“Language Games”


In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

For many years, I have enjoyed the writings of Thomas Merton.

Merton’s autobiography, The Seven-Story Mountain describes his spiritual journey. The journey began with the wild drinking and partying that Merton enjoyed as a member of New York literary circles in the 1930’s. The journey ended in a Trappist Monastery in rural Kentucky.

By the time Merton died in 1968, he was world-famous. His writings are still valuable for their insights into Christianity and their application of Christian ideas to problems of society and the inner life.

I am a great fan of Merton’s work. But I find one aspect of his writing disconcerting. Some years ago, I happened to be given one of several enormous volumes of Merton’s letters that were published after his death. He had corresponded not only with ordinary Christians asking for advice but also with church authorities and theologians, with leaders of other faiths such as the Dalai Lama, and with well-known writers and political activists.

While I found the letters fascinating, the very different styles of the letters were troubling. Merton seemed to speak with many voices.

To bishops, for example, Merton wrote in the respectful tone of a choirboy. Corresponding with political allies, he used 1960’s rhetoric about “power to the people.” When he was writing to theologians, Merton’s letters sounded like sermons, while fellow writers were addressed in the slang of the time—using expressions such as “yeah, man.”

These contrasting styles were disturbing: I wondered, when was the real Merton talking? He seemed to be playing different roles–politically correct when it pleased his correspondents, traditional and pious to satisfy others.

Merton would no doubt have justified these diverse styles by arguing that he was trying to communicate the truths of the Gospel to as many people as possible. He had to use all kinds of language in order that bishops and novelists and professors and hippies could understand him.

Indeed, Merton might have seen himself as walking in the footsteps of St. Paul. Paul even proclaimed that he was “all things to all people.”

This phrase appears in the Second Lesson that we heard read today. In the text, Paul writes: “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law…”

Paul later concludes, “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.”

But Paul didn’t just speak in different styles to different audiences. He actually varied his religious behavior according to the customs of the people he encountered.

So, when Paul met with Jewish converts to Christianity, he joined them in keeping the dietary laws that he had followed since his own Jewish childhood. Other times, when he visited Christian congregations made up of former pagans, Paul allowed himself to eat food that wasn’t kosher. Thus he tried to be accessible to potential converts from every background and belief.

This idea of adapting one’s behavior in order to present the Gospel message to people with various values and cultures has become popular in our own days. A movement in the Church of England called “Fresh Expressions of Church” holds services in pubs to attract non-churchgoers. The same group has sponsored parties in discos.

In America, there are similar efforts, like there are evangelists who work with Christian bikers. A couple of years ago, a priest in this diocese offered the Eucharist in Hip-Hop language and music.

These initiatives haven’t always been successful. For one thing, it’s very hard to go outside your own culture and still appear genuine.

I once saw a video of a bishop giving a rap sermon at a hip-hop mass. I don’t know what the young people in attendance thought of the service—but since I cringed with embarrassment, I fear that they might have been uncomfortable as well.

Of course, the Gospel message is meant for everyone. It therefore needs to be presented in ways that everyone can understand. That’s why the New Testament has been translated into thousands of different languages and dialects.

And that is why Paul could observe one set of dietary rules with Jewish Christians and another set with Gentile Christians and still avoid being hypocritical. But notice that his evangelical work wasn’t intended to show his own cleverness. As he said, he wanted to share the “blessings” of the Gospel.

Still, it’s not easy to translate faith into life. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said that religion is a kind of “language game.” As a language game, it includes actions and customs and values—not just words.

So for example worship consists not just of repeated texts found in a prayer book—but of actions: music heard and sung. Bread and wine lifted up and prayed over and broken and offered. Heads bowed and handshakes exchanged.

Today our worship has included candles as part of an annual celebration called, “Candlemas.” Now we can expect that this ritual could be appreciated by non-believers. Candles are popular these days; rows of them are for sale even in the drug store!

But symbols need interpreting. They point after all beyond themselves to the light of Christ—to a spiritual reality that some Duane Reade shoppers may never have encountered, to a light they are longing for in their own souls.

And this fact suggests a deeper truth about presenting the Gospel. Some evangelists make us feel uneasy because they seem to be proclaiming themselves! They’re smooth; they claim to have found the truth that others miss.

In some sense they might have become all things to all people. But the result is to puff themselves up. They show the world how clever they are. But they don’t point beyond their own egos. And thus they don’t share the blessings of the Gospel.

Speaking the language of faith isn’t just knowing the tune of a hymn or when to sit and when to stand during a service. Communicating the Gospel means showing a life focused beyond ourselves: not only talking the talk, but presenting the spiritual realm of peace and healing and grace.

Not only talking the talk, but walking the walk in love, as Christ also loved us, and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

And now unto God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.

Leave a Reply