My Soul Cries Out for Water
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Last week I was reading through sections of the Tao Te Ch’ing with people as part of the Jumpin’ January Spiritual Practices workshop I was leading. And as always, one concept that rises in the reflections is about how hard it is to express the inexpressible. Indeed, the first chapter of the Tao Te Ch’ing states: “The Tao that can be told is not the true Tao; the name that can be named is not the eternal Name.” It seems as if we all have experiences of something sacred, something holy, yet just how we experience it is unique and very hard to express, hard to put into words. And here we have Lao Tzu, the wise soul who apprehended the Tao and the way words are a poor means to convey the deep truth of the Tao, and Lao Tzu writes down a whole book full of words as an expression of the inexpressible.
In Anthony de Mello’s book of meditations, The Song of the Bird, there is this passage:
The disciples were full of questions about God.
Said the master, “God is Unknown and Unknowable. Every statement about him, every answer to your questions, is a distortion of the truth.”
The disciples were bewildered. “Then why do you speak about him at all?”
“Why does the bird sing?” said the master.
Aristotle wrote, “Midway between the unintelligible and the commonplace, it is metaphor which most produces knowledge.” Religious language is an attempt to speak about that which is inexpressible. The natural world and our experiences of it are complex and varied. We live and move in a complex, multi dimensional world.
Words are like maps that represent our experiences. And it was Alfred Korzybski who coined the phrase, “the map is not the territory.” We are like cartographers faced with the task of creating a flat map of a curved earth. Words can be close approximations at best, never exact representations. Thus we use a form of language, religious and metaphorical, to express what we experience.
The primary purpose of such speaking, the primary use of such language is for worship. We use religious language to sing about that which is praise-worthy. Religious images and words are most useful, most powerful, in the context of religious worship.
When I was on Sabbatical last year at Meadville Lombard Theological School, I sat in on a Pragmatic Theology course. The professor would occasionally refer to Doxological language. And he would use that word strung into sentence full of words that made me run to my dictionary. But I discovered ‘doxological’ is not in the dictionary. I had to look up the root and frustratingly interpret what he was saying. I had forgotten this tendency of academics. But what I discovered was that our professor was making the case that worship was the primary use of theology and of all religious language.
Everything that can be said about God is partial and flawed and ultimately a distortion of the truth. Why speak of God at all? For doxological reasons. From all that dwell below the sky, let songs of hope and faith arise. This is a doxology. This is a song of praise. In religious language we begin to express the important things we need to say together.
And the author of the reading we heard this morning (Sallie McFague, Metaphorical Theology) agrees when she states, “The primary context for any discussion of religious language is worship. [One must have] a sense of the mystery surrounding existence, of the profound inadequacy of all our thoughts and words.” (p2) But for this to work, we must recognize that we are not stating scientific facts of eye witness historical accounts of reality. We are using a language of metaphor and poetry to speak about the inexpressible reality of the sacred, of the Tao, of God.
And if this were all there was to this then we would spend the rest of our morning basking in metaphor and poetic imagery. But there is a secondary context to religious language, one that – if you’ll pardon the metaphor – throws a wrench in the works. That secondary function is interpretive. By this we mean that religious language is used not only to praise what is worth, but also to interpret reality – to identify what is praiseworthy: to name it and interpret it.
And herein lays the crux of McFague’s conundrum which is the root of her whole book: Not only is it a paradoxical impossibility to use the religious language interpretively, we now do so in our modern context which makes the task that much more impossible. She explains: “We do not live in a sacramental universe in which things of this world … are understood as connected to and permeated by divine power.” (p1) People used to live in a world wherein the meaningfulness and the truth of religious language was not a question. Prior to the widespread understanding and use of modern science, people perceived the world as an example of the divine order established by God.
(At least this is how it unfolded in the West. I suppose a very similar disillusionment and de-sanctification may well have taken place in the Orient when Modernity hit there as well, but I am not enough of a student of world history to say so with certainty.) So, at least in the West, people understood that “each and every scrap of creation, both natural and human, participates in and signifies the divine order.” (p11) And that is just no longer the case. People today, generally, do not see the world as suffused with divinity. And thus religious language is irrelevant.
At least that is one possibility: irrelevancy. The other alternative is found on the conservative end of practiced religion: idolatry. Because there is so obvious a disconnect between religious language and modern reality we can either take our religious language too seriously and see the symbols and metaphors as literally true (which is the particular danger that fundamentalist and conservative religion faces) or we can take our religious language not seriously enough and see the metaphors as quaintly archaic (which is the particular danger that liberal religion in general and Unitarian Universalism in particular faces.) If we see the metaphors as literally true then they become idolatrous. If we see them as quaintly archaic they become irrelevant.
We enjoy seeing the ready critique liberal religion offers to the literalists. One of the most captivating lines from the Tao of Physics book states, “Because our representation of reality is so much easier to grasp than reality itself, we tend to confuse the two and to take our concepts and symbols for reality.” (P 28) Along that same line of thought, theologian Paul Tillich argues that the first step we took away from the sacramental understanding on the universe was when religion “defended its great symbols, not as symbols, but as literal stories.” (from Tillich’s Lost Dimension of Religion.) Because in doing so, it pulls the symbol down into the realm of being verified by science or history or logic.
Harder to see and enjoy is the critique leveled against liberal religion for ceding religious language to the fundamentalists because we’ve lost sight of its relevance to our lives. We, the ever-faithful iconoclasts, always ready to tear down the idols and point out that the emperor has no clothes, have unfortunately slipped allowed our most powerful words to slip away into irrelevancy.
So, of course, Tillich along with McFague and perhaps Lao Tzu as well, sees a way out of this conundrum. There is a way to use religious language without it falling into either idolatry or irrelevance. Instead, we can see religious language as metaphorical and vibrant. To think and speak metaphorically is not notice the thread of similarity between two dissimilar things or events, one of which is well known and the other less well known. We can then say “this” which we don’t know so well is like “that” which we do know. To use an old Buddhist parable, it is the finger pointing to the moon. The focus is the moon, what we understand is the pointing finger. If we focus only on the pointing finger we miss the object of the metaphor.
So we try to understand something like spiritual longing and I tell you my soul cries out for water. Well, we know what it is like to be thirsty therefore we can begin to speak about spiritual longing through the metaphor. In this same way we can begin to speak of Grace and Beloved Community and God as well as hope, fear, love, joy, and so on. Metaphor is not mere poetic adornment and ornamentation with which to add flavor or color to otherwise boring or flat language. Metaphor is our doorway into the otherwise inexpressible experiences we share.
Ultimate Reality is a mystery to which we have clues, but will never fully understand. The words we use, as Augustine is quoted to have said in the reading, are halting and inadequate. Words are helpful, but they also get in the way.
Theoretical Physicist Werner Heisenberg once said “that every word or concept, clear as it may seem to be, has only a limited range of applicability.” Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein went a step farther saying “The limits of one’s language are the limits of one’s world.” Yet through imagination and metaphor we are able to stretch beyond that limit. Metaphorical language takes us beyond such limits to begin to apprehend infinity.
Taoist sage, Chang Tzu wrote:
Fishing baskets are employed to catch fish; but when the fish are got, the men forget the baskets; snares are employed to catch hares, but when the hares are got, men forget the snares. Words are employed to convey ideas; but when the ideas are grasped, men forget the words.
Words get us there, and words get in the way; but they are all we have. I firmly assert that anything we can say about the deepest, most profound levels of life must necessarily be filtered through our human language. As a means of discussing all that is Holy, human words and concepts are hopelessly inadequate. However, we must try because spiritual growth is important, and it can only be accomplished through dialogue with yourself, with your neighbor, and with your God. We need words for this.
Remembering the basic concept of how metaphorical language works – we need one thing to be fairly well known and the other to be somewhat unknown or unknowable. So if we look in the Bible for our religious language it can be hit or miss. When we speak of God as a shepherd or as a king, it assumes that shepherds and kings are still in our regular daily living – and they are not. When it speaks of Jesus as the Anointed One, anointing is not a concept we experience in our daily living. We at least know what kings and shepherds are even though they are uncommon. The only anointing that happens nowadays is in religious ritual! It is a self-referencing metaphor If a metaphor is to help us understand one thing by comparing it to a well known other thing – then it is a broken metaphor if we really don’t understand either!
But that’s not all there is in the traditional Christian lexicon of metaphor. Consider the times when God is referred to as spirit – which is a word wonderfully tangled up with both breath and wind. Consider the times in scripture when God is referred to as bread or water or shelter or love. These are all in there. And do we know anything about breath and water, bread and shelter, and love? We know that these are all biological necessities for life. And so the language is comparing God to those basic elements that make living possible.
But we need not even turn back to the traditional metaphors if we don’t want. The best part of being a heretic is the freedom to uncover new images and metaphors. And perhaps you’ve noticed: we don’t talk a lot about bread and breath … or do we?
“Spirit of life, blow in the wind.” Breath and wind and spirit have always been tangled together in translation, as they are in symbol and metaphor. “Roots hold me close,” we sing, without ever questioning that this is of course a metaphor. “Wings set me free,” we sing, finding the metaphor to a powerful one that nourishes us.
And also we speak of a web of life, an interconnectedness in the universe that begins to sound a great deal like a sacramental understanding of the universe. To be sure there is a literal analogy here at the atomic level and with the laws of physics. But more importantly there is a metaphorical level where we say “this” is like “that.” The universe is like a web, you and I are connected in a way that resembles a web of thread linking all life together. Seek ye metaphors and symbols in your living that you may be thus nourished. And so I say, my soul cries out for water. Perhaps you will not hear this as a request for a glass of H2O. And perhaps you will not hear this as a mere poetical flourish on my part. Perhaps, perhaps you will hear and recognize what thirst is like. Perhaps you will hear and recognize a longing, a yearning, a thirst within yourself as well. Perhaps we can be together and say to one another, “Yes. Let us drink deeply from this well together. Let us seek to quench this thirst.”
Come, let us drink deep together.
In a world without end, may it be so.