We’ve all been trying to do it for years without much success. More and more, our own children no longer walk the path of faith, at least that of explicit faith.
Part of the struggle, admittedly only part of it, is the struggle to find a vocabulary for the faith that is meaningful to them. Today we need to be able to stand within secularity and effectively articulate the faith there, much like the missionaries of old tried to do this in other cultures. Secularity is a culture and has its own particular language.
How do we find, or develop, a language that can effectively speak the faith in our highly secularized culture? Perhaps we can learn something from those who have, at least to a point, been effective in doing this. Who are these people?
Many have tried and are trying to do this, but perhaps the most effective missionary to secularity in our time has been Henri Nouwen. His books found a receptive audience not just among Christians across denominational lines but also, to a point, within the secular world.
Nouwen was effective, among other reasons, because of his language. His words were carefully chosen and he worked hard at them. He used to re-write his books many times over, trying to get just the right wording for things, searching always for a simpler language of soul. What was his recipe? It was a tricky one, and he didn’t always pull it off himself, but in essence this was his formula:
He tried to be simple, without being simplistic; express deep sentiment, without being sentimental; be self-revealing, without being exhibitionistic; be deeply personal, yet profoundly universal; be explicitly Christian, without using the inner table-talk of the worshipping community or the rote repetition of biblical language; be devotional, without being pious; speak from a clearly committed stance, without being judgemental, exclusive, or doctrinaire; be contemporary, without being full of cliche, fad, and “cool”; be moral, without the alienating rhetoric of political correctness; speak always of God’s invitation while respecting freedom and never proselytizing; be iconoclastic when necessary, yet always respecting where people are at; be healthily deconstructionist and constructionist at the same time; use the language of critical thought and at the same time the language of the artist; use language that radiates the joy of the resurrection, even as it leads deeper into the mystery of suffering; use a language full of hope and realism, soul and spirit, energy and wisdom, bright colour tempered by grey; a language deeply sensitive to human weakness, even as it challenges weakness and invites towards what is sublime; a language that’s deeply compassionate, yet never compensatory.
Quite a formula! That’s an incredible tightrope to try to walk without falling off either side! Small wonder he re-wrote his books over and over to try to get it right, small wonder that he agonized as much as he did, and small wonder his books were so popular and inspiring when he did pull it off successfully! His is a formula for the language of soul.
It’s an interesting study to see how Nouwen’s language evolved during the nearly 30 years that he wrote in English. In his early books, his language reflects a lot that he was a psychologist and an academic. Technical terms, especially from psychology, creep into his writings. More and more, as the years go on, we see his words get more simple and we see less and less in the way of technical or clinical terms from psychology or elsewhere. Rather we see emerging the language of soul – simple, unpretentious, deeply personal, accessible to all, carrying universal secrets.
I see others too trying to do this, to speak and write within the language of soul. Inside church circles, I see it in Kathleen Norris, Richard Rohr, John Shea, Robert Barron, Andrew Greeley, Mary Jo Leddy, Anne Lamott, Daniel Berrigan, and John O’Donohue, among others. It’s a language we need to learn.
The eternal truths that God has revealed need, in every age, a proper vocabulary to give them expression. They need the language of soul. That’s not a language that’s easy to learn, although it’s the most natural language of all. Like Nouwen, we must work at it -for the sake of our own children who lack a vocabulary for their faith.