More from In the Absence of God/Dwelling the Presence of the Sacred by Sam Keen

As bio-mythic, storytelling animals, we inevitably construct a linguistic frame around objects, events, and emotions. Language is our glory and our downfall, our greatest freedom and our maximum-security prison. Before we know it, the gossamer words we have spun to capture our fleeting experience harden into rigid beliefs that block the flow of passing moments and new meanings.

Our most hallowed languages and symbols—the religious and political terms that encode the dominant myths of our culture—establish a tyrannical hold on our minds, emotions, and imaginations. Before we know it, our unthinking allegiance to the God who blesses "democracy," "capitalism," and "freedom" becomes a rationale for forcing our way of life on others, whom we define as "enemies" when they resist. Unknowingly, our spirits become colonized by the voices and values of officials, authorities, and pundits.

Once the spin doctors, advertisers, propagandists, and religious authorities lay claim to language, the sacred connection between word and truth is severed. The common trust upon which all civil society depends—the understanding that we will tell the truth and abide by our word—is destroyed. When systematic lying, dissimulation, and secrecy become a way of life, the public ceases
to expect the truth from government officials and cynicism blossoms.

Every institution and profession—religious or secular— has its lingo. It is the nature of professions and organizations to invent special languages that are understood by insiders but are otherwise opaque; to be a professional is to speak in code. For the uninitiated, reading a political policy brief, a theological text, a legal document, a medical diagnosis, or a journal article on structuralism is like deciphering code. It is not uncommon for professionals of all kinds—lawyers, politicians, businesspeople, pastors, and priests—to use obfuscation, complexity, and mystification to claim knowledge—and thereby power—unavailable to the layperson.
In the beginning of the Christian era it was said that spirit became flesh. But then Spirit became Word (logos), and words became sacrament, which in turn became the basis for the church. The farther Christianity moved from its original event, the more powerfully theology established its dominion over the living spirit. The creed makers performed a reverse miracle: They turned wine into water.

How can we break the spell of religious language, wake up from the hypnosis of god jargon, and escape from the gravitational pull of the political ideologies implicit in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam?

The first antidote for the prostitution of language is voluntary chastity. Just say no. Paul Tillich, the Protestant theologian, said that the great words—faith, hope, love, grace, sin, and salvation—sometimes become so trivialized and degraded that we need to cease using them for a generation. We need to declare a moratorium on old, hallowed, and overused words: a linguistic fast.

Mystics within the great religious traditions have always cautioned against becoming too comfortable with language describing G-d. Judaism prohibited naming G-d altogether. What theologians called the via negativa suggests that we remain most faithful to the ultimate mystery when we remember what G-d is not. The One we try to capture in our names and definitions remains, as Martin Luther said, a hidden G-d.

One way to recover the original meaning and power of religion is to adopt the radical discipline of linguistic asceticism. Put yourself on an austere verbal fast: slim down; clean house. During the month of Ramadan, good Muslims do not eat between dawn and dusk. Abstaining from our habitual patterns of eating and speaking sharpens the appetite and the tongue.

Stop using the tattered language, outworn creeds, and tired metaphors that were once vital but now belong in museums of ancient beliefs. Abandon archaic notions that no longer speak to our condition. The primitive idea that we can be purified by the blood sacrifice of an animal, or a savior who vicariously atones for our sins, makes no more sense to the modern mind than a three-level universe with heaven above and hell below.

What would happen if churches, synagogues, and mosques underwent a time of verbal fasting, when they put their old stories and traditional religious languages on hiatus? At first things would probably get worse. People wouldn't know how to talk about religious matters. But gradually congregations would begin to experiment with new metaphors and create a new poetry of faith by sharing stories and by helping one another discover fresh expressions of their perennial fears and hopes.

Years ago, when I first took my own advice, I made a list of religious, political, and psychological words I habitually used and forced myself to give them up: neurosis, paranoia, salvation, justification by faith, grace, sin, estrangement, mysticism, spirituality, faith, hope, vocation, et cetera. (I told my children I would put one dollar in a box every time I slipped—a costly agreement.) I stopped praying, stopped reading religious literature, and stopped going to church. Insofar as I was able, I allowed the old words to be replaced by silence.

At first, I became anxious. The silence was painfully awkward. Stripped of familiar language, the God I had known disappeared from the horizon of my life, leaving me feeling naked and vulnerable. Without this God, my basic values and core sense of identity were thrown into question.

Gradually, the silence took on a different valence. God was replaced by G-d. The threatening emptiness turned into sweet anticipation, like that of a lover waiting quietly for the object of her desire to appear. The fear I had experienced suddenly appeared baseless, even comical. How, I wondered, had I fallen prey to the absurd belief that the One with Ten Thousand Names could only exist within my limited religious vocabulary? It seemed unlikely that the Unknowable One would starve to death if I neglected to make the old burnt offerings.

(It would be interesting to see what would happen within corporations if, for one hundred days, it was forbidden to talk about profits, losses, stockholders, competition, or market share. Some workers might wonder out loud if what they were doing with fifty or sixty hours a week truly reflected how they wished to spend their fleeting years. Others might wonder whether the product being promoted was ecologically viable, or if their contribution to a global economy was likely to benefit those on the planet who needed it most, or whether we might choose to measure the success of our society by gross national happiness [as they do in Bhutan], rather than by gross national product.)


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