Moving Beyond Spiritual Dialects

Those of us involved in this truly exciting time in the spiritual and religious life in the West have seen the old rules and the old definitions fall away. One of the challenges has been that we need to come up with ways to talk about what is happening – most likely because the last time change of the scale we are experiencing now occurred was over five hundred years ago, and language has evolved significantly since then.

It’s been my experience that we all have spiritual dialects, or spiritual accents, that we inherited from the faith tradition we were raised in – even if that tradition was no tradition at all. When I was a child (lo, those many years ago) we didn’t often have conversations of substance about things spiritual with folk from other denominations, and so we had no idea what their dialect was. The way, for example, we responded to visitors to our churches is an excellent example of dialect. Some of us wanted to “lead them to the Lord,” others wanted to Baptize them, or offer them Confirmation if they were already Baptized. Other churches wanted to receive new people as members, others to “extend the right hand of fellowship,” others to enroll them in membership classes of one sort or another for varying lengths of time with different rituals at the end of those classes – and there are many other alternatives. We all believed ours was the correct way, and many of us believe ours was the only correct way – never for a moment stopping to consider that there might be more than one  “right way,” or that God might be much more generous than human beings are with one another.

So now we sit in this space between what was and what is still to come, and it’s not always a comfortable place. We sit down with other members of the Church Alumni Association and attempt to share our experiences – only to discover that we don’t speak the same language! In some cases, the dialect that you speak might be associated in my mind with some fairly negative experiences. Many of us have had some well intended but rather aggressive evangelists knock on our door only to tell us that we, though faithful to our tradition, were surely hell-bound because we didn’t belong to their church. Now, as we seek to find our way forward together with our new colleagues we may hear the same language those door to door evangelists used and be tempted to respond negatively. How can we avoid that temptation and respond in a more open way?

The first thing we can do is come to an agreement that it is not only acceptable but essential to ask one another what we mean when we use church-speak jargon. We would be well served to avoid jargon as much as possible, but that will take time so we all need to be patient with each other – and ourselves. Hand in hand with that permission we need to agree that no question is off-limits. We need to learn to trust one another, and to feel safe in our new communities. That requires developing relationship, which in turn requires getting to know one another – and that requires the ability to ask questions and provide honest, sincere answers.

The next thing we need to do is agree that there are no sacred cows and everyone’s experience is valid for them (and probably several others). You may see God in one way and I may see God in another, and that is perfectly acceptable. The odds are that we all are correct about some things and a bit off the mark about others – and we won’t have definitive answers about many of our questions in this life. We all need support in our journey rather than judgment, love rather than persecution. The human temptation to carve out some sacred ground in our belief system and then defend it from attack is really unproductive and unhealthy. We need to feel safe to ask the questions closest to our heart, to feel loved rather than the object of potential persecution.

Finally (for now) we need to recognize that groups with diverse membership and beliefs can be some of the most creative, rewarding, and challenging groups available. There is nothing wrong or potentially damning about exploring faith in a loving environment – Jesus did call us to love, after all! Interacting with people who see the world a bit differently than we do doesn’t have to be threatening – instead we can choose to see that diversity as an opportunity to explore our beliefs in a loving and supportive, if diverse, environment. That’s a blessing, not a curse! As we learn to speak a common language we will make new friends and form new relationships that will strengthen and transform us and energize our spiritual lives. What could be better?

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