Or, Rediscovering Christianity practically and symbolically…
…or why I’m still fine to still call myself a sinner.
These days, there are so many Christian terms that I feel ambivalent or uncertain about – sin, salvation, atonement, heaven, hell, Satan; God perhaps; even Christianity itself.
I’m just no longer comfortable with many of the traditional or historical meanings that have been placed on these words. I often find it hard to accept the ways these concepts are understood or explained within mainstream Christian orthodoxy. That’s not to say I don’t believe in these things any more, but I no longer view them in quite the same way.
And sometimes the words themselves can be problematic – they carry so much baggage, so many negative connotations, that at times it’s tempting to sweep them away and come up with shiny new terms. Except that the same thing would simply happen again eventually, so I’d prefer to try and reclaim the old, however tarnished. (I think that’s a divine principle too.)
But while I’m increasingly certain of what these terms don’t mean (for example that hell isn’t a literal place of eternal fiery torment), I’m far less certain of what they do mean.
Nonetheless, I still think they may have a meaning worth seeking, even if I’ve only yet the vaguest inkling of what that might be.
There are two main ways in which I still find these troublesome old words useful and meaningful, and they’re really two sides of the same coin. Let’s take the example of that highly loaded and unloved word ‘sin’.
1. Practically. I don’t know exactly what ‘sin’ means, how it works, whether or why specific behaviours offend or grieve God (though I have an increasing sense that it’s primarily to do with offending against divine love not law).
But I do know in a very practical or empirical sense that, despite my best efforts, I tend to follow patterns of thinking and behaviour that harm others and myself, that mess things up. I don’t need to understand all the theology to be able to describe myself practically as a ‘sinner’, or some of my behaviour as ‘sin’.
2. Symbolically. On the other side of the coin, as I say I’m no longer happy with some of the classic theological ways of understanding the concept of sin. But I can still use the term ‘sin’ as a symbol to stand for this reality that I don’t understand but do still see at work, and which I need a word for.
So when I use words like ‘sin’ or ‘salvation’ or ‘atonement’ I’m using them symbolically to represent mysteries that I don’t yet fully understand, rather than to explain them or sign up to particular existing theological views and understandings of them.
But I’m also using them practically, as labels for actual things that I see at work in the world, in my own life and other people’s lives.
Re-interpreting liturgy and the Bible
I’d also extend this to singing hymns and worship songs or reciting liturgy in church. I’m not always comfortable with all the church words and sentiments now, but I can still use them if I treat them less literally. Instead I can see them as symbolic of a deeper reality that they’re trying and often failing to convey, and which I do broadly believe in but don’t fully understand or have other words for.
A similar principle applies to reading the Bible. Often now when I read certain Bible passages I wince at their literal meanings which can seem harsh, barbaric, unenlightened or unscientific. But if I accept that the authors were imperfect and of their time, yet were doing their best in their limited language to convey glimpses of reality far ahead of their age’s understanding – then I can start to overcome my modern liberal antipathy.
The limits of language
Words are always blunt tools, and language is fundamentally limited.
There’s an argument that all language is inherently metaphorical. Even an apparently concrete noun like ‘chair’ doesn’t actually describe or explain anything – it just acts as an agreed label so we can communicate.
We have to take it on trust that what you mean by the colour ‘red’ is what I mean by it. But often we do have different experiences and understandings; we use the same words but don’t always mean the same things by them.
So with words it’s all too easy to miscommunicate or misunderstand. And it’s never going to be possible to convey in language all the nuance and complexity of actual reality – either as we subjectively experience it or as it objectively is (if we can even ever know that).
Speaking of the spiritual
And this is infinitely more so with religious language. Here we’re attempting to convey in words the ineffable divine, the invisible supernatural – that which lies beyond the realms of our normal experience, understanding and therefore language.
Life and the universe and God are so much more complex and mysterious than we can begin to comprehend. Our attempts to speak of God are like a 5-year-old trying to grasp quantum physics, or a stone-age person trying to describe a computer.
So when we use words like God, spirit, holiness, sin, evil, atonement, angels, salvation, heaven, hell, we’re speaking far beyond the normal capacity of words. We can only approach these spiritual concepts distantly, partially, tangentially and metaphorically, by reference to things which we have directly experienced.
By using these words we can give the false impression to ourselves and others that we’re speaking of concrete, understood realities. But the words are often just labels to mark out things we don’t (and maybe can’t) understand, like Dark Matter in science, or x and y in algebra to stand for numbers we haven’t yet worked out.
We do need these words so we can speak of spiritual things, but we must remember that they’re only symbols. We shouldn’t treat them as literal or complete, or cling too tightly to particular understandings of the mysteries they can only point to and hint at.
Taking things too literally
So I think there can be a real danger in taking biblical ideas or Christian terms too literally.
If people find it helpful to understand 6-day creation or hell or demons literally, that’s not necessarily a problem. We do have to approach and engage with spiritual things at our current level of understanding.
The danger comes when we move on a bit and discover that the literal versions don’t really stack up. The temptation then is just to reject them outright, throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Whereas I think that if we accept them as picture-language pointing to deeper realities, we can hold onto the words and allow them to take on deeper meaning as our understanding grows and changes.
C.S. Lewis famously said that people fell into one of two opposite errors regarding the devil – either getting obsessed with him, or else rejecting his reality entirely. I’d say we fall into similar errors with most areas of Christian or biblical ‘truth’ – either requiring that it be taken literally, or else chucking it out as not true at all. But there is always a third way.
Next time – why Christian truth is never abstract…