Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Faith Language

As you can tell by my previous post, the thesis is starting to discourage me. I keep telling myself that "it all looks like failure in the middle". And its true. I think I've thought myself an utter failure at life every semester somewhere in October/March. So the feeling is hitting a little early this time. I know from seven semesters of experience that the feeling passes and it works out just fine.

But one issue that has continued to come up in my conversations with Julia Kasdorf, my adviser, has been how to express and deal with issues of faith in writing. It seems that I so effectively talked myself out of writing in a "Christian" voice for my college courses, that I have jettisoned much of the vocabulary that would be useful in my thesis. Of all things, I am writing a thesis that explores my personal journey in writing and faith, two things that inevitably drag out some unpleasant things in my life as well as some intensely theological, abstract thoughts. Getting the immediate personal and the theological abstract to work together clearly and coherently in the same sentences has been no small challenge. Much of our meetings are spent with me desperately trying to answer questions I thought I had answered in writing, but had confused Julia. While blundering through my thoughts on communion and resurrection and how I know  (but can't seem to explain) their profound impact on my writing, I "resorted" to quoting from the Presbyterian Confession of Faith I read through recently in search of communion service directions and doctrines. Julia's face lit up and said, "That's what you need. You keep trying to explain these things in your own words. Pull in the other voices. You aren't just an individual making this stuff up in a corner. Place yourself and your words in a tradition."

While this was a small moment in our mangled and confusing conversation, I think it showed a deep flaw I've adopted, thinking it a strength. There is a lot of shame in me about using "Christian-ese", a lingo that makes sense and is explainable only to a Christian readership. I've made fun of this language and been influenced by some Christian writers asking for new vocabulary to re-explain the faith. But what I failed to realize, in a kind of arrogance, is that my new vocabulary will necessarily be weaker by putting off the traditional vocabulary of faith. Throwing off that vocab actually makes me fall into abstract thought and ideas. I fail to communicate the essence of my experience and my knowledge of truth in the process. I have aided no one by avoiding the words and structures given to me by tradition: creeds, texts, hymns, vocabulary, doctrine. Rather, Christian-ese is really the attempt to individualize words and doctrine in a way that has made it shallow and weak. My attempts to remake the weak are foolhardy.

Instead, consciously and actively use the deep language given to me through millenia. Study history, explain and explicate words and ideas like "communion" and "resurrection" and the texts that have surrounded them. No need to re-invent the wheel. It was great the first time around. Readers and I will go much farther together if I just take it and run with it.

Individualistic expression of faith is certain to confuse and baffle a reader. Placing oneself in a tradition and actively, consciously employing that language grounds and clarifies abstract thought for a reader. Not the other way around. It's about time I got over my awkward inhibitions with vocalizing faith. O'Connor would have been appalled.

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