Introduction: The Blessed Ambiguity of Words

the ambiguity of wordsThis series follows some of the thoughts in Faith, Hope, and Love in the Technological Society, the book that my son, Franz, and I recently wrote. One of its main theses is that God speaks to us when members of the community converse about their religious experiences and insights. The assumption is that these conversations will include engagement with Christian scripture and tradition. Hopefully, they would involve participants who have studied these extensively, such as clergy. However, gone are the days when we restrict God’s message to ordained clergy, especially an all-male version. Franz and I assume the Word of God is heard when the voices of all members of the community are shared and that prominent among those are those of scientists and poets.

I was surprised, actually startled, when trying to express this thesis to one of my face-to-face discussion groups. Noting that members of the science, technology, and society disciplines whose ideas informed and inspired the book were all Christians, I suddenly realized none of them sought their primary Christian identity in the institutional church. All of them– Rustum Roy, Ivan Illich, Jacques Ellul, Richard Stivers, William Vanderburg, and others were contrarians best known for their ministry in small house churches, Bible studies, and theological seminars, often without an ordained participant. In other words, God spoke to and through them in group conversations.

One of the objections to our thesis is that it does not establish stable doctrines and standards, as if these are presently found in the Christianity of our day. But even more important, we should ask if establishing these is what Jesus was all about in the first place.

Which brings us to Jacques Ellul’s contention, “Anyone wishing to save humanity today must first of all save the word.” Franz and I acknowledge in our preface that the book in many ways is simply a pondering of this thought-provoking statement. Ellul maintains that the richness of language is found in “the blessed uncertainty of language” and that this, essential for a healthy culture and religion, is being lost in our technological society.

He claims modern technology diminishes language by preferring images over words, in a sense claiming that a picture is worth a thousand words. This might provide precision in the immediate present of a scientific experiment but hardly in the reality of everyday life. A snapshot of me as an eighty year old man in no way identifies who I am. That takes a narrative that employs words about the many years of experience that got me here.

In much the same fashion, the blessedness of the words faith, hope, and love that Christians have traditionally used to express their lives is found in their ambiguity.  Faith in God involves trusting a story about the divine and hope in accepting the visions of the future promised in that story. These stories and visions inform and inspire a particular kind of loving action. Stories, visions, and love are inherently ambiguous, but this is an ambiguity that enables us to hold on to reality by connecting the past and future with the present and by recognizing the wholeness and singularity of all human experiences.

So much for laying a little groundwork. Next week I’ll try to examine how modern technology has created an artificial environment that threatens to control, if not destroy, our humanity.

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