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The Language Gap and God: Religious Language and Christian Education by Randolph Crump Miller


Dr. Miller is Horace Bushnell professor of Christian nurture at Yale University divinity school. He is the author of The American Spirit in Theology (Pilgrim, 1974.) Published by Pilgrim Press, Philadelphia and Boston, 1970. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Chapter 6: The Language of the Heart


Many of the ideas which have been reworked in terms of logical analysis are not new. The recasting has been helpful, but older theories derived from philosophical and literary studies often provide parallels, in this chapter, we will turn to two men, Horace Bushnell, who lived in the last century in Connecticut, and Francis H. Drinkwater, a contemporary English Roman Catholic. They have similar positions and agree on the phrase which is the title for this chapter, "The Language of the Heart."

Horace Bushnell is best known for Christian Nurture, written in 1847, dealing with many aspects of the Christian education of children.(Bushnell’s first essays and defenses appeared in 1847. The book as we now know it, considerably enlarged by later essays, appeared in 1861, and the latest edition with introductions by Williston Walker and Luther A. Weigle appeared in 1947. See Christian Nurture (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1947). A selection of Bushnell’s writings is conveniently available in 11. Shelton Smith, ed., Horace Bushnell (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965). But in his own time, as a pastor in Hartford, he was in the midst of theological controversies in which he demonstrated an originality of thought and a devotion to Christian living that are equally significant for our purposes, particularly his theory of knowledge and his theory of religious language.

Although Bushnell did not develop a full theory of religious knowledge, it is clear that he combined views of intuition and reason in a way not greatly different from the position of I. T. Ramsey. His thinking in this regard was influenced by Samuel Coleridge and Victor Cousin as well as the Puritan tradition exemplified by Jonathan Edwards. From Coleridge he derived a view of the necessity of religious intuition as a basis for belief. From Cousin he adopted the view that belief in God is necessary because human thinking cannot avoid ultimate reality. Cousin expounded a "primitive spontaneity" or "intuitive reason" upon which reflection depends. From Jonathan Edwards Bushnell accepted the doctrine of "the sense of the heart." No matter how sound a man’s rational thinking may be, there must be an immediate intuition of God for his awareness to "come alive."

Knowing about God, said Bushnell, is not enough, for it is too impersonal and distant. There "is knowing God within, even as we know ourselves." This knowledge is such "that there as no language in it, no thought, no act of judgment or opinion, you simply have a self-feeling that is intuitive and direct." (Sermons on Living Subjects [New York. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910], p. 119; quoted by Smith, op. cit., p. 33.) This is the work of the Holy Spirit. Bushnell did not come to this conclusion easily, for he went through several crises in his own understanding of Christianity, each time with a renewed intuition of the presence of God or the living Christ.

As we will see when we turn to Bushnell’s theory of religious language, his mind was comprehensive. He did not trust any theology that had a limited vocabulary or that rode one idea. Language is too limited to deal adequately with truth about God, and we must use all of its richness, for truth has many sides. If we look at the history of Christian thought, we discover that no theory is right, for if pressed to its logical end it distorts reality and needs to be corrected by another form of statement. Yet each theory, insofar as it is responsible, stands for some aspect of truth. If we can combine the insights of the competing parties in theological discourse, by clarifying those forms which are "repugnant" and burrowing more deeply into the conflicts, a more comprehensive view will result.(See H. Shelton Smith, op. cit., pp. 111-12.)

Dissertation on Language

Although Bushnell claimed to be no expert on language, he had read widely and had been influenced by his teachers. Yet he was critical even of positions with which he had sympathy.(See his criticism of Cousin, ibid., p. 112.) His "Preliminary Dissertation on the Nature of Language, as Related to Thought and Spirit" was prefaced to his theological work, God in Christ, as a way of assisting the reader.(God in Christ [Hartford: Brown & Parsons, 1849], pp. 9-97; reprinted almost in full in Smith, op. cit., pp. 69-105.) He held to this position on language and used it in all his theological writings.

Bushnell began by proposing that we think of two men, who, having no language and having heard no words, form their own words to describe things they can point at. Thus, they are agreed on nouns as applied to things. The words are arbitrary choices. From these nouns, words are then used in adjectival wax’s or in ways of other parts of speech. He gives some examples:

The word through, and the word door, when traced historically, coalesce in the same origin. Nor could anything be more natural, in stringing nouns together before any precise grammar is formed, to speak of going door any wall or obstacle; which, if it continued, would shortly take the word door into a proposition, as we actually see in the word through. (Smith, op. cit., p. 79.)

And, he suggests, is a contraction of an-add. "A shine and a run are names of appearances, just as a sun and a river are names of appearances. And when these names are strung together, in the use, the sun and the shine, the river and the run, the idea of subject and predicate becomes associated."(Ibid., p. 80.)

This accounts, says Bushnell, for the way in which language develops at the physical level. We cannot always show how this occurred, and often the development may have moved according to various orders. But the point is that words are derived from their use to point to physical objects. Furthermore, our intellectual and spiritual vocabulary is derived from such physical roots in a second order of meaning. For example:

"The word spirit means, originally, breath, or air in motion; that being the symbol, in nature, of a power of moving unseen.

"The word religion is re, back, and ligo, to bind. . . . (A difference in etymology does not spoil the illustration)

"In the same wax xve have prefer, to set before; abstraction, drawing apart; reflection, turning back . . . faith, a tie or ligature."(Ibid., p. 78.)

In every language, there are words for literal use and words for figurative or analogical use. Theology belongs to the second use; theologians make a mistake when they "accept words not as signs or images, but as absolute measures and equivalents of truth; and so to run themselves, with a perfectly unsuspecting confidence, into whatever conclusions the logical forms of the words will carry them. (Ibid., p. 88. Owen Barfield, supported by C. S. Lewis and E. L. Mascall, takes an opposite position, claiming that early man did not start with either the physical or the spiritual meaning of words hut with both at once. See Barfield, Poetic Diction [New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964] pp. 72-76; C. S. Lewis, Miracles [London: Bles, 1947] p. 94; E. L. Mascall, Words and Images (London: Longmans Green & Co., 1957), p. 107. See also Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (2d ed.; Oxford: Basil Blackwell, and New York: Macmillan, 1958), pp. 2e-10e.) Like Ramsey after him, Bushnell was arguing for the special logical oddity of religious language.

Although words of intellect and spirit are derived from those used to point to the physical state, they do not correspond with any exactness, although there is a helpful degree of correspondence. There is a mystery in this correspondence, which is analogical and figurative and never exact. Writes Bushnell:

Words are legitimately used as signs of thoughts to be expressed. They do not literally convey or pass over a thought out of one mind into another. . . . They are only hints, or images, held up before the mind of another, to put him on generating or reproducing the same thought; which he can only do as he has the same personal contents, or the generative power out of which to bring the thought required.(Ibid., p. 91.)

Furthermore, Bushnell claims that such words always distort meaning, because they impute form to what has no form. Genuine thinking at this level involves poetry, allegory, and stretching of the imagination. Only a flexible vocabulary can operate effectively. But the situation is complex, for when words grow away from their roots they take on new and sometimes false meanings, which can be checked only by returning to the original meaning, which in turn is not reliable for indicating its secondary meaning.

Here is where Bushnell’s theory begins to take on significance for theological discourse and communication. Because of the peculiarity of religious language, all words carry with them the danger of error or partial truth. So we need to make use of many words or figures of speech, thus insuring that clarity will increase and falsifications will cancel each other. This is where paradoxes are essential, for they guard against a simplistic use of words and logic.

Although Bushnell is critical of rationalism in theology, he does not object to the use of logic and reason to order one’s thought. He writes: "After the subject matter has been gotten into propositions, and cleared, perhaps, by definition, the faculty of intuition, or insight, may be suspended, and we may go on safely to reason upon the forms of the words themselves, or the ‘analogy the words bear to each other.’ " (Ibid., p. 95.)

It is obvious to Bushnell that creeds and catechisms do not provide dogmatic certainty. If we are able to look beneath the surface of the events that led to their formulations, we will find an element of truth in all of them, although they give the impression of diversity. If creeds are to be retained, we should assent to as many as possible and let them qualify each other.(Ibid., p. 101.) Such a view emphasizes the tentativeness of theology.

Bushnell spoke against imaginative speculation, although some of his own flights of imagination articulated doctrine in a meaningful way. But at the same time, he was suspicious of all systems as such. If this approach to language is accepted, said Bushnell, "the scriptures will be more studied than they have been, and in a different manner -- not as a magazine of propositions and mere dialectic entities, but as inspirations and poetic forms of life. . . . We shall seem to understand less, and shall actually receive more." (Ibid., p. 103.) This presupposes a mystic element in life.

The Bible supports such a view, for it contains not only poetry but much that is like poetry in its historical accounts. Christ gave forth utterances, says Bushnell, "in living symbols, without definitions, without proving it, . . . well understanding that truth is that which shines in its own evidence, that which finds us, to use an admirable expression of Coleridge, and thus enters into us."(Ibid., p. 98.) Men speak of being gripped or grasped by truth or by God; they are overcome or overwhelmed; they are loved. When the "light dawns," it is a revelation or a disclosure from the outside. Religious language points beyond the self.

Thus far, we have looked at Bushnell’s theory of language as a help in communication, especially in theological discourse. There is one other factor which characterizes language and ties in with his theory of Christian nurture. A person’s use of words has significance and power which are individualized and personalized, says Bushnell, "whether it be the rhythm, the collocations, the cadences, or the internal ideas, it may be impossible to guess. But his language is his own, and there is some chemistry of life in it that belongs only to him, as does the vital chemistry of his body." (Ibid., p. 102.) The person who speaks is as much a part of the communication process as the words that are used. Jesus’ words, for example, carried a greater degree of significance because he "spoke with authority." What is communicated, therefore, not only points and shows but in an important manner reveals the hidden nature of the speaker or writer.

Certainly the proper use of words is not enough to provide Christian education. As Bushnell remarks, "Much of what is called Christian nurture, not only serves to make the subject of religion odious, and that, as much as we can discover, in exact proportion to the amount of religious teaching received."(Christian Nurture, p. 11.) Even before a child can use words, the gospel "beams out" from the Christian parent "as a living epistle, before it escapes from the lips, or is taught in words." (Ibid., p. 14.) This development of the child, growing up as a Christian, is no automatic process. "It involves a struggle with evil, a fall and rescue." (Ibid., p. 15.) There is an organic relationship between parents and children, which, when properly structured and supported by love, becomes the means of grace whereby God works within the group.

This interpersonal view of relationships, seen first within the family, applies also to life in the church and in the church school class. Not only do we learn about words by pointing to their physical origins and their secondary use in religious speaking, but we also learn about words which show us grace at work in the relationships of daily life.

The Language of the Heart

We turn from Bushnell to Francis H. Drinkwater. Both of them would agree with Georges Delcuve that the aim of Christian education "is to work with grace in the awakening or the increase of that faith which justifies us.’’ (Georges Delcuve, "Confirmation at the Age of Reason," Gerard S. Sloyan, ed., Shaping the Christian Message [New York: Macmillan, 1958]. p. 281.)

Drinkwater was for many years editor of The Sower, a weekly magazine on Roman Catholic catechetics in England, as well as an inspector of Roman Catholic schools. He has been concerned with the use of words for the purpose of Christian education, and has been influenced by the thinking of Wordsworth and Coleridge. Thus, he comes at the problem from a perspective similar to that of Bushnell. There is, he says, a need for simplicity in Christian communication that will reach the middle and lower classes of society. These people have a limited vocabulary. They think in concrete terms. They are caught in the impersonal structures of an industrial society where they have lost touch with the simple, rustic life of their ancestors. Wordsworth, in his day, had the genius to articulate the charm of everyday life in terms of the loveliness of the world around him. He could "overcome the film of familiarity" by appealing to nature in a simple, poetic style that reached the heart.

This, of course, is no longer the case. The people arc caught in a routine in which the charm of nature has been forgotten and cannot be renewed by field trips or poetry. Yet preaching at mass, storytelling, and dialogue need to reach the "heart." Drinkwater says that "if people can’t see the difference between the emotions and the heart they have not even begun to understand what it is all about." ("Using Christian Words" Sloyan, ed., op. cit., p. 271.) Like Coleridge and Bushnell, Drinkwater is thinking in terms of the total thinking, willing, loving person who is enabled to respond "with all his heart."

The trouble with so much language is that it refers to some "substance" as the meaning of words that are meant to illuminate relationships or personal meanings. ‘‘Grace’’ as a theological doctrine, says Drinkwater as an example, is often interpreted as similar to some substance like bread or niedicine, but "if we just said that God comes to live in our soul, and this New Life is what is meant by ‘grace,’ ‘‘ would this not have meaning for simple people?(Ibid., p. 273.)

There are, says Drinkwater, four categories of language:

1. Scientific-difficult: This is the language of mathematical physics or of the theology of Thomas Aquinas. It is essential for technical analysis, for scientific hypotheses, and for discussions among professionals. It is the language used for the establishment of the theological basis for Christian education.

2. Scientific-simple: This is the language of simplified arithmetic, of a weather report, and of the catechism. It is essential for passing on information on a non-technical and impersonal basis, but it never reaches the heart.

3. Poetic-difficult: This is the language of Francis Thompson in The Hound of Heaven or of some of the poetry of T. S. Eliot and Robert Browning. At its worst, it is like the poem of which Browning is reported to have said: "When I wrote it only God and Robert Browning knew what it meant; now, God only knows."

4. Poetic-simple: This is the "language of the heart." Drink-water’s example is Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. It is the language found in much of the Bible, especially the psalms, the beatitudes, and some of the parables of Jesus. Poetry is here used in the broad sense that parallels some of the logically odd qualifiers suggested by Ramsey and the combinations of words recommended by Bushnell, who also recognizes the significance of poetry. Even when a poet has been using difficult words, Drinkwater reminds us, when he wants to get to the heart he uses poetic-simple:

"Good night, sweet prince;
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!"

This language is so simple that every word but one is of a single syllable.(See Ibid., pp. 274-75.)

"The science of theology," he writes, "must erect a lofty structure of truth expressed in scientific language upon a basis of truth expressed in non-scientific language. It is like building a mighty bridge not on solid ground, but across some wide river bed. This can be done to last, but not by any second-rate engineers in a hurry." (Ibid., p.277) Teachers need to reverse this process. They need to be grounded in theology, even when it does not reach the heart, but they need to translate the scientific-difficult language into something more immediately meaningful. Often they are content to translate from scientific-difficult into scientific-simple, and we get a kind of catechetical teaching that is deadly, turning out parrots who can repeat formulae rather than believers who are afire with faith. It is never enough to translate scientific-difficult into scientific-simple, unless the purpose is that of analysis for those who are limited in education or in acquaintance with the field.

"Teachers with pious but second-rate minds, faced with the task of teaching the scientific-difficult jargon of seminary theology and catechisms, prove quite unequal to the task of translating it even into scientific-simple language, much less the poetic-simple.(Ibid., pp. 279-80.) We need all levels of difficulty in the use of language to do the total job, but what we usually miss out on is this key task of translation into the rich and imaginative images and idioms of poetic-simple.

Drinkwater contrasts the purposes of the basic categories of language. He writes:

There is a kind of language which can reach the heart, and another kind of language which seals off the heart as effectually as trouble in the fuse box shuts off the electric current. There are times when you need to shut off the electric current, for repairs or tests or some such reason, hut you don’t expect any light or heat during these circumstances.(Ibid., p. 271).

What Drinkwater has in focus is one specific purpose of Christian education: to evoke light and heat. Amos Wilder puts it this way: The gospel’s "poem forms . . . focus upon the heart and its ultimate response to God. . . . Plastic and rhythmic language must be called forth to convey this level of experience." Ian T. Ramsey, recognizing that not all poetic or logically odd language is necessarily religious, reminds all teachers that "a useful antidote for straightforward language might be found in suitable doses of poetry or greater familiarity with the curiously odd words thrown up in scientific theories." (Religious Language [London: SCM Press, 1957; Macmillan Paperback, 1963], p.48.)

Is this sufficient? Or do we need to emphasize the point that there is a basis for belief that may be expressed in more technical language, as Drinkwater suggests in his bridge-building illustration? Ronald Hepburn warns that the analogy between poetry and theology

is fruitful but dangerous when rashly invoked. To make effective use of it, a theologian must know something of how the language of poetry differs from that of prose description; he must come to know in detail what he is claiming when he says that such and such a biblical narrative is "imaginatively true," "a profound myth," "more than historical fact," or when he claims an affinity between the poet and the prophet. . . . The language of poetry . . . still cannot by itself lead to a defensible apologetic. ( "Poetry and Religious Belief" Alasdair MacIntyre, ed., Metaphysical Beliefs [London: SCM Press, 1957], p. 165.)

Drinkwater does not deal with this issue of apologetics. Ramsey, however, believes that logically odd phrases that lead to disclosures can be related to an underlying reality tested by "empirical fit" and speaks of the "empirical anchor" of worship. I doubt if this would satisfy Hepburn, but the evidence from Northrop, Hartshorne, and Whitehead (chapter 3) provides a broader empirical and rational base. Hepburn says that "the symbolic vessel requires a nonsymbolic anchor," (Ibid., p. 162.) and the question remains for the reader to decide whether this empirical anchor is found in the suggestions of Ramsey, Northrop, Bushnell, and others.

Drinkwater certainly does not rely on the poetic-simple for the verification of the beliefs that are to be communicated. Poetic-simple is a vehicle of language for communication so that the total person may respond. It is, in Ramsey’s words, "disclosure" language, not "verification" language. The two logics, like the two language-games, are not identical.

Implications for Christian Education

As we derive implications for Christian education from Bushnell and Drinkwater, we need to examine the meaning of "poetic," see its use in the Bible even in the narrative mode, look at some modern examples of the poetic, and then stress Bushnell’s emphasis on the multiple use of words especially as they can be rooted hack into the prosaic and descriptive uses. But poetic-simple is not the whole of religious communication. Drinkwater suggests way’s of using the other categories of language, and it becomes clear that there are proper uses of scientific-simple, poetic-difficult, and, on a more analytical level, scientific-difficult. And all such uses of language, to be effective in the religious sense as talk about God, take us back into the issue of the experience and meaning of worship.

It appears that Ramsey, Bushnell, and Drinkwater are arguing at one level of their thought for an identical theory of the use of words for communicating in terms of "the language of the heart." They are using "poetic" in a broad sense, as rich, concrete, image thinking. They are thinking more in terms of Jesus’ parables than in terms of the psalms; more in terms of metaphors and models than in terms of hymns; more in terms of unusual picture language than in terms of Pilgrim’s Progress; but both sides of these parallels are part of the picture. The emphasis is on avoiding straightforward, prosaic language, whether it be theological jargon or scientific description. This means avoiding scale or picture models and yet appealing to the images in the human mind. It means stories of real people and parables of imaginary people without falling into fantasy thinking. It means evoking disclosures of an objective reality in life without stimulating bigotry or fanaticism. It means sensing the "undifferentiated aesthetic continuum" without losing consciousness of God as logos, revealed in Jesus Christ, but probably never using such language to express it. It means the experience of the mystery of the "numinous" in worship without withdrawal from the world of the secular. It means discernment of the divine followed by commitment.

When we turn to the language of the gospel, we find this point of view confirmed. The story, the parable, the poem, the myth, and other verbal symbols are the forms of presentation. The vividness of the anecdotes, with their quick flashes into the meaning of Jesus’ ministry, provides occasions for discernment and commitment. The parables, with their remarkable secular realism and their challenge to go and do likewise, assist us in gaining self-knowledge when we identify with one of the characters. The challenge of the miracles for our understanding of the meaning of Jesus’ ministry forces us to see the logical oddity of their presentation. The poetry, especially in Luke, some of which is written into our traditional liturgies, challenges our Imagination. Why, for example, does Bach’s Magnificat leave out the penultimate note at a crucial point about the rich and the poor? Is music capable of the same logical improprieties as words? Those passages which many consider to be myth provide a different kind of challenge. Are they now so preposterous that Bultmann’s demythologizing is the only solution? And when they have been translated into the vocabulary of existentialism, are we helped or hindered? The language of "authentic existence" may pose for some the kind of logical oddity that evokes a disclosure.

Furthermore, all of these examples suggest the narrative mode which is also the key to understanding the Old Testament. There are those who claim that the basic understanding of any passage comes from identifying with one of the characters and therefore appropriating the revelation presumed to be present. The teacher is faced with the problem of reading or retelling the story in such a way that for that age-level some degree of appropriation is possible, for otherwise no disclosure could be evoked. To tell a story so that the "light dawns" and the "ice breaks" usually means using the "language of the heart." This is easier to state than it is to practice. Often the teacher not only finds it difficult to translate the story properly for the age-level, but he is unable to see the point himself. Good techniques of storytelling are not sufficient to overcome the basic handicap of lack of insight. Many times, the approach involves telling two stories, so that the biblical and the modern stories overlap and interpenetrate each other, and in the intermingling of the two stories the "light dawns." Just as a metaphor involves the mixture of two different images, so a mingling of stories may provide a disclosure situation. This is particularly true in an age when the biblical stories reflect either an irrelevant culture or an irrelevant historical period, as they do for most Westerners today. If the students have knowledge of a fund of biblical stories, it may be possible to tell a modern parallel and let them make the identification of the biblical story that is intended, thus bringing the biblical insight into their own span of attention through their own efforts. If we can bring the stories of our own lives together with Christian stories, it may lead to an increase in both self-awareness and in discernment of God in our midst.

Poetry as such has a large part to play in telling of the meaning of Christianity. Children are capable of writing and understanding simple poetry. Here is a sample of the writing of a boy in the tenth grade (fourth form in England):

O God, tell me the reason why
Man goes soaring in the sky?
Why does the world go round and round?
Why does it not go up and down?
Would it wreck the eternal plan
If I should have an extra hand?
Why is the sky so blue?
Is it a freak, or because of you?
I wish I knew one way or the other
If every man was my brother.
-- Christopher Young (Quoted by R.W. Street, ‘The Use of Poetry in Religious Education,’ VIII [Mar. 1969], p. 12)

A boy a year older catches something of the paradox of living in today’s world, and the oddities face us with the possibility of a new discernment:

Someone dropped a bomb somewhere!
Well it’s not on me -- I don’t care.
But it missed its target flare
And rendered with its napalm a village bare.

The poor village worker perplexed by the scream
Of engines looked above and saw his flying doom.
With a blinding liberation flash and the flow
Of jelly petrol his body was now a charred mass.

But the preacher said, "The Lord is my Shepherd,
I shall not want . . ." as his and another hundred
Bodies were pushed into a grave, like a herd,
With a sprinkle of lime for their coffins.
-- Thomas Stacey(Ibid., p. 12)

Like the psalms, the poetry of modern youth, to the accompaniment of a guitar rather than a harp, expresses the hopes and fears, the realities and the aspirations, the discernment and commitment which they do not often find in more traditional forms of creed and worship. It is no accident that religious themes pervade many of the folk songs of the younger generation.

Those who have seen a performance of A Man Dies, a mime passion drama by Ernest Marvin developed by teenagers in Bristol, England, with its dancing and its music, realize that the message comes through most strongly in the words of its songs. The music is rhythmic in a mixture of the jazz and folk song idioms, and the words crowd into the consciousness with their power. This is especially true of the song which reoccurs with different words throughout the play:

Gentle Christ, wise and good,
We nailed him to a cross of wood.
The Son of God, he lived to save,
In borrowed stable and borrowed grave.
When he walked into the shopping street
We threw spring flowers before his feet,
Glad to get an excuse to shout,
No need to worry what you shout about.
Gentle Christ.
Soldiers came at Pilate’s call
Led him into the common hall,
Took sharp thorns and made a crown,
Dressed him in a scarlet gown.
Gentle Christ. . . .
At last they came to the hanging place
A hill we call the Eyeless Face,
They gave him drugs to kill the pain,
He pushed the cup away again
Gentle Christ. . . . ã Copyright by Ivy Music Limited, London. Reproduced by permission.

As the words continue, sung to a haunting tune with a beguine beat, the message comes through so that the light may dawn for those who would not hear the story in any other form, and it comes with renewed power to those who already accept the power of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Bushnell and Drinkwater provide another insight which may be interpreted in terms of Drinkwater’s poetic-simple. The richness of Christian imagery demands a plurality of models and words. If we can increase the number of models and qualifiers, and if we can find synonyms for key words, somewhere along the line there may be a glimmer of light or a thawing of the ice. The New Testament is particularly helpful, for in the attempt to understand the meaning of Jesus we find a total of forty-two names, many of which have currency in today’s world, and in the search for images of the church, we find ninety-six, some of which still have meaning.(See Vincent Taylor, The Names of Jesus [New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1953]; Paul S. Minear, Images of the Church hr the New Testament [Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960]. A theological wordbook for seventh grade and up incorporating some of these ideas is found in More than Words [New York: Seabury Press, 1955, 1958]). When we talk about God, the concepts are less frequent, but the Old Testament provides four names and avoids the basic one, YHWH, because it is too holy to speak. There is the question of whether God is a name or not, or if it has the same oddity as the tautology "I am I."

The use of poetic-simple, logically odd language is primarily for reaching the total person. Insofar as the aim of Christian teaching is to evoke disclosures and commitment, this is the kind of language which our logical mapping of religious discourse requires. We shall see in the next chapter that we also need to incorporate the performative language of self involvement. But the purpose of Christian education is not exhausted at this point.

Briefly, let us look at Drinkwater’s categories of language again. His emphasis on "the language of the heart" and the "poetic-simple" is in terms of unsophisticated and uneducated people, who might find other forms of language extremely difficult. But even the uneducated ask intelligent questions, involving analysis and criticism. Therefore, it seems to me that if there is to be dialogue of any sort, it is essential that we use critical tools in as simple a way as possible. This is not a justification of theological jargon, but of the use of what Drinkwater calls scientific-simple as a basis for reasoning, analysis, and explanation. The problem arises when the conventional terms, however simple, have lost their meaning and their power to communicate; then we need to search for new words or find new referrals for the old ones.

My guess is that we need to do a great deal more with this kind of simple language. Here again we may be helped by Bushnell’s suggestion that spiritual words have physical roots. There are secular references for most words used religiously. A boy objected to the use of "conversion" and "redemption" in church, for, as he said, "conversion and redemption are banking terms." If a class would take a number of such scientific-simple terms and compare their secular and religious uses, such words might come alive, especially when logically odd qualifiers are added. The search for synonyms is also worthwhile. For example, a class could take faith and its synonyms and find current secular and religious meanings: faith-decision-trust-commitment-belief in (not that).

The other categories of language have their value for Christian education. There are some who will want to move beyond the poetic-simple to the poetic-difficult. They can do this without going outside the Bible, especially in some of the more complicated psalms or difficult selections from the prophets. They may wish to delve into the literature of great poetry. Any stimulus to the imagination is likely to increase religious insight, and it is a mistake to assume that all disclosures can be reduced to poetic-simple without the danger of some loss of meaning. Isaiah 55, for example, is a mixture of poetic-simple and poetic-difficult, and may be understood at varying levels of meaning.

Furthermore, there are those who want to think analytically about religion. Some such students are taking university courses in religious studies, but others are those in our congregations who are capable of what Piaget calls "formal operational" thinking. They may be teenagers or adults. The controversies over John A. T. Robinson’s Honest to God and the "death of God" debates surprised many educators and clergy who did not believe that lay people would discuss theological issues at this level. Here, then, is the point at which scientific-difficult language enters the picture at the parish and Sunday school level as well as at the college and university level. It has been said that many clergy overrate their parishioner’s information and underrate their intelligence. This, I think, is often true. The problem is to provide situations in which the questions they are capable of asking may be met with honesty and in a language they are capable of using. Even the careful distinction of the various language-games may be one of the most valuable of all exercises in religious thinking, as I hope this book demonstrates.

There is one more issue coming from the Bushnell and Drinkwater contributions to our thinking. I suppose that the gospel may be heard in any situation, but Ramsey suggests that the situation in which the oddity of the language fits must also be evoked, and he suggests worship as the empirical anchor. Bushnell agrees that worship provides the framework, but he also insists that nurturing occurs within the organic unity of the family. Reuel L. Howe indicates that words have currency only when they point to previous experience in interpersonal relations. Love, for example, is not likely to be interpreted adequately by a person who has never known love from his parents; trust is meaningless to those who never have had the experience of basic trust; faith is an impossibility for those whose faith in other people has been destroyed. Religious words are influential when the person using them stands behind them, guaranteeing them not only by a sense of conviction but by an integrity of action (as is made abundantly clear in the letter of James). This suggests that there is more to the language of faith than an appeal to the "language of the heart," important as this is. The opposite point is not to be neglected: words have power to change the human situation, for they have performative value. We will look at this topic in the next chapter.

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