Jason’s Questions: #10 Is Faith Just a Word Game?

All my life, I’ve loved words.  I love reading good writing, learning new words, and playing games like Catchphrase, Scattergories, and Bananagrams.  And, as a teacher of an adult Sunday school for several years in the Baptist church we attended, I loved digging into the words of Scripture (and of other texts we’d study) to try and understand them the best I could so I could help others try to understand them better as well.  The longer I taught, though, the more I began to worry:  what if my understanding of what I was reading was wrong?  Or what if the translators of the version I was using had messed up?  Or what if the folks who’d copied down the Bible over the last 2000 years had made a mistake somewhere along the way?  Or, even if the Biblical text was completely accurate and my understanding of it was correct, what if the words I was using to try to convey that understanding weren’t exactly the right ones?[1]

This line of thinking led me to seriously doubt whether I could be sure any words–not just the words of Scripture–accurately conveyed what their authors meant.  What are words anyway?  In a certain sense, they’re just sounds made by human vocal cords or arrangements of ink on a page.[2]  Because of this, I began to think I should put aside all of the theology books and instead should concentrate on linguistics–the study of language.  If theologians (and, by extension, ministers and Sunday school teachers) have to use language to communicate their thoughts about God (which they do), it seemed to me I had to completely understand how language worked before I could venture to say anything about God.

The problem with all of this, though, was that my foray into linguistics demonstrated that my effort was futile—because even the linguists had to use words to convey their thoughts.  But my whole effort was to get at the truth behind words so that I could be confident that whenever I got up to teach, I was presenting pure truth without any taint from the use of imperfect words.

At this point, I would think at least some of my readers are asking:  what in the world does any of this have to do with converting to Catholicism?  For me at least, quite a bit.  I feel now that my obsession with getting my words exactly right stemmed from my feeling, as a Protestant, that my faith experience consisted solely of words.  Sure, I felt the need to live a good, moral life, but all of my overtly religious activities were almost entirely word-based:  devotionals and other Christian reading material, Sunday school lessons, and Sunday worship services in which the sermon was the main event.  And it seemed to me a big problem if I couldn’t be sure all of these words were conveying 100% truth to me so that I could order my life around that truth. 

The seeming inability of Protestants to agree on definitions of some pretty fundamental words didn’t help me much in my struggles.  For example, my hunch is that, if you ask five different self-identifying “evangelical Protestants” what the word “evangelical” means, you’re likely to get five different answers.[3]  Of course, most simply, an “evangelical” is one who tells the Good News of Christ and his Church.  But, at least in my experience, it’s rare to find an “evangelical Protestant” who thinks that definition suffices.  Speaking for myself, as an “evangelical Protestant” I loaded up the definition of “evangelical” with all sorts of doctrinal positions, such as belief in sola Scriptura, belief in the historical understanding of the Trinity, etc.  The same goes for defining exactly what words like “Methodist,” “Baptist,” and “charismatic” mean. 

As a Protestant, I felt entitled to define any of these words any way I wanted.  But, over time, this individual right to define everything is what bothered me so much as I prepared my Sunday school lessons and led to my panicked attempt to see if studying linguistics would solve all of my problems. 

Eventually, as I was investigating Catholicism, I came to find that it offered real solutions to all of the language problems I had–solutions that mere linguistics didn’t offer.  First, in Catholicism, I was relieved of the responsibility to define everything myself.  The Church, recognizing the same need I felt that some things need to be expressed as accurately as humanly possible, offered the creeds, and these creeds–backed up by the authority of the Church Christ himself founded–defined as best as human speech possibly could the fundamental doctrinal content of the faith.  The Church also identified particular vernacular translations of the Bible as reliable for use.  Especially as a layman, I found this amazingly freeing.  No longer did I have to wonder what to do when confronted with the ever-multiplying number of English translations lining the shelves of Christian bookstores.

Second, I found that the standard Catholic definitions of the words that had troubled me over time were far simpler than those I’d encountered as a Protestant.  Taking the “evangelical” example again:  to the Catholic, this word really does just mean one who shares the Gospel story of salvation.[4]  Or, as I discussed here, within Catholicism, “faith” really does just mean “faith,” and “works” really does just mean “works.”

Finally, and most fundamentally, though, Catholicism recognizes that there are limits to human words, which means that even the most accurate versions of Scripture and the creeds (as amazingly wonderful and beneficial as they are) cannot possibly suffice to sustain the Christian through life.  Christ, of course, knew that this would be the case, which is why, in his great love and mercy, he didn’t leave us only with black-and-white spots on a page when he ascended into Heaven.  Rather, he left us with the opportunity to be part of his Mystical Body, the Church, so that we could be sustained by his own Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, truly present in the Church’s Eucharist:  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . . And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”  And the Word said:  “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

[1]               And I’m certainly not the only evangelical to have struggled with these issues.  As an example of how fierce the debate over language can get within evangelicalism, check out Al Mohler’s and Brian McLaren’s exchanges on this issue here and here.

[2]               Please understand that I’m not denying the divine inspiration of Scripture here.  Almost all Christians would agree, however, that the Bible was not dictated word-for-word by God.  Indeed, this is one of the characteristics of standard Christian belief about the Bible that distinguishes it from standard Muslim belief about the Koran.

[3]               Indeed, as a Protestant, I thought this was a sign of “liberty.”  Now it seems obvious to me it was merely confusion masquerading as liberty.

[4]               Because of this, there is nothing inconsistent between being an “evangelical” (in the true sense of the word) and being a “Catholic.”

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