December 8, 2009

Explaining Our Differences

[Salvation #5]

Now, we could conclude from the church's differences on salvation that we really don't know what it is, or really don't get it, or really don't have it, even. And that, therefore, we really don't have any basis for communion, for community, or for witness. We could conclude that perhaps we really aren't Christ's body. Or that most of us aren't part of it, anyway. We could conclude that salvation is unknowable, or even fictional.

Another, less-troubling explanation for why we have different definitions of salvation is that we have allowed our focus to drift from knowing or experiencing salvation to defining salvation, to reducing something amazing and miraculous into words of a particular language. Perhaps we do understand what salvation is, but just have trouble explaining it—in words, at least. Which isn't the only way to explain something, to be fair. Some words have very broad definitions; other defy easy pigeonholing. We might have similar difficulties when defining other words, such as hero, art, America, or beauty. We might have similar difficulty explaining in words how much we love someone.

Language is a very tricky thing. Some languages are much better at expressing certain kinds of ideas. Some languages make certain tasks much harder to accomplish, like explaining whether an event is past, present, or future, for example. Some languages cause more airplane crashes. Different languages perhaps can even create different types of thought and can shape different views of reality. If God's thoughts are higher than our thoughts, can we really expect that each of our human languages fully expresses God's thoughts, or that our words can fully define the wonders of salvation?

God's gift to us was not a dictionary. Therefore, we've written most theological definitions by ourselves. And some of these come from attempts to harmonize numerous verses of Scripture, written by numerous authors, over the course of more than a millennium, in three languages, in various genres from poetry to history to apocalyptic literature, and often with cultural, historical, and literary context that has been lost to most of us over the last 3,000 years. Is it any wonder that we might inadvertently add at least a little of our own interpretation to the original meaning in the Bible when we construct our clever definitions, when we create what the Bible itself has failed to give us?

And interpretation is a problem.

Next stop: Why didn't God give us a dictionary?

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