The Weight of Religious Language – Part I

The Weight of Religious Language – Part I

June 13, 2016

In this two-part series, I will lay out a portion of a presentation I gave at AWP in 2013. The presentation was part of a panel (with Jeff Sharlet, Jessie van Eerden, and Josh MacIvor-Andersen) called “I and Thou: The Dangers of Self in Writing About Religion.”

Early on in Kenneth Burke’s The Rhetoric of Religion, he lays out what he calls the “double process” of religious rhetoric. Here’s the idea, as I understand it (disclaimer: I don’t understand much of this book):

1. A word first has a literal (secular) meaning. Take spirit, for example. Its original meaning related to “breath.”

2. Then the word is used for spiritual purposes—to describe the transcendent. We use spirit to talk about the Divine.

3. Then the word is “borrowed back” as a secular term. Spirit comes to refer to one’s personality.

Naturally, we rely on analogy to talk about the spiritual. What else can we do, really? We borrow from the physical world to talk about the other-worldly. But in this borrowing, Burke argues, the words take on more meanings, compile connotations. Then, they’re brought back down to earth again—new meanings and all—for “secular” uses.

Here’s my analogy for this double-process: It’s like loaning a sweater to a bigger sibling and then putting it back on the next day—it’s less form-fitting, smells different, and has been to new places.

As people talking and writing about religious experience, we often have before us these stretched-out words to talk about the transcendent. Because of this, when we use the language in our religious contexts, we’ve mostly lost any sense of the original literal use. We’ve got spirit; yes we do.

For Burke, this double process is important to notice not necessarily for theological reasons but instead for meaning-making reasons:

“This double-process has nothing to do with theology. My claim is merely that, if we thus participate in the double process, we’ll arrive at a truer understanding of language, even in its sheerly secular nature, than if we made a shortcut that avoided such circuitousness.”

In other words, we should double back on our language. He’s suggesting that we should trace our figurative language (spirit as God; spirit as temperament) back to its literal meaning (spirit as breath). Think of how much fuller (more form-fitting?) the word spirit becomes when we’re conceiving of the movement of God like breath—not only for clarity but also for theology.

As a writer—religious or otherwise—you can see how important this doubling-back process can be for any metaphor: if we seek out the original, literal use, the metaphor becomes richer. Think about how much more evocative and image-rich the phrase “cut through red tape” becomes when you’re first seeing the literal meaning—the red tape wrapped around 19th-century British legal documents—rather than immediately translating the phrase into its new, figurative meaning—avoiding slow bureaucracy.

In other words, if you’re able to avoid the shortcut your brain takes by skipping past the literal use, you’ll come away with far more nuance and meaning.

(To track down more literal meanings for everyday phrases, check out Loose Cannons, Red Herrings, and Other Lost Metaphors.)

There’s a lot in here to sort out if you’re a person who works with words and/or thinks about God. As writers and thinkers, we ought to be about precision, and I think understanding this double process and attempting to double back pushes us closer to precision in our writing. But it also makes our thinking—and probably our theology—more precise.

After all, as George Orwell argues in “Politics and the English Language,” our thinking not only affects our language; our language, in turn, affects our thinking:

“[The English language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

An easy solution for avoiding the shortcuts and laziness is simply to find new metaphors—to always search out fresh language rather than relying on pre-built phrases. However, this is complicated when writing about religious experience. Our language is often tied to our doctrine and our theology, and it’s sometimes hard to abandon it altogether.

In the next post (found here), I propose some specific ways that writers like Annie Dillard, Dennis Covington, and Anne Lamott do this, focusing primarily on Burke’s idea of “discounting.”

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