Downward and Upward Violations of Sacred Language

Spiritual theologian Eugene Peterson:

Language is sacred at its core. It has its origin in God. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). When St. John rewrote Genesis, emphasizing the primacy of language (Word and words) in the very being-ness of God and the way God works, he went on to make the truly astonishing statement that “the Word became flesh and lived among us . . .” (John 1:14 NRSV). With that statement St. John launched his detailed witness of Jesus as that Word, Jesus revealing who he is (who God is), Jesus using the Aramaic language, the local street language of his day, to do it, to reveal God, the Word that was God in the beginning. When John wrote his witness, his Gospel, he translated the words and stories that he had heard Jesus speak in Aramaic into Greek. This Word, this Jesus, did not walk the roads of Palestine stopping off in villages to give lectures on divinity in the abstract, or post rules in the public square on conduct acceptable to God, or explain the way things are in order to satisfy our natural curiosity. He both was the language and spoke the language that reveals God not from the outside but from the inside, God’s heart, God’s comprehensive way of being personally and relationally with us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And the people understood him – “the common people heard him gladly” (Mark 12:37 ASV). He spoke the language of God in their language. As men and women received these words they were formed by them into a “new creation,” they were “born again.”

This revelatory quality of language maintains its sacred creation and salvation core as we human beings continue to speak and listen to it, but especially as we use language to reveal to one another who we uniquely are. We are not just using words to exchange information – asking directions for making it across the street, getting or giving goods and services, identifying the red-tailed hawk and the fringed gentian, but revealing ourselves: revealing our hopes and dreams, our thoughts and prayers, that vast interiority that we summarize as soul, this unfathomable mystery of who we are as “image of God.”

This sacredness of language, whether spoke or written, is liable to sacrilege into directions, downward and upward. Sacrilege downward takes the form of blasphemy, language used to defile and desecrate. The sacredness of language inheres in its capacity to reveal what cannot be weighed and measured, its capacity to reveal spirit, interior reality, whether divine or human. If it is debased into cant or cliché or mendacity it violates the sacred essence of a man or woman – or God. It reduces reality, whether human or divine, to something less, something impersonal, a thing or an image that I can manipulate and use. Such language takes the attitude that if I have to be an anthill there aren’t going to be any mountains.

Sacrilege upward takes place when language is inflated into balloons of abstraction or diffused into the insubstantiality of lacey gossamer. Pretentious language is as much a violation of the sacred core of language as blasphemy and cant. This happens when we use language to flatter or impress, when we use words to distance ourselves from relationship with others, whether the others are the persons of the Trinity or our parents, leaders, celebrities, friends, and neighbors. If we use language to set others on pedestals or install them in roles, we no longer have to deal with them as persons but only as ideas or representatives or functions. It sounds as if we are honoring them; in fact we are using language to keep them out of the neighborhoods in which we live our ordinary lives. We are then free to deal with them in escapist fantasies, in condescending criticism, in avaricious dreaming, or in curt dismissal. This is the desecration of language “upward.”

When it comes to reading and responding to Scripture the danger of violations upward is much greater than that of violations downward for the simple reason that it is more difficult to detect. Outright blasphemy – an angry “God dammit!” – calls more attention to itself than obsequious piety – for example, “precious and exalted, holy and incomparable God Almighty . . .” intoned in a quavering voice. Ironically, the latter may be more a desecration of language than the former.

Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading (137-139)

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