The Weight of Religious Language – Part II

The Weight of Religious Language – Part II

June 27, 2016

In the first post in this series, I laid out Kenneth Burke’s idea of the “double process” of religious language, which comes from his book The Rhetoric of Religion. I ended that post wondering how we—as writers and believers—approach our stretched-out, doubled language when writing about the transcendent, especially when our belief and doctrine and tradition are often woven into the language itself.

Burke suggests one way to approach religious language is to discount it. He writes, “we must remind ourselves that, whatever correspondence there is between a word and the thing it names, the word is not the thing.” The word tree is not a tree.

At first glance, this seems obvious, but it’s easy for the language that describes belief to suddenly take on that belief. When I taught at a small Southern Baptist university, I asked my students to write about their faith without pre-built figurative language like “letting Jesus into my heart” or “being on fire” or “God forgiving debt.” They felt lost, like I’d taken their very faith away from them.

It’s sometimes hard to remember that our language should express our belief, not become the belief.

“To use words properly,” Burke writes, “we must spontaneously have a feeling for the principle of the negative.” Negative theology does this, of course. Words like “immortal” and “infinite” and “immutable” simply tell us what God is not. These words make aware the limitations of our language to describe the other-worldly.

Burke suggests we ought to have a sense for the negative in other words, too—that we must see the words as analogies, not steel-framed boxes: “Words like ‘Love’ and ‘Father’ when applied to God are quasi-positives—they must be understood as analogies, which makes sense only insofar as we discount it for the negative.”

To sort all of this out, I went to some writers who write about transcendent experience well. I found them doing what Burke suggests: doubling back and discounting. More specifically, here are three approaches we might borrow:

1. Doubling Back: Many writers double back on the double process by digging out the etymologies and definitions of words they deploy. CS Lewis’ autobiography is essentially a book-length effort to define the word joy. Scott Russell Sanders mounts a similar effort to define awe in his book A Private History of Awe. Here’s an example from Dennis Covington’s Salvation on Sand Mountain, wherein he unpacks a word to create more meaning:

“The tambourine was simply accompanying Aline while she felt for and found God. And I mean ‘accompany’ in its truest sense: ‘to occur with.’ And nobody could predict when something like that might happen. Through the tambourine, I was occurring with her in the Spirit, and it was not of my own will.”

2. Discounting Through Scattershot: One way to discount language is to rely on a flurry of images, to essentially undercut any suggestion of perfection in an image that describes something transcendent. Check out Annie Dillard’s “Total Eclipse” to see this at work. Or, here’s CS Lewis:

“I became aware that I was holding something at bay, or shutting something out. Or, if you like, that I was wearing some stiff clothing, like corsets, or even a suit of armor, as if I were a lobster. I felt myself being there and then, given a free choice. I could open the door or keep it shut; I could unbuckle the armor or keep it on.” Here’s Sara Miles, in her memoir Take This Bread: “I still can’t explain my first communion. It made no sense. I was in tears and physically unbalanced: I felt as if I had just stepped off a curb, or been knocked over, painlessly, from behind.”

3. Discounting by Breaking Open Pre-Packaged Metaphors: I grew up Southern Baptist so for most of my life; I understood conversion as “Jesus coming into your heart.” Despite all of the richness of the figurative in there—a person somehow slipping between your lungs and pushing into your heart muscle—it had become shorthand for a specific belief. The language itself became dogma. Here are some examples of writers describing conversion by upending this pre-constructed phrase:

CS Lewis: “God closed in on me”

Sara Miles: “Jesus happened to me”

And for Anne Lamott, Jesus becomes a cat:

“But then everywhere I went, I had the feeling that a little cat was following me, wanting me to reach down and pick it up, wanting me to open the door and let it in. But I knew what would happen: you let a cat in one time, give it a little milk, and then it stays forever… I hung my head and said, ‘Fuck it: I quit.’ I took a long deep breath and said out loud, ‘All right. You can come in.’”

The strangeness of Burke’s advice is that we must simultaneously understand the power of words and also see their limitations. We must know how much what we say matters in order to see the words for what they are—small symbols trying to capture something bigger. But try we must. After all, as one of my theology professors once said, “words are all we have."

Leave a comment

Comments will be approved before showing up. We don't allow comments that are disrespectful or personally attack our blog writers.

Also in The Waking

The Naming
The Naming

November 07, 2022 1 Comment

Did any of the first beasts resist their names? Did Adam grow weary of his endless task?

Read More

On the Endangered List
On the Endangered List

November 04, 2022 1 Comment

Still, she remembers cradling that tiger of a beetle in their sunny, grassy backyard as the sounds of her parents arguing drove through the kitchen windows. She never saw such an insect again.

Read More


September 26, 2022

His idea is for the train to go into the hills and slow in the woods, and for the boy who’s been lost in the woods to see it, board it, and for the train to go full steam ahead back to town to reunite the boy with his lonely and shaken father.

Read More