Silence is the language of God, all else is poor translation.

Attributed to Rumi

I just returned from a five-day rafting expedition on the Yampa River–the last wild tributary of the Colorado river.  From 7:30 Wednesday morning to 3:00 Sunday afternoon, no one in our small group of friends, family, and guides had access to phone or internet whatsoever.  We saw no motorized vehicles, had no access to electricity, no human-made structures, and saw almost no one else outside our group (permits to the area are extremely limited).  On the fourth day, during the last few miles before we reached the confluence between the Yampa and the Green River, we rafted in total silence along mostly-flat water.  

It was pure magic.  While I worried we’d all suffer from screen-withdrawals (I was in the middle of some big professional transitions, and my kids definitely love their screens) and that my kids wouldn’t be sufficiently entertained in the low-tech environment, we very quickly (and gratefully) adapted to “River Time.”  Sitting in wonder as we passed through skyscraper cliffs with geological layers telling us the history of the (more-than-6000-years-old) Earth, skipping stones and making shadow puppets at campsites, admiring fossils and wildflowers in the desert landscape, and just “being” in a way that we’ve never done as a family.  

I didn’t think much about God or theology or religion while we were gone–I didn’t think much about anything.  Honestly, it was as if we were existing in a different part of our brains than where we live during our regular lives.  Instead, I just experienced God and being in relationship with other people and the earth. 

Of course, now that I’m back, I’m in my thinking brain again (although trying to carve out space for “River Time” in my daily life).  So I’m thinking about how experiencing God is so much more enlightening, and true, than talking about or describing God.  As in the quote from above, “Silence is the language of God.  All else is poor translation.”  

At the same time, there’s certainly value in talking about God.  As limited as language can be, it’s still an incredible gift we humans have to communicate with one another.  As I’ve considered and written posts like this, this, this, and this, I’ve become increasingly convinced that our language and theology really, really matters.  If we get it wrong–usually because we impose our limited understandings, with all their biases and prejudices and smallness, on God–we can alienate ourselves from God and corrupt our relationships with the earth and other people.  When we get it a little more right (never perfect), it can strengthen our relationship with God and help us live in right relationship with the earth and other people.  

I’ve described some of these concepts in the posts linked above.  I saw one more this morning that struck me as a great example of how significant one mistranslation could be in shaping our entire relationship with God and others.  From a footnote in Marcus Borg’s The God We Never Knew (yes, I read ALL of Borg’s footnotes) discussing the way God is often imaged as a monarch who has “mercy” for His subjects:

“This can be seen in a common English usage: first, to be merciful implies a situation of wrongdoing (one is merciful to somebody to whom one has the right to be otherwise); second, it implies a relationship of superior to subordinate.  The BIble sometimes uses the term mercy or merciful in this sense, but sometimes the underlying Hebrew and Greek would be better represented in English by compassion or compassionate.

A concrete example of where “mercy” is used when “compassion” is the better translation is when Jesus teaches, “Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful.”  Many scholars believe the more correct translation would be “Be ye therefore compassionate, as your Father also is compassionate.”  I don’t know about you, but to me this one-word change makes a huge difference in the way we think about God and our relationship with God and with others.  Mercy is something that a person in a some kind of one-up or superior position chooses to exercise for someone “below” them who has done something wrong: one definition for mercy reads, “compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm.”  Sure, that is a virtue, and there is nothing wrong with mercy.  But compassion to me seems such a broader concept that anyone can have for anyone, and is extended not just in cases of “wrongdoing” (although it could be) but for all kinds of suffering: again, a dictionary definition reads “concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.”  To me, these paint very different views of God, similar to the distinction that Terryl & Fiona Givens draw between a Christ who saves and a Christ who heals (they prefer heals and argue that it is a more correct understanding of scripture).

So, questions:

  • Have you had times when your experience of God has differed from what you’d been taught about God? What did you make of that? Or have you had times when what you were taught about God (for better or worse) impacted the way you were able to experience God?
  • Do you think there is a significant difference between imagining a “merciful” God vs. a “compassionate” God? Does that word change matter?
  • Are there other word changes that you’ve heard of that have really shifted your perception of God?