Posted by: smstrouse | March 13, 2014

Are Some Religious Words Unredeemable?


I’ve often said “Words Matter!” At my church we pay a lot of attention to language: inclusive language for humanity, expansive language for God. We also reflect a lot on what certain church-y words mean. Does a word mean the same thing for people of today that it once meant?

The subject came up again in our mid-week Lent book discussion. We’ve started reading Sister Joan Chittester’s God’s Tender Mercy: Reflections on Forgiveness and right off the bat, right there in the introduction we ran into the word ‘righteous.’ So of course, the first part of our conversation was around these words. It was inevitable, really. After all, last year’s book was Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power – And How They Can Be Restored by Marcus Borg, in which he tackles church-y words like the above mentioned. In fact, I brought my copy along with me to the group because I knew there’d be some negative reaction to some of the words that Chittester was using.

The good progressive Christians did not disappoint. And we had a great discussion, eventually getting past the language issues into the heart of what Chittester was trying to convey about the path towards forgiveness. To sum it up I quote one of the verses from the Gospel of Thomas, which is assigned for this Sunday (see last week’s post Wading into the Gnostic Gospels): Jesus says, “You see the sliver in your friend’s eye, but you don’t see the timber in your own eye. When you take the timber out of your own eye, then you will see well enough to remove the sliver from your friend’s eye . . .” (Gospel of Thomas, Logia 26). In other words, be careful when you point that finger!

So, final analysis: a good start to this year’s Lenten series: lovely homemade supper, scintillating conversation and meditative evening prayer.  I’ve actually come to love Lent since we began this way of doing things.

But in the middle of the discussion time, one of the group members asked the question that still is rumbling around in my brain: are there some words that are just not redeemable? For example, is knowing that ‘righteousness’ can also mean ‘justice’ enough?

Or should we just jettison the ‘R’ word, which most people hear as ‘self-righteous’ and use ‘justice?’ That’s pretty much what we do already. But are there other words that are heard in negative ways? I know, for instance, that ‘mercy’ can be one of those words. Some hear a presupposition of wrongdoing in which there is power to punish or not to punish, and they prefer to use ‘compassion.’ Others, however, like ‘mercy’ and prefer to use it when offering a petition during the Prayers of the People. So we’ll have “God, in your compassion, hear our prayer” as well as “God, in your mercy, hear our prayer.”

But I can hear the difference. I definitely like the move away from the old church-y language toward equally biblical/ theological words that work better in our contemporary context.

Sometimes we’re accused of being too obsessed with language. And I’ll admit that we need to be flexible; rigidity on the left is just as obnoxious as rigidity on the right. But I stand by my statement that words do matter, especially in the liturgy. So we need to continue our discussions, conversations and deliberations. We may not be ready yet to answer the question of whether some words that are not redeemable. But it is the right question.


  1. I am in total agreement that words matter, especially in human society of any type, including religious liturgy.

    I have believed, for some time, that the words “God” and “Christian” are not redeemable. “God(s)” seem to, too often, be jealous, vengeful, scary beings; the term seems to actually have pagan roots.

    The marriage of the early followers of Jesus and politics, no later than the reign of Constantine, has so perverted the practice of what is called “Christianity” that I question whether many of those claiming that title are following Jesus as their christ.


  2. […] (Originally published on March 13, 2014) […]


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