Language has a reciprocal relationship with world view, a back and forth influence upon the way we see and understand life, other people, the earth, and ourselves. Also the way we understand God. I’m not referring to nitpicking common flaws in grammar and usage but to the perceptions and attitudes we express with words and, by expressing them repeatedly, nurture until they become the way we see, think, and comprehend. As our children learn our language, they are learning also our ways of thinking, our prejudices, and our attitudes.
When we ask, “What is he worth?” expecting an answer in dollars, what are we saying about the person in question and about all human beings including ourselves? How did, “How much money do you think he has?” become synonymous with, “What is he worth?”
Now add the theological component, as people have been doing for thousands of years, accepting and fostering the belief that wealth is a blessing from God and, therefore, an outward sign (or even proof) of God’s favor. Jesus confronted and denounced the deeply entrenched notion that good health, riches, beauty, power, and prestige were all signs that their possessors enjoyed the approval and blessing of God. When he declared, “Blessed are you poor!” Jesus nullified for us the sacrosanct equations between benefit and blessing, between prestige and virtue, between success and merit. He brought God’s judgment upon the self-satisfied, the rich, the powerful, and the religiously superior.
To address the common objection, I must say further that “Blessed are you poor!” does not mean poverty itself is a blessing, let alone a virtue. Jesus is announcing the coming of the complete change he calls the kingdom or reign of God. Something new is coming, and its coming will be a blessing for the poor, the humble, the grief-stricken, and the oppressed because it will transform their lot in life. Smugly, people ask, “What’s so great or good about being poor?” “Nothing” is the correct answer, with one exception: the poor are more likely to be open to the change Jesus is announcing and to welcome it. The rich have too much to lose, too much stake in the way things are. Their wealth and power depend upon keeping in place the systems in society that make them richer and keep the poor folk poor.
My point is two-fold. First, it is that language and the whole complex of our attitudes, prejudices, cherished beliefs, assumptions, and values interact back and forth to intensify and fortify each other. Second, it is that theology can be and has frequently been conformed to the dominant view of life and truth in ways that make the prevailing systems seem ordained and sustained by God.
Here is a very brief account of how the transformation of the language of the followers of Jesus got started as the movement grew.
In biblical thought, to be “chosen” as in selected to be God’s people or called to be God’s prophet does not mean to be made elite; it means to be called out from among the many for the sake of the many because God loves the many. Israel was not chosen for Israel’s benefit only but for the benefit of all peoples. Jesus did not call people into discipleship so they could become the special ones in the know about God but, rather, to equip them to become apostles – people sent into the world to represent the good news (gospel) with which and for which Jesus equipped them. The churches do not exist to increase and enhance themselves but to represent the salvific love and mercy of God in and for the world and, at the same time, to represent the needs, hurts, disappointments, longings, sins, and loves of the world before God.
So, quite early in the development of the movement that started churches (communities of people who were responding to the good news), it became apparent that the gospel needed to reach out beyond Judaism. Paul of Tarsus, a Hellenistic Pharisee, became the great apostle to the Gentiles and labored tirelessly and valiantly to ensure that Gentiles did not first have to become Jews in order to become Christians. Changes have consequences, gains come with losses, and human prejudices run deep and flow into whatever new movement comes into being in this world. Those who were outsiders at first (the Gentiles, meaning all who were not Jewish) became the insiders as their numbers grew and as the Jews became enemies in the eyes of the Roman Empire. More and more, Christianity became a Gentile movement.
It is a long way from Jerusalem to Athens, not in miles, but in world views and so, also, in ways of speaking. This subject will require more than one blog post. For right now, I’ll just state the contrast as simply and directly as I can. In further posts, I’ll illustrate how that contrast works and so how the churches were led further and further from biblical thinking.
Biblical thought and language are relational. The thought and language of the Greco-Roman world were substantialist. That last word, substantialist, is troubling because we no longer think that way and do not even understand the word itself, but we retain much that has been derived from that thinking. So, please do not be turned away by the strange word. There is a further problem as well which has to do with the rise of scientific and technological thinking, but I’ll come to that problem later. For now, it is enough to hear that biblical thought differs significantly from our Western way of thinking, and it will be helpful to recognize the differences. I believe it can bring our faith closer to the human heart and to both the sorrow and the joy of everyday human life.