Sunday, November 13, 2011

Who Is God Without Words?

Many of my Christian friends think I don’t talk enough about Jesus in my work. The other day I was talking with someone I’ve known for many years and he’d just read “Stepping Up.” He said “I saw all this opportunity to talk about Jesus but you didn’t do it.” He was concerned and even said he probably wouldn’t have read the book for this reason were it not for his personal connection with me. This is someone I respect and admire, and since I know that other Christians feel this way I think it might be beneficial to explain why I take the approach I do.
It begins with the desire to avoid any connection with the whole “Jesus Industry” that has sprung up. Jesus, as I told my friend, is too often turned into a commodity in our consumer culture. Our relationship with commodities, of course, is to acquire, possess and consume them and this is how Jesus is often presented — as a product to be acquired, possessed and consumed. Many of our religious programs on TV and even many actual church services are indistinguishable from infomercials: “ ‘Jesus-Wow!’ will wipe up all your spiritual spills with twice the absorbency of other leading brands. Get ‘Jesus-Wow!’ now and watch your problems disappear.”
So this is one reason I hold the view I do — to avoid any association with this craziness. I know, of course, that this is not what my friend represents. I’ve known him long enough to know his faith has far more integrity than this.
But he and I differ on where the line is between commercial and non-commercial Christianity. For me the whole emphasis on constantly selling Jesus (as if we’re sales reps fighting for market share with various other religious and secular forces) is across that line on the commercial side.
I am, of course, well aware of the commission to carry the gospel (i.e., Good News) to all the nations. The question is, what is this Good News? Is it an intellectual and theological construct as modern Christianity believes? (Often presented as the “ABCs of Salvation”: Accept Jesus, Believe, and Confess and you’re “saved.”) This is nothing but a theological product, a commercial packaging of profound mysteries for easy mass consumption. If this is the Good News, then it’s the kind of “Jesus-Wow!” good news that belongs, again, on a late-night infomercial: the kind of good news that brings in lots of consumers who are almost immediately disappointed and very soon off chasing the next “once-in-a-lifetime offer.”
So, what is the gospel, the Good News, if not a certain set of ideas or a theological formula?
This question, in my judgment, brings us to the heart of the matter. Rather than give my answer I would like to issue a challenge to anyone interested in deepening his or her spiritual life. lt’s a simple thought experiment: First, imagine that human language suddenly disappeared from the face of the earth. There are no more words. There is no more writing, no more reading, no more hand signing or braille. I’m not just talking about communication between people but language itself, which includes thinking in words.
Now ask yourself the following questions:
  • Does truth (God, Christianity, spirituality, etc.) still exist?
  • If so, what does it look like in my life?
In other words (ironically), what is God without words? What is a “Christian”? A “Buddhist”? A “Muslim”? What is truth without words?
The reason this experiment is valuable is because words are not reality but rather representations of reality. The word “cup” is not something you can drink from. It’s an abstraction, a symbol that represents a cup.
The same is true with mental images. When we think about a cup we don’t actually have a cup in our minds. We have an image of a cup in our minds.
This is fine as long as we’re aware of it. When we forget that words and images are mere symbols, we’re like a person who forgets that photographs are mere images. Such a person might then try to have relationships with the “people” in the photos, but what will be the result of that? We actually see this with pornography and one of the results is that it can cut the person off from real relationships. In the same way, a person who tries to relate to the image of God or truth represented by words or mental images will be cut off from the real thing.
This experiment will sharpen the line between words and reality if we conduct it seriously. Language is a powerful tool and an integral part of human consciousness. But both truth and consciousness exist beyond words. This realm is referred to in wholeness ethics as “the transcendent.” It can be experienced but never explained, encountered but never understood intellectually. This is where Jesus and God reside for me.
This doesn’t mean we can’t talk about these things. It just means that when we do, we must remember that our words cannot contain them. This, for me, is an expression of reverence.
The world might be better off if there were less talk about God and more talk about what God wants us to be doing: loving one another and living in right relationship on earth.


  1. I echo what Troy is saying here. Over the years, I've come to realize it's important for people to first observe/experience what we believe through our interaction with our world before we use. Our words may not be received with what we intended to communicate because the word association is different for every person, and in every context. Jesus was Word incarnate. Word became flesh. Interestingly, He didn't preach the "plan of salvation" during his life on earth. He preached Kingdom of God and how we ought to live. Confessions of sins and repentance, and salvation, are part of living in the Kingdom of God but not all of it. I tend to see the Wholeness Troy talks about as the Kingdom value.

  2. Words,as Troy points out, are an integral part of human consciousness. And that's where we live, in consciousness. Words are more than symbols, however; they evoke the unconscious, the spiritual into our realm of consciousness; they provide the path toward experience and open a broader experience as well. The root meaning of the word "word" is to call. And that call is not merely from within us, but from the One who calls us, the One who gives us life. In using the word Jesus, we are responding to a call and we are calling out as well.
    Having basically left the institutional church, I spent some time reading the gospel of Luke. I found it elucidating to read it from a non-institutional church/religion perspective, and rediscovered the dynamics involved in seeing Jesus for the first time. He calls us, as Dr. James Hollis would contend, to walk in larger shoes.
    Whether or not Troy chooses to incorporate Jesus and God in his writings is solely (souly?) up to Troy. That his writing evokes the incisive and penetrating appeal of Jesus is more a testament to Troy's ability to reach inside his experience, and name it in the transformational term of wholeness ethics. In my opinion, Troy could easily refer to Jesus but would, as he carefully and cogently points out, lose something in the translation because of our culture's Babel that has made Jesus a commodity and not a person. But, in my opinion, I also think Troy could boldly assert that within his imprisonment he knows more about Jesus than those who come to visit him and tend to his soul. Words are important. They are necessary and vital for human beings to express themselves, to reach farther into their souls and consciousness than any empirical experience could carry them. Our words will transcend our situations, experiences, and times and will cultivate the life around us making it more fertile for others. Jesus lived his own words. May we do the same.