Monday, May 24, 2010

A Rose By Any Other Name

"Even to speak of 'God' is to invite confusion," I wrote this past Wednesday.  "It is so easy to be misunderstood."  Of course, there is a bit of wisdom from Al-Anon, and the other 12 Step traditions that reminds us, "What you think of me is none of my business."  Perhaps I needn't worry so much if I'm misunderstood.

And yet . . . 

And yet it matters because communication is all about the intention of taking the thoughts and feelings and experiences within me and attempting to convey them as accurately as possible to you.  If I know, at the outset, that the manner in which I plan to do this will almost certainly lead to distortion, then shouldn't I take that into consideration?  If I know that you will not understand me if I say something in a certain way, shouldn't I try saying it in a way that I think increases the liklihood that you will understand me?

Imagine, for instance, that we are both bi-lingual, only you know English and French and I know English and Japanese.  I know that if I speak in Japanese, my Japanese friends will be able to understand me, but you will not.  Doesn't it make sense for me to speak in English when we're together?

So if I know that the use of traditional religious terms like "prayer," and "God," are likely to cause confusion -- because I can be fairly confident that I don't mean by them what you do -- then shouldn't I look for other words?

On Thursday I was facilitating a workshop on prayer at Andover Newton Divinity School, and among the sixteen participants most said that they were there because they wanted to deepen their spiritual lives.  Nearly all described, in one way or another, having some kind of "problem" with prayer and were hoping that this workshop could help them.  I said that I thought that I had an insight and wondered if they'd agree:
Our fundamental problem with prayer is that the word itself -- prayer -- is linked in our unconsious mind to the concept of "Talking To God So That HE Can Know Our Problem And We Can Ask HIM To Do Something About Them."  And this concept is so intimately connected to the word, so inextricably bound to it, that we cannot hear, or speak, or even think the word without this idea coming up in our unconscious.  And since we reject this concept, we have a block even with the word.  How, then, can we not have problems with the practice?
Just about everyone nodded in agreement.  This, it seemed, hit the nail on the head for them.  The word, the concept -- and all of its attendant baggage -- was getting in the way of the experience.  So what are we to do?  Forget the words, of course!  Do the thing; don't get caught up in what it's called!

As Shakespeare said so long ago, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet," and I remember a teacher once telling me that a rose is called a weed when it's growing in a tomato patch.  Don't get so caught up in the names -- they're just signifiers, pointers.  Perhaps that's why the author of the Rule for a New Brother of the Brakkenstein Community of the Blessed Sacrament Fathers in Holland advises, "Don't talk too much about God."  Perhaps that's why Lao Tzu said, "Those who know do not talk; those who talk do not know."

Of course, he said that in a book of eighty one chapters.  Because, eventually, we want to try to communicate, to take the thoughts and feelings and experiences within us and attempt to convey them as accurately as possible to others.  And so we resort to words.

We could create new words -- and some mystics and contemplatives have done just that.  And some, I suppose, simply put their sandals on their head or thwack you with their stick rather than say anything.  But we can also take up the old words and "breathe new life into them," attempting to infuse them with the understandings and insights we have discovered.  So when I do this thing that is most definately not "Talking To God So That HE Can Know My Problems And I Can Ask HIM To Do Something About Them," and then use to word prayer to describe what I'm doing I'm helping to expand the word, to make it more useful, more descriptive, and helping to dissolve the linkages that have made the word a block for so many.

And the same can be done with all of the traditional terms:  God, sin, grace, redemption, resurrection, repentence, miracle -- all of these words are only that, words.  The meanings we give them are up to us and should come out of our own experiences.  After all, isn't religion a meaning-making enterprise?  Why are we so often contented to have the meanings of religious words given to us?

In Gassho,

RevWik Print this post


David said...

Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!

(I am somewhat in agreement....) ;-)

If I could hijack your point with a different metaphor, from the point of view of a career musician:

The dots and squiggles on the page are the "notes"; they are only outlines--rough descriptors, reductions, blueprints--of the "music" that emerges when a skilled musician breathes life into them.

Religious language, too, points to things that don't fit on the page. So, just like music, no two "readings" of a spiritual text are the same.

There are those who dedicate their lives to learning the assumptions, traditions, and notational innovations of individual composers--these "musicologists" can produce music that is more or less "accurate" in terms of historical understanding of a composition.

And there are those who dedicate their lives to the instrument, learning how to "speak" through the strings or the airstream or the sticks--these "virtuosi" can produce music that connects more or less easily with "this" audience in "this" place at "this" time using "this" available technology.

I'll listen to just about anything once, but the musicians I seek out and listen to repeatedly are the ones who know how to balance musicology with virtuosity.

RevWik said...

I love "both/and" thinking, David! And I really love this musical metaphor.

I wonder if the rare spiritual "master" is like the rare musical "master" who somehow transcends both the categories of musicologist and virtuoso -- she can pick up virtually any instrument and play in virtually any style because she is such a pure channel for music itself.

Does that make any sense?

David said...

Definitely sounds like something worth spending some life energy on... :-)