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Jonathan Merritt | Reimagining Sacred Conversation

Jonathan Merritt discusses the decay of sacred conversation—and how to revive it.


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Jonathan Merritt discusses the decay of sacred conversation—and how to revive it.

Description

It is all too easy to fall into the myopic assumption that our faith words are universal, that everyone has a shared understanding of what these words mean. But often this is not the case. Many times our sacred words—words like grace, mercy, wisdom—are painted with different hues on other peoples’ interpretive palates. Author Jonathan Merritt joins Jim on this episode of Language of God to discuss this decay of common meaning—and how to revive it.

  • Originally aired on August 22, 2019
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Transcript

Jonathan:

If we don’t talk about God, we don’t think about God, our lives are not built around an understanding of God. If we don’t talk about faith, kindness, humility, we don’t, our lives are not built around those constructs, those ideas. So we wake up one day and we say, we don’t live in a very gracious culture anymore. Yeah, well, no wonder. We’re not talking about grace, so we’re not thinking about grace so we don’t live graciously. 

Jim:

This is Language of God. I’m Jim Stump. 

That was Jonathan Merritt you just heard. And today we will be talking about God. Of course, our podcast is called Language of God.

That title comes from a book written by Francis Collins who founded BioLogos and it implies that God speaks not only with words but through his creation. We too communicate with more than words, but words sure are a powerful tool and one of the main tools we use to consider who God is and especially to communicate those ideas with others. 

Jonathan Merritt writes about religion, culture, and politics. He is a contributor to the Atlantic and has written for the New York Times, Christianity Today, and many other publications. 

Ever since he moved from the bible belt to New York City, he has been thinking about the language we use to talk about God…or in some cases the language we have stopped using. He wrote about this in his recent book Learning to Speak God from Scratch.

Our spiritual language impacts our spiritual lives, our understanding of scripture, and our path to discipleship. It also has a direct impact on how we see and engage with the world around us, including the ideas that come from science. We’ll talk in this episode about some particular words, how they’ve changed, how we might take hold of them in today’s word

Jonathan also talked about this topic at the BioLogos conference last spring. You can find a link to his full presentation in the show notes or by searching on his name at our website, biologos.org. 

Let’s get to the conversation.

Interview Segment 1: Background and Context for Book

Jim: 

So since BioLogos is fundamentally about faith and science, I like to ask people in this setting about their background in this. And you grew up in conservative evangelicalism and then I read in your book that you are a biology and chemistry major as an undergraduate at Liberty University. That probably conjures up a certain stereotype in most people’s minds about how science and faith worked for you. Can you either confirm or deny such a stereotype?

Jonathan: 

Yes, I was a science major at Liberty University in the early 2000s. So that was Jerry Falwell Sr days, which in many ways was more conservative culturally than it is now. It may be even more politically conservative now Liberty University, but it was more culturally conservative. And so, there they’re are big creationist school, very big into young-earth creationism. And at the time I was there, now I don’t know if this is true anymore, every student had to take Creation Studies. It was a required course. And in that course you would learn about science and you would learn all the ways that you could refute some of the claims of science about the origin of life.

And you know, when I was there, I was kind of an Ann Coulter reading conservative. And so it all made sense to me. It seemed fine. It was like, yes, of course there it’s like, you know, 4,000 years old and it was created in seven literal days and the whole nine yards, in six literal days. And so I left there really kind of holding to that view. I never challenged it. I had no reason to challenge it in all of my courses. You know, whether I was taking a genetics course or organic chemistry, you might learn something that was sort of taught to you because you needed to know it in case you left and took the MCAT or something. But then you were always taught this kind of counter argument to the predominant arguments. And I felt like in some ways it was like almost science as bootcamp. You know, it was, it was not as much about the pursuit of knowledge as it was an exercise in apologetics. And that’s a very different way I’ve realized of doing science.

Jim: 

What drew you into wanting to study science in the first place then?

Jonathan:

You know, as I’ve looked back, I thought probably ego. I thought, Oh, if I do this, then I can go be a doctor and I’ll be wealthy and respected. And so I did it. I had a great GPA. I graduated. It wasn’t, it was no problem with that, but I burned out on it. I graduated, I went to work for a fortune 500 chemical company as a kind of a chemical consultant. And within eight months I’d quit my job and thought, this is not what I’ve been called to do. And so that’s when I sort of do some real work on what my vocation should be. But I’m still really fond of these kinds of conversations, which is one of the reasons why I’m sitting here with you. They’re incredibly important.

Jim:

Hm. Good. So you wrote this book called Learning to Speak God from Scratch. That’s a response to a situation, a particular one for you that occurred as a result of a move, but also a situation that you have found is not just peculiar to you, but exists across the country. Give us a little short description of what that situation is that prompted you to write this?

Jonathan:

Well, to put it shortly, there are two endangered species in the United States right now that most people are not aware of. One is sacred words. And the other is spiritual conversations. So the words themselves are dying. If you look at the Google Ngram data that’s been put together, it’s sort of a pool of all the literature that’s been put out of the last 500 years. You can search for spiritual and religious words. And what we found is that the majority of those are in rapid decline and have been over the course of the 20th century. In addition to that, people are not even having conversations about faith. And I conducted a national survey for this book of over a thousand Americans and found that only 7% of Americans say that they have a spiritual religious conversation on a regular basis. Now, if you think about that, more than 70% of Americans claim to be Christian, more than 70% of Americans say that the Christian faith is fundamental to who they are, that it’s a part of their identity. And yet only 1 in 10 of those people have any desire to talk about that faith on a regular basis. I mean, can you imagine if like, if only you know, 10% of Yankees fans ever watched a baseball game, right? It would be bizarre, and yet… 

Jim:     

That wouldn’t be so bad in my view. By the way, I’m a red sox fan.

Jonathan: 

Oh gosh. Listen, oh my gosh. A red sox fan. I’m outta here. I’m putting the..I’m taking the mic off. I’m out of here.

Jim:       

Let’s see if we can model some gracious dialogue nonetheless. So language is pretty amazing. It’s a sort of reflection of our understanding of the way the world is. In some ways it kind of constitutes the way the world is for us and we get into different communities that seem to see things differently, understand things differently. So this is a big part of your moving from the buckle of the Bible Belt up to Brooklyn and encountering some of this dissonance in the way words are used or not used. That again leads to your concern of the falling out of use of religious language. Tell us the story in particular on the subway that prompted some of your wondering about “where am I and you know, who are these people that have landed here?”

Jonathan: 

Yeah. So after relocating from Atlanta to New York City, I decided I should probably go find a church cause that’s what good Christian guys do when they get to a new place. So I was, the first Sunday in New York, I was standing on a subway platform next to this woman and she asked me where I was headed and I said, well, I’m headed to a worship service. And she said, well, what’s that? What’s that? How do you not know what a worship service is? And I said, well, I’m going to check out a church. And she said, oh, you’re religious, I’m religious. And she said, you know, she was a part of the Baha’i faith and she held up her crystal amulet necklace and said that, you know, it had these certain energy powers and said she could read my chakra. And before long we realized that neither one of us really understood what the other was saying. And she started to ask me questions about God, the Bible, the afterlife. And every time I tried to explain to her a common — what I thought was a common belief, what came out of my mouth didn’t make much sense. And it certainly didn’t make much sense to her. 

What I came to realize was, is that not only did she not understand what I was saying, I didn’t really understand it either. And I started to kind of scratch the surface of this a little bit more and found that there are a lot of people like me, they don’t have to move to New York City to feel this pinch that they’ve found. They’ve experienced this tension where they live, where they work, where they hang out, that they’re going into these settings where there are people who are, are speaking from a different script, who have different views and that they’re also not having spiritual or religious conversations. And so when I saw that there was this crisis that it wasn’t just a personal problem, it was a cultural crisis, then I said, okay, I’ve got to write a book about this. There’s something more here that people need to hear about.

Jim:

So a couple of experiences I’ve had in this, in this same vein, I remember when I was a college student, I came back to my home church one night and was there on like that was when there was still Sunday evening services. And I went and it was a smaller group that the pastor was talking to. Some folks that I was, I was sitting with their group and the pastor asked this group of people who were devout enough to be at Sunday evening church, right and have grown up in the church, been there their whole lives. And he asked this group, this group, what is grace? And everybody sat sort of dumbfounded when being pressed to give a definition of that. And I still remember this one old guy that was an usher and had been there as long as I ever remember. He finally said, well to me, it means devotion. And it started this, this sort of chain reaction of people just saying other words that they thought were somehow related to this that is part of this language game. So even some of those people that do have spiritual conversations seem to be just repeating these things that they’ve heard and trying to make connections that defy sort of the definitions of what we thought these words meant. Is this part of the problem too?

Jonathan:    

It is part of the problem because when you, when you enter into conversations on the basis of assumption, the assumption being “they know what I mean, even if I haven’t stopped to consider what I mean,” what you often find is, is that the thing that you mean is not the thing that they hear and you’re actually miscommunicating even though you think you’re communicating quite clearly. You know, I bet if you take another word, take the word Gospel, that’s a pretty central word in the vocabulary of the Christian faith. But I bet if I took everyone listening to this podcast and I handed them a piece of paper and said, what do you think Gospel means? Well you’d get as many answers as you have listeners. That’s a problem. That’s a problem. And you would probably, as a related problem, you’d probably also get a lot of blank papers back.

Jim:         

For sure. So in the first part of the book, you walk through a lot of the research in linguistics and how language affects and shapes us. Lots of things communicate, but only humans have language. What’s the difference between communicating and communicating through language?

Jonathan: 

Yeah. So, there are some kind of basic things that can be communicated and it’s … you want to talk about an amazing creation. Gosh, look at the way that animals can communicate. There’s a lot of amazing things that are communicated by noises and emotion and those things are wonderful, but there is a massive difference between what happens in the rest of the animal kingdom and what happens when human beings communicate with words. There’s a level of nuance, depth, color, and emotion that can be communicated with words that can’t be communicated without words. And so it’s a powerful thing and there are a lot of people who go, Well, yeah but don’t dogs, you think of Lassie, that old show Lassie. Your dog can bark to say he or she is hungry. There’s something that can be communicated without words, but there’s so much more that can be communicated with words. There are things that I can say to you to make you bawl your eyes out. I can’t do that to a dog and a dog can’t do that to another dog. A hummingbird can’t do that to another hummingbird. So there is a qualitative difference between the type of communications that the communication that humans engage in through the use of our language and the communication that the rest of the animal kingdom engages in.

Jim: 

There are some remarkable examples as you mention of animals and even instances where some of the higher primates have been trained to use sign language and things like this. There’s a lot of debate as to whether that ever quite rises to this level. It’s sometimes called symbolic communication or symbolic language. And I think sometimes we might characterize the difference as these other things that communicate, even we find out that trees communicate with each other through this underground network. But what’s happening there is a stimulus that provokes a response of some sort, materially. Whereas for us words mean things. So your example of words on a page that can move you to tears is so remarkable when we think that all that’s really going on there is we have some splotches of ink and certain patterns and it means something. It’s not just a stimulus for us to get food or to flee a predator or whatever, but allows us to enter into this world that’s created through language. Right?

Jonathan: 

Yeah. And if you, and what’s interesting, something that you said there that was kind of implicit, but I want to draw it out. One of the most interesting things about that is that the animals, the nonhuman animals that come the closest are actually the ones that evolutionary biology would say are our closest relatives. That’s fascinating. That’s something that I think is worth wondering about, right. It almost like lends credence maybe to certain conceptions about the origins of life. But I do think it’s interesting, particularly when you look at higher primates, that’s where you get the closest. You almost brush up against human capability with language.

Jim: 

Yeah. So this idea then that these words help create meaning and worlds for us. I’m going to read just a short passage from your book here and have you reflect on that as to how it applies to religiosity then. You say, “If we do not use sacred words then our minds will be less attuned to transcendence. If we do not have spiritual conversations, then we’ll be less shaped by our spirituality. And if moral language is vanishing with the decline of words like grace, mercy, honest, courage and wisdom, then we can expect our communities and culture will reflect this shift.”

Jonathan: 

Yeah, so there’s a lot of research that has been done in linguistics in recent years that’s kind of overturned some of the prevailing opinions of the mid 20th century. It’s still somewhat disputed by some folks because it’s very new. One of the leading linguists who writes about this way of thinking about language is a lady named Lira Boroditsky. And of course she’s got a book coming out I think in a year or two, which I believe is going to push this whole understanding into the mainstream. But the notion is that actually the language that we speak, the words that we use or don’t use, shape the way that we see, the things that we notice or don’t notice, the way that our brains work, the way that our brains conceptualize reality.

A great example for this, one of the things that that doctor Boroditsky has done is as she’s, she started doing this at Stanford University, she would ask everyone in a room to close their eyes and then she would tell everyone to point north. And of course hands go up like Roman candles in all directions. She repeated it again at Harvard University and throughout Europe, same result. But when she went to the Western Cape of Australia, every hand pointed in the same direction. Why is that? The answer’s language. You see in the United States and the English language. For example, we use relative spatial terms. We’ll say you want to sleep on the left side of the bed or the right. They’re using cardinal terms in Australia, they would say, place your fork to the north of the knife. And as a result, their brains are now always attuned to which direction is which direction.

Jim: 

So when the table’s setter gets to the other side of the table, they’re placing the fork to the south of the knife.

Jonathan: 

That’s right. That’s right. So you find that because of the languages that we speak our brains work in certain ways. Our eyes focus on certain things. Even our cultures, our legal systems begin to look alike because of the languages we use.

Now what does that mean? That means that the things that we talk about, we think about. And the things we think about affect the ways we behave. If you overlay that onto sacred speech, what you find is if we don’t talk about God, we don’t think about God, our lives are not built around an understanding of God, if we don’t talk about faith, kindness, humility, we don’t, our lives are not built around those, those constructs, those ideas. So we wake up one day and we say, we don’t live in a very gracious culture anymore. Yeah, well, no wonder. We’re not talking about grace anymore. Grace’s fallen by over 50% in the last 100 years. We’re not talking about grace, so we’re not thinking about grace so we don’t live graciously that there’s almost a domino effect because we were created as Barbara Brown Taylor says, as speech creatures, it’s so fundamental to who we are to the way that we make meaning and perceive of reality that we think that language is just expressive.

There’s actually two ways of thinking about language and people. People tend to focus on one—expression. Partially because we live in an individualistic culture. We think of language as a passive tool that we use to make meaning. That’s true. But language is also formative. That the language that we speak, the language that we hear, the language that we’re steeped in also, it’s not just as something we use to express ourselves. It also shapes us in ways that we’re only now beginning to realize.

[musical interlude]

BioLogos: 

Hey Language of God listeners. If you enjoy the conversations you hear on the podcast, we just wanted to let you know about our website, biologos.org, which has articles, videos, book reviews, and other resources for pastors, students, and educators. We also have an active online forum where we discuss each podcast episode. You can find a link in the show notes. But the forum goes far beyond just discussing podcast episodes, with lots of open discussions on all kinds of topics related to science and faith. Find it all at biologos.org.

Segment 2: Fossilization, Substitution, Transformation

Jim: 

Let me read one more, selection from your book here then and we’ll get into what some of those words where you just, you describe a scene from the book and film, No Country for Old Men in which burning embers are being transported on horseback to the next camp to ensure that the fire can be passed on. And you suggest what that might symbolize in the context of the story. And then you say, and now I’m quoting, but “we might also imagine the fire in McCarthy’s horn to be a metaphor for language, specifically sacred language. Words are the fires we carry to each other, but the embers do not originate with us. They were handed to us by messengers from generations past and now we pass them on to others. When we lose our spiritual vocabulary, we lose much more than words. We lose the power of speaking grace, forgiveness, love and justice over others.” I think this is a really compelling picture of the way language works and I want us to get it, use it to get at the meat of your book. But first I have to ask, how does that picture of passing on what has been passed down to us fit with the title of your book, Speaking God From Scratch?

Jonathan: 

Because I think that when you are given something that was passed to you from a previous generation. The notion is, and you see this actually, if you look throughout the centuries, Jesus has been passed from generation to generation, right, from the early Christians through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance to the Reformation, to the Industrial era, into Postmodernism.

And in each generation we are getting Jesus that that thing is being passed on. But we’re crystallizing our understandings of Jesus in unique ways. And so this notion that we can both have it passed on to us and hold onto it as if we’re seeing it for the first time, I think is something that we have to kind of practice that tension when we receive words, not just… you don’t just ask the question, what did grace mean? You ask, what should grace mean for us in our day? You don’t just say, what did Jesus mean to these people who once existed? We say, what should Jesus mean for us? People who now exist? And that is that kind of constant, and I mean this not in the eastern or the eastern conceptions of it, but that process of reincarnation you incarnate and incarnate and incarnate those concepts that Jesus in each generation is the way that we make these concepts live in our day.

Jim: 

Yeah. So you’re giving us a preview here of your solution to this problem of spiritual language going out, but before we get to unpacking that solution further, let’s talk about two of the other options that people try to use in say preserving language of a, of a certain kind instead of that re-imagining, you talk about either fossilization or substitution. What are those approaches and why won’t they work for what we’re trying to do?

Jonathan: 

Yeah, so fossilization is a common approach. I grew up in a very conservative evangelical context and this is the predominant way of kind of dealing with sacred speech and in a conservative religious context, which is a way of seeing language as kind of a fixed, immutable entity with fixed meaning. And so it exists like a fossil. It just is what it is. You know, it’s, you studied the Bible like a cadaver, you know, you kind of peer over it, but it just sort of is what it was. And that’s it. It’s not, as the Bible says, the living word of God. And as a result, you say what these words meant is what they mean is what they always should mean. And then anyone who challenges that, anyone who tries to breathe new life in that is seen as sort of a threat, right? You have to circle the wagons to kind of protect the construct that you’ve been given with words.

A great example, and I’ll pick on a particular community, but it doesn’t mean that they’re exceptionally bad at this. Every community has their own weaknesses. But imagine if you were to go and join a New Calvinist church and you’d walk into that church and you were sitting in a Sunday school class and you were to say to yourself, you know, guys, I think that the way that we’re thinking about sovereignty is not exactly right. I think we should reimagine that. I think that the way that we perceive salvation, another word, it’s not right. Maybe we should open that up for discussion. Well, you’re not going to be at that church very long. That’s not up for grabs. We already figured out what that meant. We don’t need to talk about what it means, what it meant is what it means. So that’s fossilization and that’s one of the fastest ways to destroy any language is to just kind of squeeze it so tightly and not allow it to change.

Substitution is another well-meaning but unscalable way of kind of dealing with this. And a lot of my liberal friends love this. You know, probably my, I’ve already mentioned her once, Barbara Brown Taylor. I went to a conference with her not long ago and she said, I’m not going to use the word God a lot and maybe some of you aren’t gonna like that, but I’ll just use other words and if you feel like God’s appropriate, you can insert that word there. And I’ve had a lot of people who are not using the word God any more.

The problem is that when you get into these communities that are rooted in a sacred text. Spiritual communities that put you on a trajectory of formation, you find that you kind of throw all these words out and you say, well, we’re not going to use that because that has baggage and we’re not going to use that cause that has baggage and we’re not going to use this because it has baggage and you have nothing really left to say. And then you encounter the text that that particular tradition is rooted in and you have no concept for how to deal with anything that you find there. And you’re totally unequipped to journey into the ancient roots of that faith. And so it doesn’t really work all that well. What I’m arguing for is an approach to a language that allows you to take these terms, these torches, if you were to take McCarthy’s metaphor and to carry them into this new community, but then to reimagine those. In fact, linguists who don’t agree on much do agree on this. They say every language will either change or it will die.

And that’s just true. There aren’t actually exceptions to that. Every language that exists has changed from previous versions of it. You know, I took Hebrew when I was in seminary. I can’t speak Hebrew today because modern Hebrew is nothing like ancient Hebrew. I took Koine Greek. I can’t go to Greece and speak Greek. It’s changed. You know, if you take Elizabethan English, it’s going to be very different than the English we speak today. There are whole words that don’t mean what they used to mean. Languages change. And in fact, if you look at the biblical texts, they’re changing throughout the text. And so that’s really what I’m arguing for. Not Fossilization, not substitution, but language transformation.

Jim: 

So is it fair to say that the idea here is that the words we use because they have meaning and it’s not just this simplistic referent to one, a one to one reference to things that are existing out there in reality, but they have these broader connotations and contexts that draw in for what we understand for how words are used. And it’s those contexts in which words are formed are often different, contexts change, so we’re trying to capture something that the role of a word that it played in one context and translate that into a new one without just saying that doesn’t matter anymore. And that we’re trying to find ways to capture the same role of that word or is that a different?

Jonathan: 

No, I think we’re on the same page. That a speech act is an act of, it’s not an act of precision. It’s an act of approximation. We’re getting at something. We’re not getting it, the whole of something, but we’re getting at something, right? So when I say God, and I describe God as a certain way. For example, let’s say you say, our father who art in heaven, the word father there is, it’s approximating something. It’s telling me something about what I’m trying to communicate. But it’s not explaining all of what God is and who God is and how God acts and what God does and how God might be active in the world today. It’s just getting at some, it’s getting at reality. It’s the truth. It’s not the whole truth. So help me God.

And so what happens is, is we encounter as science tells us things we didn’t know before, as archeology tells us things we don’t, we didn’t know before. As culture changes and we have new experiences as technology has developed that raise new questions about what it means to be human. These words have to do work in different ways. So a previous way of understanding a word isn’t now wrong. It was getting at something, something that maybe we should listen to something that might be important. Language transformation gives us freedom to re-conceive of words in ways that will help us get at that same reality in a way that’s helpful for us.

Jim:

Good. Okay. So the second part of the book then you do some of this with specific words of reimagining how the they might be used now this tension that we see between how they have been used in the past and how we might try to understand them and how we might find traction again in our world today with these words. Some of them are words we might expect like prayer, God, sin, Spirit. But then there’s also some surprising ones. At least if you just flip through the table of contents and see the names of some of these chapters. So for instance, you start with a chapter on the word yes. How is that a term in God-language that we need to recapture?

Jonathan: 

You know, I think that the heart of faith is possibility and that’s what faith is, right? It says there’s the possibility of something more, of something greater, of something new, of something different, of something bigger than I can even conceive of. That’s faith. And you just trust in it. You can’t prove it. You can’t punch it in your calculator, but you kind of trust in that and there’s an openness to that. How do you get there? You get there through I think a posture of yes. In fact there’s this interesting verse in the New Testament where Paul says, “in Christ it was always yes.” I never read that before. What does that mean? That there was an open handedness to Jesus. An open-handedness to whatever God wants, I’m open to that. Whatever the truth may be, even if it wasn’t what I was expecting, even if it wasn’t what I was anticipating, I’m open to that. I’m open to new possibilities for what God might do in me and through me and with me in this world. So, in order to begin any process of spiritual formation, and one of those processes is learning to speak God from scratch, you have to begin by realizing the sacredness of the yes act of opening up your hands to the possibility of what God might do in your life.

And so that’s, I think you almost have to begin there. Because if you begin this with no, not open hands but folded arms, you know what, I’m going to sit here and bless me if you can, with this book, with this idea, with this concept, with this quote. Change me if you can. That process of no, and a lot of people begin that way. I said they have this kind of calcified approach to faith. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that if you look at the most faithless people in the Bible, they’re often described as having a hardened heart, no heart and a heart that says, no thanks. Not unless you can pry me out and force me to think in a new way. I think that the Jesus carves for us and the road of faith, the road that we see throughout Christian history is, is that holy yes. And that’s what I hope maybe people would do is they would begin to rediscover, to reimagine the sacredness of what it means to speak that divine Yes.

Jim: 

So yes now in this imaginative reimagine, reimagining of what we might mean by the word yes is not just positive affirmation to something that’s been asked. It’s not just a truth condition for a proposition that is either true or false and we say yes or no in that regard, but more of an attitude, a way of approaching the world. Is that what you’re after with this openness and possibility?

Jonathan: 

Yes I’ll give you a great example, you take a conversation like the conversation that BioLogos has been leading for many, many years. A conversation on the origin of life. If I say to somebody, are you open to considering things that you didn’t know that are true and are you open to allowing those new truths to alter what it is you believe? If somebody says, no, great, thanks for saving me time. That’s not a conversation that needs to happen. If somebody says, you know, I have confidence, let’s say you have a conversation, for example with a young Earth creationist and I have conversations with folks like that all the time. I used to be that. It doesn’t make you an idiot. You’re not stupid if you believe that. I happen to believe they’re wrong and they happen to believe I’m wrong. But if we can begin to approach these conversations with an open handedness, hearing out the other, considering truths that we didn’t know before that conversation, that we’re open to allowing those things to chiseling away at us, to softening hard edges, to changing our minds.

That’s what a posture of yes looks like. And I think faith is only possible if you have that Yes posture. If you have a no posture, it’s a non-starter. We don’t even, we don’t even have to talk about that. And that’s what happens I think a lot of times with proselytization. Proselytization says, I already know what’s true. You don’t know what’s true and I am only going to enter into conversation with you trying to change you. There is no possibility of me changing. Well that’s not a really helpful conversation. It certainly fails the golden rule and I think it fails the yes test. So I think that people of faith should always have that open handedness to encounter when God would sweep into our lives and give us something that we’d never considered before that we would be open to the possibility that that could change us.

[musical interlude]

Segment 3: Words (Fall, Neighbor, Blessed, Word)

Jim: 

You brought into conversation some of the topics that are near and dear to us here at BioLogos. The most sciencey chapter in your book, in the Second Section of the book where you’re writing these essays then, is about the word fall. For many, I think traditionally conservative Christians, they’ve understood the Fall as a thing that happened when the first humans ate a piece of fruit they weren’t supposed to and then everything bad in the world started right then. Why doesn’t that work as a word, as a way of understanding that word for many people anymore?

Jonathan: 

What I did when I thought about the word fall, I grew up thinking that the fall was something that happened at one point in history that it sort of was the flick of a domino that affected me in some way. But the fall was like a historical question. Either it did or it didn’t. And once you answered that question, you could move on to some other doctrine. What happened when I began to reimagine this, was to be able to say, you know, to me the question is not whether the fall happened, whether Adam was a single person who existed at a single point in history. I don’t know whether that’s true or not. I don’t know whether the fall happened in a historical sense, but I know it happens. I know it happens all the time. I know it happens to all of us. I know that all the time we are all choosing to eat of that tree, to grab on to that fruit that we know is not good for us, that we know will lead us into a place we would rather not go. And yet in the midst of that, God exists. That there’s not just a parachute from that experience, but that there is presence in the midst of that experience.

Now, if I re-conceive a fall that way, it’s not a one and done conversation. It’s a conversation I have to have every day of my life. What are the ways in which I’m living into that story in the here and now and what are the ways in which Jesus offers a better word for us in the midst of that experience? All the sudden fall becomes a living word, a breathing word in the here and now for me. And I will tell you, re-imagining fall in that way has been one of the greatest catapults for my own faith because it’s made my faith real and relevant and something that I can’t just put now into a drawer and go well now I’ve answered that question, now I can get back to whatever else was more pressing.

Jim: 

Another one of the words that is certainly not just theoretical but has practical implications, and one of my favorite chapters in this part of the book, was neighbor. Interestingly here, there seems to be a bit of the reclaiming of the word, the way Jesus used instead of just re-imagining it for now. Is there some case where fossilization is that or is that not what’s happening? Fossilization is probably not the right way to describe that.

Jonathan: 

I think sometimes what we can do is that you almost, it’s almost like a previous conception has become relevant again. That what Jesus is getting at in that moment now becomes more relevant than it ever was before. And so we can actually reimagine by recovering. I think what Jesus teaches when he talks about neighbor is interesting in a globalized world because Jesus is talking about neighbor on the basis of need, not the basis of proximity. You know, I did a whole youtube series where I went down to Times Square and I interviewed people and I said, what do you think this word means? And when I said the word neighbor, they were like, it’s the person over there. It’s the guy across the hall in my apartment building. It’s the guy down the street in my neighborhood. It’s the person, that flesh on flesh experience. That’s my neighbor.

And that’s the predominant understanding of the word neighbor for a lot of people. If I go, oh my gosh, tell me about your neighbors. Well, you’re going to talk about your physical neighbors in terms of proximity. And Jesus talks about neighbor in terms of need, that a neighbor is anyone who needs you and that you have the capacity to meet those needs with grace and mercy and love and justice. And so I think Jesus’s teachings on neighbor, while they’ve always been relevant to us, they’ve always been worth considering. They’ve never been irrelevant, they’ve never been passe. I think now they’re more relevant than ever in a world of refugees, in a world of foreign wars, in a world of global poverty and lack of access to clean drinking water in a world where you are tempted to say, oh yeah, that’s happening over there, let’s care for our own here.

And Jesus’ sort of blows the doors off of that 21st century conception. And so what I encourage people to do, and I bring it actually into conversation with a person, Mr. Rogers, who meant a lot to me growing up, who talked a lot about neighbor. It’s almost like taking Jesus’s conception and Mr. Rogers’ conception and bringing those into conversation with each other in the here and now. That sort of is the way that I’m attempting to lead this process of reimagination.

Jim:

Nice. Are there other words you’d like to talk about, words that perhaps didn’t make the final cut, or words that you’ve since realized needed to be added to this list that you’d been compiling?

Jonathan: 

You know, I think one of the words that I love that I do talk about in the book is the word blessed or blessing. In the Instagram age that is one word. Hashtag blessed. That’s one of the words that has really been twisted I think in a way that’s not so helpful. It’s not working for us. You see, the question, one of the reasons we go back to the conception in Jesus’s Day is cause that’s a conception that will work for us. Uh, the term bless now has basically become this term of privilege. You know, you have pictures of someone with a Lexus with a bow wrapped around it at Christmas you post a picture, Hashtag blessed. Look, me and my husband we’re on vacation in Punta Cana, we’re so in love. Hashtag blessed.

Jim: 

That didn’t make it into the beatitudes.

Jonathan: 

It didn’t make it into the beatitudes that there’s a re-ordering that also there are blessings that don’t show up so well on Instagram, that actually are roomy enough for the person who will probably never have that Lexus and probably doesn’t have the means to go to Punta Cana. That there is just the soft smile that was offered to you by your coworker in that cubicle on the end. That’s a blessing. Just being able to breathe this air. What a blessing. A sense of peace in the midst of chaos. That’s a blessing. But the way that we talk about blessings these days in largely external, largely materialistic ways, don’t make space for those conceptions. So what I’m proposing is that we would begin talking about blessings in bigger and better and more beautiful ways. That’s a word that we really need, I think to reimagine.

Jim: 

The last chapter of the book is called in the beginning was the conversation, which was, Erasmus’ translation of John 1. And you say in there, “Jesus was not a single word in isolation, but rather an ever expanding and ongoing speech into which we are invited to participate.” That’s a really provocative image. Can you unpack it a little more for us?

Jonathan: 

Yeah. When you say, when you take the English translation, in the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God. The idea that Jesus is the word. We think of it as kind of a static thing. But actually the Greek word that is translated word, was an active speech act. It was an ongoing, uh, act. It was something that involved both a speaker and an audience that were also participating. So this notion that Jesus has just some fixed thing that used to exist is not what John is getting at at all there. John is saying that God through Christ is this living active presence an ongoing act in our lives. That when we enter into Christ, we enter into this ongoing conversation that has been happening century after century, after century, after century. And we are just one ripple in this. And one day when we return to dust, it will continue. And people that come after us, our ancestors of faith, will enter into that conversation and they will also re-imagine these terms in their day and their way. And indeed to borrow from Schweitzer, that is the only way that the faith will live.

Jim: 

So if I may apply that to a BioLogos itself, the word BioLogos, Francis Collins forms out of bios for life and logos, the word. Understanding word in this way as the conversation seems to be really fruitful for this process of evolution by which we think life comes about. Not as a static thing, but as an ongoing development and even conversation if we might. 

Jonathan: 

Yeah, and if you think about conversations in your own life conversations, I bet you every person listening to this, if I said think about a time when you were radically transformed. For most people, that time of transformation is tethered to a conversation. Conversations are not just linguistic acts, they’re often transformative acts, right? So what happens with Jesus is, Jesus going forward as the conversation, He is the great transformer for us. If we allow the logos to be the logos we are allowing for transformation to happen into our lives, we’re saying that divine yes to Jesus entering into our lives not as something that once existed that once was involved that once just walked this earth. But as an ongoing living, breathing presence in our life that is changing us through the renewing of our minds in part, as the gospel… As the New Testament says. That we would allow Jesus to come in not in a static way but in an ongoing way to change us. And I think that’s the question for a lot of faithful people in every age. As we open our mouths, as we open our ears, that we would start by saying, are you willing today to let that divine conversation, Jesus Christ to come into your life and to change the way that you think, that you believe, that you behave. If you are open to that, well then the possibilities are limitless.

Jim: 

What does the future of Christianity in America look like if everybody will buy your book and read it and take your advice?

Jonathan: 

You know, there are a lot of people out there who are pessimistic about the future of faith in America. Particularly if you look at some of the numbers, church attendance, giving to churches, people who are willing to align with various religious institutions. You know, depending on how you slice and dice the pie, you can create a bleak picture. But I’m incredibly optimistic about the future of faith because I see organizations like BioLogos. I see people who are out there on the leading edge of these conversations that I think are creating, together, a renaissance for the faith, a reimagining of the faith. I think there are people who are realistic that if the Christian faith is going to go forward in the 21st century, it can’t look like 20th century faith. It has to look, it has to rise to the challenges of the needs of this world.

Now, the big question is, is whether everybody out there, people who are listening to this, people who are at your church, people who stand up and speak from those pulpits, people who write articles, people who write newsletters, people who are at your PTA meetings, people are in your community, groups of people who come over and watch football games at your house. Are those people, are they willing to reimagine the faith? Because if they’re not willing to reimagine the faith, well, then people like me and you sitting here behind microphones, who are we going to talk to? Who are we going to mobilize? Who are we going to spark conversation among? But you know, as I travel this country, I’m hearing people who are saying, I want to do that. I want to reimagine the faith. I believe that there’s still something left in these words. I believe these words are bigger and roomier and have more to give. I believe that the word of God still is living and breathing. I believe it’s as sharp as any two edged sword. I believe that the Christian faith still has a word to offer this generation and the next generation, the next generation, and those kernels of optimism that I am encountering all across this great land. I believe they can be fertilized, germinate. They can grow, that they can become the future of the Christian faith. And I believe that the future of the faith is as bright as it’s ever been.

Jim: 

May it be so.

Jonathan: 

Amen.

Jim: 

Thanks for talking to me this afternoon.

Jonathan: 

My pleasure.

Credits:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation and more than 300 individuals who donated to our crowdfunding campaign. 

Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf with additional production assistance by Truth Works Media.

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Featured guest

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is an award-winning writer on religion, culture, and politics. He currently serves as a contributing writer for The Atlantic and contributing editor for The Week. Jonathan has published more than 3500 articles in respected outlets such as The New York Times, USA Today, Buzzfeed, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. As a respected voice, he regularly contributes commentary to television, print, and radio news outlets and has been interviewed by ABC World News, NPR, CNN, PBS, MSNBC, Fox News, and CBS’ “60 Minutes.” Jonathan is author of several critically-acclaimed books, including Learning to Speak God from ScratchJesus is Better Than You Imagined, and A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars, and has collaborated on or ghostwritten more than 50 additional books, with several titles landing on the New York Times, USA Today, or Wall Street Journal bestsellers lists. Additionally, he trains hundreds of young writers through his Write Brilliant course. Named one of “30 young influencers reshaping Christian leadership“ by Outreach Magazine, Jonathan is a sought after speaker at colleges, conferences, and churches. He holds a Master of Divinity from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Master of Theology from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.

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