Language is weird, English especially. We park in driveways and drive on parkways. While slim and fat are antonyms, slim chance and fat chance are synonyms, just like tie up and tie down mean the same thing. When we seed the soil, we plant crops but when we seed a watermelon, we remove the seeds. Tom Stoppard wrote in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead that “what English lacks in beauty, it makes up for in obscurity.” Amen to that.
One reason our language is so weird is because it is always changing. As different cultures interact with American culture, Americans incorporate their words into their vocabulary. Examples? “Kindergarten” is derived from German, “entrepreneur” and “intrigue” are both French in origin, “chocolate” is Spanish, as is “ranch.” Emoji? Japanese. Schmooze? Yiddish. Phony? Irish. Banjo? African. Let’s not forget about the words we make up on our own. Band-Aid, Kleenex, Chapstick are from brands that became synonymous with their products, while terms like “boardwalk” “carhop” “moxie” and “sneaker” came about with cultural shifts. We even change the meaning of well-established words. Awesome meant something was so immense and moving that one was moved to a state of reverence until the 1980’s changed “awesome” into a mild affirmation. Words like “bad” “sick” and “ill” took on positive connotations at the end of the previous century.
The words we use cannot be pinned down, even though we try to. If writing words down prevented language from changing, we would all sound like characters from a Shakespearean play. Language moves on no matter what we do to preserve it. And it should. The only languages that don’t change are the ones that are not spoken (e.g. Latin). Language reflects culture, the everyday actions that make up life. We are ever changing beings in an ever-changing world, its only fitting that our words would change too.
However, our words aren’t the only things that change. Our beliefs change too. As we experience the world in all its complexity, we find that truths that we once held either need deepening or discarding. As infants, we believe that our parents can take care of all our needs. As we grow, we find that there are needs that parents can’t meet. We discard the idea that our parents are perfect and begin to deepen our understanding of self-reliance. As we go through life, we start to observe new things and maybe we begin to incorporate them into our lives like English incorporates new words. The more we expose ourselves to new ideas, the richer our lives can become.
This applies to your spiritual life as well. One of the wonderful things about Unitarian Universalists is that we embrace the idea that theology can change, believing that revelation is not sealed. This may sound exotic and exciting at first, but remember change can often be difficult. In 2013 many dictionaries added that the definition of literally can be figurative as well as literal. Plural second person pronouns “they” and “their” are now being used as second person singular pronouns by people who do not use gender binary pronouns. These two issues have a lot of self-identified “grammar police” at the literal end of their rope. To them, this is a belief that one does not change. Yet the change comes.
If you truly believe that revelation is not sealed, then you must be prepared to encounter every new moment as a possible revelation. You must be willing to constantly examine the beliefs you have in the context of the world you live in and ask if those beliefs are bringing you closer to the inter-connected community or are they isolating you from it? It can be difficult work, examining what you hold dear, but it is rewarding work. In the example above, you can choose to not use “literally” metaphorically. You can hold that belief and still be in community with others, just don’t jump down someone’s throat when they say they literally tried on a thousand pairs of pants the other day. Be respectful of how they have grown into using language. However, in the second example, you may need to put aside your issues with “they” to be in good relationship with someone who prefers it for their pronoun. After all, the goal of language is to communicate clearly with others, not who has the best grammar.
If the goal of language is to be able to communicate with others, then what is the goal of spirituality? For me, the goal of spirituality is connection and meaning, which could be summed up in the question, “Where do you find meaning in the Universe?” Like language, the answer of this question is constantly in flux, taking on new meaning based on the surroundings. And like language, you don’t have to engage in this question alone.
Starting on Thursday, February 16th at 7:00pm I will be running the “Articulating your UU Faith” curriculum from the UUA. There will be a total of 5 weekly meetings (2/16, 2/23, 3/2, 3/9 and 3/16) and it is encouraged that you attend all 5. They will run from 7:00 to 8:30 and I would like to limit the class size to 10 people, due to the intensity of the curriculum. This is a workshop that is meant to arm you with an answer when someone asks you, “So, what is it exactly that UU’s believe?” However, you’ll find in the process of trying to answer that question for someone else, you’ll end up answering so questions to yourself that you never even knew that you had. This class is an opportunity for you to allow yourself to go deep with your personal theology and to put that theology into words.
But don’t forget, words do change. Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” and so too, the unexamined faith is not worth believing. This class will help you discover where you are now, but never stop examining the world around you, letting revelation come to you again and again. After all spirituality and language are both like a parade. It’s not very interesting if it stops in one place, it’s at its best if it keeps moving.
Interested? Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and to register for the class.