Unleashing the power of words with Jonathan Merritt

The words we use matter. Words are both a reflection of what we feel inside and a means for influencing our own states of mind. Jonathan Merritt helps us understand how an inability to "speak God" might lead us to feel far from God. He also reveals how utilizing the language of faith influences our mindsets and motivations in powerful ways.

 

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Jonathan Merritt is an award-winning contributor for The Atlantic, a contributing editor for The Week, a regular columnist for Religion News Service, and an author. His books include A Faith of Our Own, Green Like God, and Learning to Speak God From Scratch, which was released in 2018. He holds a Master of Divinity from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Master of Theology from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. He currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.

 

Some of the questions covered in this discussion with Jonathan:

 

  • Can you make a case to the rest of us as to why words about God and religious language might be important?
  • What are your favorite words for God?
  • Do you have least favorite words for God?
  • Why is it important that we reclaim—or begin to utilize—language concerning God?
  • What prompted your journey of relearning religious language?
  • We asked some of our listeners what their uncomfortable religious words were. If we may, how might someone lean into a new definition of repentance? Of Justice?

Some of the books Jonathan mentioned in this episode:

Connect with Jonathan Merritt through his website, JonathanMerritt.com.


Episode Transcript:

Ryan Dunn:

Well, this is the compass podcast where we disrupt the every day with glimpses of the divine. My name is Ryan Dunn.

Pierce Drake:

My name is Pierce Drake.

Ryan Dunn:

We're gonna be joined by Jonathan Merritt, who is an award-winning contributor for the Atlantic, a contributing editor for the week, a regular or columnist for religion news service and an author. He uses a lot of words. His books include a faith of our own green light, God and learning to speak God from scratch, which was released back in 2018, but is actually kind of the cornerstone for a lot of our conversation. He holds a master of divinity from Southeastern Baptist, theological seminary, and a master of theology from Emory university's caner school of theology currently lives in Chelsea, New York, and, uh, Pierce. We got to know Jonathan pretty well. This was a cool conversation.

Pierce Drake:

Yeah, it was a great conversation. I'm so thankful for it. And uh, we talk about a lot, as you said, we talk a lot of about words and, and their meaning, what they historically meant, what they mean to us now. Um, we talk a lot about construction, deconstruction and reconstruction, and I think no matter where we find ourselves on the journey of faith, or just maybe even not even on the journey of faith, maybe we're just saying, Hey, we're looking at faith from a distance. Um, I think there's so much in here for us to, to wrestle with unpacked together. And, um, and so get your notebook out, like in, in all seriousness, get your notebook out, get something to write with because you're gonna have a lot of questions. This may be one that you wanna listen to once or twice. Not because it's not approachable, but because it's so rich and so deep, and he draws from a deep well, so I hope you enjoy this episode. We'll be back as soon as it's over

Ryan Dunn:

Oh, Jonathan, with as much writing as you do. It's obvious that words matter a lot to you. Can you then make a case for the rest of us as to why words about God or religious language might be so important?

Jonathan Merritt:

Well, there's two reasons I would say. And one of them most people have thought about and one of them, most people have not. So language serves at least two functions. Um, the first function is that language is expressive. These are they're containers in which we place the things that we think and we feel, and we believe, and we package those things and put them out into the world. So without words, it becomes really hard to express ourselves because language is a primary way that we, that we do that. But the other is that language is formative, that the language that we use and that we encounter and that we year shapes us, changes us, forms us into new people. And so we see this a lot in the studies that are going on even now in linguistics, where you begin to see that cultures that speak in a certain way, think in a certain way. And when they think in a certain way, they behave in certain ways. And we even find that their laws will reflect these differences in language. And so language is something that is both comes from within to express without, and it comes from without and shapes us from within it. It it's one of the most important tools in sort of the, the human toolbox.

Pierce Drake:

Yeah. Wow. When you think about that from a viewpoint of, I think so many of us, I mean, we're all in America, unfortunately. So many of us grew up with this like white Jesus complex, and only thinking about God through the lens of the United States. And it's just all warped and everything like that. So when you think about God from a global sense, which he is obviously, what are the favorite words that you just think about for God?

Jonathan Merritt:

So I think you, you, you have to start when you talk about language for God, we have to start by saying with a common and understanding, which is that the only way that we can talk about God is through metaphor. In other words, everything that you might say about God is an act of not precision, but approximation, you can never fully describe God, but your getting at something. And so for me, you can think about this language in really pragmatic terms. I would say when you use these metaphors, what does that do for you? Does that connect your heart to the divine? Does that make this, uh, idea of transcendence feel more or less accessible or approachable to you? So as I, as you think of those kind of diagnostic questions, the answer will differ from people. So I just wanna say this as a preface, that because all language about God is necessarily symbolic and figurative, right?

Jonathan Merritt:

We are speaking of the unsayable or we are describing the ineffable. And so, you know, I think it was the, the, the mystic Meister Eckhart who said, we cannot speak of God. We must never stop. Speaking of God. And, and, and it's this act of approximation, the infinite unknowability of God that we enter into when we talk about God. So, but I'll say for me, I have felt distanced from God. And, and it could be because of the time and place in which I live, it could be because of the life experiences that I have survived. But those ideas of God that are mostly focused on God's power and, um, transcendence, which are things that I acknowledge, I are things that I feel less connected to God when I speak of God in that way. So if you think of thinking of God in some of those classic ways, as a king, for example, that's a hard one for me, or it's less helpful for me.

Jonathan Merritt:

There are other ways that I use to talk about God that are ways that you, you wouldn't necessarily find in the Bible it's language that I use to speak about God that describes this, the function that God is inhabiting in that sentence. I'll give you an example. I've been writing about Noah and, um, in the, this particular section of Noah where it says, you know, it starts out by saying something really comforting, which is that if Noah's story is true, then God hates to fail just as much as we do, because it says, God saw that after nine generations, the Eden experiment was a complete failure, men, men, and the way women were totally wicked to their, the bottom of their beings, according to this story. And it says that God saw nine, you know, chapters, nine chapters later, God saw all that God made, and it was very good.

Jonathan Merritt:

It was exceedingly good. And then here it says, and God saw what God had made and regretted it, that God hadn't done it. And God actually decides to destroy it. And I began to speak of this because as a writer, I was trying to understand how this could be this conception of God. Now, I don't read this, I read this, not, not as a historical event and that solves about half of the problems. Um, but the, I idea that God is, as I refer to God in this section as the great screenwriter, I imagine the great screenwriter holding this story over the fire. And the plot is unworkable. It's too violent. And the characters are too stubborn and unredeemable. And rather than enact a Rero, the screenwriter decides to throw it all in the fire and start from scratch. That's an experience I, I can understand.

Jonathan Merritt:

And then of course, you know, as the story goes at the last minute, there's a name that catches that great. Screenwriter's eye, the name of Noah. And God says, if I can just start over with this one, I can build a workable plot line. And so God does. So when I speak of the great screen writer, it's not something that's necessarily historically rooted. So people may say, when you think of language for God, they're looking at a fixed list. You know, priest, prophet king, these different sort of roles and things that were countering the shepherd. Uh, the language that for me is most connecting me to God. These days is imaginative language because where does God live? Except in our imagination, if not in our imagination and in our hearts. And so it's imaginative language for me that really is giving God presence in my life these days,

Pierce Drake:

Which I love anyone listening, meaning if you've opened the scriptures and looked through the list that you just described that normally talks about, God gives him his languages, gives him his, his nouns or whatever. And you've never connected with that. That doesn't mean you will never be

Jonathan Merritt:

Connected. Yeah. Let me, let me, let me also say this because what, what also happens and I'm not gonna get too deep into all of like the, the geeky stuff that I read and think about, but in psychology, if you talk to a psychologist, they'll talk about what they call object relations theory, which is to say if either of you have children and you raise your children, not what you think about when you think about father love home, that differs from person to person. Uh, it it's always shaped by, by the model that you were given and you've mapped that on and it becomes imprinted inside of you. Uh, there's a great new book that it's come out by, uh, what's his name? John Green, it's called the anthro poin reviewed. And there's an essay in that about Veloso Raptors from jurasic park. And that Veloso Raptors look, they were tiny.

Jonathan Merritt:

They looked nothing like the, this other dinosaur that was used in jurasic park. But even when I tell you that, and you know, that that, uh, Al Raptor actually came from Asia, not Montana. And it looks more like a bird than a dinosaur. When you hear the word Veloso Raptor, you still will always go back to the mental model you were given as a result of that. For me, I had a strained relationship with my father for many, many years, and God, as to me had certain connotations that were unworkable and didn't make me feel safe. You know, I've been really grateful in the last few years is I've done some hard work and he's done some hard work and we've done some hard work that we we've been able to build. The kind of relationship that I'd never really had thought was possible. And I have found that I've been able to, even in this period, reclaim God language that had basically been unusable to me once I had actually confronted the strains of those of the object that I was mapping onto the metaphor of my God language, if that makes sense. And so you're right, the, the question is not what language for God is more or least useful to you, or what it more or least works for you unless you add the, the word on the end of there today right now, and your current experience, because your life experience will open doors and it will close doors. Yeah. And language will flow in and out of those portals as well.

Ryan Dunn:

You mentioned that language can inform our behaviors and our perceptions, that the words that we use, um, sort of work backwards in creating our thoughts. So do you sometimes like train yourself to use certain words, especially in relationship to God as a way of kind of broadening your sense of, of the divine?

Jonathan Merritt:

Yes. There is a, a long history of what some would call like word play, or actually engaging in, you know, philosophers often talk about word games, which is a slightly more technical, philosophical word that doesn't exactly map onto that. But the, the, the idea is, is that when we're using language, what we're doing is, is we're playing with meaning. And that over time we, we, we contract and expand words. We change them, we reshape them and that's the way language works. And in fact, that's the only way that language can work. I mean, linguists are like pastors or podcasters or writers. They don't agree on much, but they do agree on this. They agree that language has one of two futures. It will either change, or it will disappear. If a language does not change, it dies. If you take a language like Latin and you encase it in Amber, you may find that you can force it, say in liturgical spaces or rituals, but it's, it will fall out of usage because we, our consciousness are expanding.

Jonathan Merritt:

Our experiences of life are expanding. And as a result, your language has to change because we change because the world changes. And if your language doesn't change as the world changes, and as you change, then it will no longer be usable and it will fall away. Even if you look at one of the, the greatest stories of language revival in modern human history, which is the Hebrew language, which was revitalized in, um, the last set, when the Hebrew language was revitalized, it didn't come back the same. Mm. I mean, I, I, I took, I took Hebrew in graduate school, but I couldn't show up in Israel and start participating in synagogue. It's not the same Hebrew words had changed. Syntax had changed. Things had shifted. The only way to read direct Hebrew was to allow it to change to the world, which had changed since it had died.

Jonathan Merritt:

And so language should always be doing that. And that makes people feel a little uncomfortable. I'll say, particularly if you're a modernist, if you're a literalist, if you're of a particular age. And so the sense of loss and the rapid, um, of the world is just too much for you. And all you wanna do is to go back to what you know is familiar. And so the way that, you know, it is the way that it should always be for all time for people like that, this is a hard conversation. This is a really tough one, because for them, the word saved means what Joe told them when they were 14. And to give that up is just asking them to engage in loss in one more way. And they're really tired of doing that. And so I understand that. And even alongside that understanding, I accept that language behaves in a certain way, and we can observe it. And wordplay is one of those phenomenons,

Ryan Dunn:

Well, you started this project several years ago of trying to reclaim religious language. Can you tell us why, why that felt important to you? Like, why did you want to undertake that project to grab a hold of some of that religious language as your, of your past?

Jonathan Merritt:

Yeah, so first it was not a book project. It was a personal crisis. And I think a lot of people who are listening to this will feel the same way. Somebody will say that was a good sermon. And you'll say, yeah, but that sermon was six years in the making because God had to take me on a journey. And it was out of that passion that I was able to produce this thing. You had to have a personal crisis before you could say something about it. And for me, uh, it was 10 years ago. I moved from the deep south to new York's city to an apartment that I had never seen living with people that I'd never met in a neighborhood I'd never heard of. And it took cost me $20,000 in American express debt to make it happen. And I felt that strongly that this is what I was being called to do.

Jonathan Merritt:

So I wouldn't encourage other people to do that, but it was, I felt for me, but what happened was it was immediately disoriented because the, the language maps that I had used to navigate the world that I was in were now obsolete. And so I suddenly found that when I used words that I expected other people to understand, they would ask me for a clarification, please. Yep. And then I began to realize that the words I thought I knew, I didn't know as well as I thought I did. If you walk into a lot of churches, let's say there's a pastor listening. And I walk into that pastor's church. And I hand out pieces of paper and I say, okay, everybody write down the definition for this word, saved grace, pick a major word that's central. That might be used four or five times in that congregation in that day.

Jonathan Merritt:

And we are all making the assumption. Everybody knows, you'll get as many answers as you hand out index cards, and yet we're coming together and we're using these, but we're all using them by order of degrees in very different ways. And so, um, I began to realize that when people would challenge me and say, what is, oh, what does that mean? I didn't really know what it meant. I think alongside that, there was this crisis that even when I began to explain those words, that the meanings that I had placed inside these carriers, these boxes, these words, they didn't work anymore. They didn't fit my new context. And of course, if your language or your theology doesn't work everywhere. And at all times, then it doesn't work and it has to be fixed. And so that's what awakens you to having to sort of evolve to a higher level of consciousness in the way we think about these ideas.

Jonathan Merritt:

And so the words didn't feel the same anymore to me. And I began to think, well, either I have a choice. I, I am either going to have to just do what most Americans have done, which is stop using it all together, or just limit it to the home or church or the places where I'm with friendlies, or I'm gonna have to figure out what it means to speak God from scratch. It was alongside that, that I could commissioned a study of more than a thousand Americans. And of course, what I found in that study was only about 7% of Americans say that they have spiritual religious conversations. Um, in a given week, when I added to that Google Ingram data that is showing the decline of spiritual language, you say, what is spiritual language? It's like the opposite of, um, physical language, it's metaphysical language. So it's not just those big, meaty, theological words like sanctification, of course, that that would decline. We would expect it to, but it's words like grace and courage and kindness and compass,

Jonathan Merritt:

Spiritual words that, that you don't have to even be a theist to understand that those words are pointing to some metaphysical reality, some unseen reality, all of those words are declining as well. And so I began to see, this is not just a personal problem. This is in many ways a cultural crisis, which then raised the question, does it matter? And of course, as we've already answered, it absolutely matters. And so at that point, it became a call to help other people learn what I was learning about what it meant to speak God from scratch.

Pierce Drake:

Yeah. Jonathan, I relate so much to that move to New York. I never moved to New York, but I moved to London and lived in London for about 16 months and, uh, right outta college to a place. I didn't know all those same things and very much, um, I, I would say I, the change in culture was easier than the change. In words, looking back on it, the change in words were really hard. So, you know, you, you get to New York, you begin to have these come conversations. You begin to have this like this, like realization. Does it matter? Does it not matter? Obviously we're here talking about it. It matters. I'd love to know, like, from the date, from the moment you, you said, like it matters, you begin to take steps. What was that journey like, who was a part of that journey? Who did you bring in? Who did you leave out? Like what was the, a community around you that helped you take those steps on that journey? Cause I think so often we will get to a point and then we feel like we've gotta do it all ourselves. And I'd love to hear if you did it all yourself, or if you brought a community around you.

Jonathan Merritt:

No. Uh, I think that that language, um, has to work in community. It better because it allows us to kind of bump up against each other. And we find a higher consciousness in being able to say that doesn't work for me. So I can use words a certain way and a person who is nonwhite or non male or non-American or non wealthy or some other category than me says, let me tell you how that language that works for you. Doesn't work for me right now. That word that was so useful and simplistic, it becomes complicated. Now I think this is part of the divine genius of language, because it would be really easy for us to go, yeah, that's what it means. And then all you have to do is file it away. But, but if you're willing to be awakened and aware of the changing nature of language, then when some, somebody says that word that works for you, doesn't work for me.

Jonathan Merritt:

Now you're invited in to keep wrestling with it. This is exactly the kind of sort of design feature that makes religious language naturally keep us engaged in our own spirituality. It keeps calling us back to it so that we can't walk away from it and ignore it, that it becomes sort of the pitter patter of our feet throughout our entire lives. This is the thing that we're doing and that we're walking because we have to, but to get to your direct question, you know, I speak in the book about the language of faith and the life of faith run through similar patterns and cycles. And I use some various language for that. Um, orientation, disorientation, reorientation, a real popular one today is construction, deconstruction and reconstruction, or, you know, Tite the new Testament scholar. I use packing, unpacking repacking. You're gonna find that when you listen to many of the great spiritual teachers and especially the mystics throughout history, throughout the history of our faith, they're gonna talk about these movements in various language and, and it, and it sort of is birth life, death, resurrection, you know, the cycle of the tearing apart and the rebuilding coming back together, the, the resurrection of the life of faith life itself and language as well.

Jonathan Merritt:

So it is sort of like a linguistic Pascal mystery if people are familiar with that phrase. So if we just stick with that common language, construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction, you meet people who get stuck in various, in those first two phases. They never make it to the end. We all know constructionists constructionists are people who say the construct that I was given, the meanings that I was given, the understandings that I was given the beliefs that I was given that I inherited, or, or that I accept it at a particular point. That is right. You know, there's a binary with constructs that is right, and other things are wrong. And so all I have to do is stick to this thing. I know. And if anyone attacks it or questions, it, you circle the wagon. And as a community of constructionists, we're gonna protect that, right?

Jonathan Merritt:

So if you walk into a reform church and you say, Hey guys, I think that we should have a conversation about how salvation works and they're gonna be like, oh no, no, no. We figured that out in like the 15 hundreds, right? We're not interested in re imagining that that is our construct. And all we need to do is protect that construct. The second phase is a really big growing category today. And those are your deconstructionist. Now I'm gonna say this. It's not bad to have constructs, and it's not bad to be a constructionist. I used to be one and you can't become a deconstructionist without being a constructionist. So somebody to say, you know, that they, they hate constructs and they hate constructionists. And now they're deconstructionist is like saying they hate the version of themselves that led them to what they believe is a better version.

Jonathan Merritt:

That version is impossible with without the previous one. So the deconstructionist now is taking everything apart. What about this? And what about that? And the focus shifts from what works to what doesn't work from, what helps to, what hurts from building up to tearing down. And, uh, for them, everything thing is questioned. Everything is doubted EV skepticism is sort of the, the energy, the impulse beneath deconstruction. You can also get stuck there. And, oh, so many of us have people, uh, have friends in our lives who started out as fundamentalists or even evangelicals. And then they became like, maybe they joined the emergent church in the 1990s. And then they became like avant garde, Episcopalians. And then maybe they were like theists, or they called themselves something weird. And now they don't even know what they believe, right. Or what they, they there's there. There's, they, they it's as if these, these people have pulled up anchor and they're a drift to use that constructed language.

Jonathan Merritt:

They've pulled all the two by fours apart. And there's nowhere to go home. It's just like sitting with the nails and the deconstructed, the, the, the pieces that once made something and are now good for nothing. I think that you have to have a lot of courage to push through that and not every, but he can into the phase of reconstruction. And that is where we are willing to acknowledge the good things from the original constructs that we may wanna return to. We're always willing to have the hard conversations about what we need to let go of, but that our primary energy and thrust is on building back up something that will work for us. Something that can, can guide us forward. Something that is, is life giving and not soul sucking, something that makes us better and more beautiful and kinder and more courageous and a, a more loving community. And as we would say, more like Jesus. So in my journey, what I tended to do was once someone identified themselves as a tried intrude imovable constructionist or deconstructionist, they no longer were a primary part for my journey. I wanna be in community with them. I wanna maintain my relationship with them. I wanna learn from them, but for me, I needed people who were doing what I was doing. So we could do it together.

Ryan Dunn:

You know, this is why words become so incredibly important because it, when we start talking about deconstruction, so often we're talking about so much opaque ideas, where if I say, um, I'm gonna figure out what I believe about salvation. That is a monumental task, and certainly easy to just walk away from because, you know, figuring out what we believe is not something that comes naturally to us, but trying to identify how I define salvation, that becomes something so much more concrete and workable, I think for a lot of people and in your books, learning to speak God from scratch, you walked through several of the words that, that you kind of unpacked and then repacked, have there been words since then that you've gone through that process with

Jonathan Merritt:

Yes. I think some of those words have grown and expanded for one. That's interesting. I think that, you know, I mentioned with father, there's a reclaiming of old words, which in many ways is unexpected. You know, there are times when in your deconstructed phase, it's like you pulled a board off the wall because it was always wonky and weird and you never liked it anyway. But then when you're rebuilding something else, you look down and you go, actually that fits, that fits quite nice here. I that's actually usable again for the new thing I'm doing. It works. And that has happened, uh, a lot. I think that the word grace is a word that I've wrestled with a lot of a good friend who is working on a book on that. I've been working on a sermon recently on the second B attitude. And the word mourning is a word that I'm playing with a lot. I think the word grief, which is related to mourning because mourning is really just grief that is ritualized alongside witnesses. Uh, even if the only witness is the divine witness, that's what mourning is. And so you can't understand mourning if you don't understand grief, but you shouldn't confuse them as being the same thing. So I do a lot of playing with words, but I'd say grace and mourning. If I were writing that book today, those two words would end up in that book.

Pierce Drake:

So as you talk about the words that have been repackaged and, and look a little different, what are words that we just need to dump maybe, and hit the floor and it needs to go to the dumpster. Are there words like that?

Jonathan Merritt:

I never give up on a word.

Jonathan Merritt:

I never give up on a word. Words are just dust. And you can mix 'em with a little bit of life experience the water of life experience, and you can make something out of 'em, but words are just dust. Um, but you'd be amazed what God can do with dust. And so I'm always rooting for words to become comeback words, but there are words that oftentimes are, um, so loaded with pain and baggage, because words, words have a lot of different components. They're not just definition. When you say, what does a word mean? And I write about this in the book. Um, we go to the diction dictionary. We think that meaning is definition, but the a dictionary doesn't tell you what a word means. A dictionary tells you how a word is used. Otherwise you would just have one dictionary and you just that'd be the dictionary forever.

Jonathan Merritt:

But dictionaries are constantly changing every year. There's an a dictionary, cuz it's like, that's what that word meant. And now there's a new meaning. Maybe there were three meanings and now there's four or one has gone away. Right? And, and so words are always changing. And if you, if you, if you actually understand dictionaries, it, it challenges that assumption, but words have meaning their meaning is twofold. It's both definition and connotation. It's how it's used and how it makes you feel. Because we don't just know things logically we know things emotionally, there's a knowledge that you can only feel. And that's the connotation of a word. I'll give an example that is particularly problematic, I think is the word slave that it's a word that I would say is hard. There is no way that we can hear that word the way it was intended to be heard in any spectrum of intentions for that word in its originality.

Jonathan Merritt:

And so we can use a word that was used, but we're not receiving the same meaning because it doesn't have the same connotation. And particularly in spaces where that word carries a lot of pain to, to just sort of wantingly use that as a laudable thing. As a congratulatory state of being is less than helpful. I'll say another one. Uh, again, I was saying, you know, I'm preparing this sermon, um, on the second be attitude. And of course, if you read the scholarly literature on what does, what does it mean for something to be blessed or blessed? A lot of modern scholars are moving toward a possible kind of shade of meaning, which is happy, happy, but the word happiness us cannot possibly mean to us where we now have entire capitalistic industries, multi-billion dollar industries that are devoted to creating and sustaining our perpetual happiness.

Jonathan Merritt:

When that word was spoken in a culture where most of the peasant listeners did not expect to be happy. And it wasn't necessarily an honorable thing to be outwardly happy. In fact, many people in ancient times thought if you were happy, it placed you at risk because only the gods could be happy. And so you might become a target, right? The gods might your happiness away. So you hid your happiness. The idea that we could in some way, hear that word the way we did without considering all that happiness has come to mean in a culture that is addicted to it. Like an opioid is to deny the way that language works. And, and so even when I begin to think about happiness, I've been reading a book lately called the Bible and the pursuit of happiness, I think is what it's called. And it's a kind of scholarly collection by edited by I think Brent strong or someone, but it's really getting at this, the idea that the Bible actually does talk about happiness.

Jonathan Merritt:

But when you tell, take those words and you put them in the hands of a toothy televangelist, and you use them without acknowledging the connotations of happiness that are so disconnected from these ancient realities, suddenly you get, you create meanings that no longer seem to makes sense with the rest of what we're encountering in this story of the Bible. And so I think happy would probably be one of those words where for me, uh, especially when I'm talking about the second be attitude, the idea that I would say congratulations to someone who's mourning, or I would say you're really lucky to me feels so unconscionable that I have to set that it's is it a valid meaning to some degree? Yes. And am I going to use it also? No.

Ryan Dunn:

Mm. We asked our, our listeners for some of the words that they were struggling with, and it's probably not surprising what words came up, words like repentance and justice. This was another one. If we may, can you share a little bit about the process that you used, where you unpacked and repacked these words?

Jonathan Merritt:

Yes. So I think that you, you have to ask three questions. What has this word meant? And first you, I think you have to understand historically because we're rooted within a text. And so there's, there's a meaning there that we want to get at. Now, it sort of is, um, an exercise in futility to some extent, to be like, what did the, what was the original meaning as if, as if that's something you can ever pinpoint, but sort of acknowledging potential possible of meanings in these texts can be very important because that's where we're deriving a lot of the vocabulary of faith of our faith. So what has this meant historically? And what has this meant lowercase age historically for me? Hmm. How did I, how did I encounter this word growing up? How have I encountered this word through my tradition? How have I encountered this word through my cultural lens, through being a white Western male who spent the majority of his life evangelical, uh, what are those meanings and, and owning and acknowledging those.

Jonathan Merritt:

And then the third question is, is what do we think this meaning should be? What do we think this word should mean? And again, as say in this book, this is not a free for all CS Lewis talks about this, like a branch off a tree it's, these are all connected, right? But it can grow beyond and it can expand beyond, but it's not like blue means red. You don't just create a new thing. Um, you're growing beyond something and that's a process of discernment and discernment involves community. And so if you're going to engage in that kind of play, you should do it alongside other people, people who have different perspectives, so that in a plurality context, a higher understanding, uh, of these words can be achieved. And so I always tell folks to do it in community. Now, sometimes you can do it in community, by proxy. You can read books by other people. You can gather, you know, other perspectives that way, but you really shouldn't just be listening to the sound of your own voice. I think when you're asking those, those three questions, and then you have to do it, you have to start using it that

Pierce Drake:

Way. Right? Yeah. I think that's beautiful. Jonathan. I love that idea of walking it through that process of not only thinking about my natural kind of tendency with a word would be like, what's the original meaning, et cetera. I think, you know, I'm thirty-two, so I think the last five or six years have been for me really thinking through, oh, how did I encounter that word? Like, how did I encounter that word? Cuz there's a, I don't remember who said it. Um, but how I relate to others will deeply affect how I relate to the divine. And, and so words like beloved for me were words that I knew the meaning, but meant nothing to me cuz I never related that with anyone personally. And at the same time, I love that part where it's like you're using CS Lewis. I think it's super helpful for me is saying like, Hey, it grows off of something into something new, but not just anything. So you're your, your reference of red versus blue, which I think a lot of people that would land in that constructionist mindset or life or whatever, identify there. That's a lot of their fear is that things are gonna go from, from red to blue or whatever. The, the analogy is go ahead and speak to more. Cuz I feel like you wanna say something to that even.

Jonathan Merritt:

Well, even if you take I'll acknowledge one of the words that Ryan brought up, which is the word repentance and that's a mouthful, right? But the word repentance at its core, one of, one of its kind of core, the core ways of understanding repentance very simply is changing your mind. Hmm. I don't know anybody who's listening to this who would say they've never changed their mind. I don't know that there's anyone who's listened to this unless you know that 1% of people in the world who are truly diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder, you probably don't know anyone, uh, who hasn't. You may know people that you you're not aware of the times they've changed their minds. Right? But this is a reality, a human reality. And so you can stop using the word repentance, but guess what? The phenomenon hasn't gone away.

Jonathan Merritt:

You've just stopped using the tool, the signpost to point to it. So you can find other language, you can substitute other language for repentance. You could just start talking about changing your mind. Right. Are you talking about repentance? No. Are you talking about repentance? Absolutely. You're not using the word, but the phenomenon is still there. And so there are a lot of these troubling words. I think sin is another one of those words. EV there are people who say I got a problem with the word sin. And you say, do you believe that the isness and the oughtness of the world are the same thing? Do you believe that everything is exactly the way it always should be? Or do you believe that sometimes things aren't the way they ought to be? Mm. That they aren't the best version of the way they should be.

Jonathan Merritt:

Okay. What do you call the distance between that? What do you call the things that contribute to that chasm between "is-ness" and "ought-ness"? You can stop talking about sin, but you haven't made the, you haven't filled in the chasm. The chasm is still there. You're just no longer naming it. Right. And this is the other thing. In many cases, it's the reality that gives us discomfort, not just the word. Mm. So we, we pitch the word because we cannot confront the reality. In other cases, we were given a bad version of that word, a kind of messed up version of that word and it needs to be cleaned off and dusted off and shaped up and thought about and played with and then put back into use, you know, sent back out onto the field because the reality, there is something that matters and generations and our ancestors before us have come back to these archetypal realities and they've wrestled with them and they've tried to give them language. And so you may choose different words, but you're not gonna get away from these human realities, these existential realities that these words are pointing to. Yeah.

Ryan Dunn:

Jonathan, I've got one last question for you and it's a little bit off of a different track, but it was so good: this point that you brought up in your book and you write about Jesus being less of a proclamation and Jesus being more of a conversation. Can you tell us a little bit about that idea?

Jonathan Merritt:

Yeah. So this, this, um, um, this, this came from one of the oldest sort of translations of the first chapter of the gospel of John. Now, if any of your listeners were paying attention in Sunday school, they can probably recite this one from heart, which is in the beginning, was the word with a capital w and the word was with God. And the word was God. And that word came and dwell among us to say that God is, is a word in the age of the dictionary in the age where we assume that words are words, meanings are fixed are, and, and, and are, are only comprised of their definition to think of God or Jesus in this case as a word or the word, it gives us this idea of a kind of fixed nature. It's God is just a thing out there. And we, once we've named it or understood it or accepted it or encountered it game over, right, you've done it.

Jonathan Merritt:

And people like that concept of God, I kind of stagnant God because a thing that doesn't change is easier to trust for a lot of people. And I understand that. And also we serve a living God, which means Jesus is always coming again to us. And Jesus is always coming to us in new. And Jesus is always coming to us, even if we don't recognize Jesus and we are always coming to Jesus. And the same version of us that is coming to Jesus is not always the same version. In fact, it's almost never the same version. I know the child that walked that red Harit and said, I do I'm in at five boy. That's not the, that is not the same now almost 40 year old man that comes to Jesus. And the Jesus that I find is a different Jesus too. And so what I love about that is, is that Rasmus of Rotterdam, who was one of early translators of the Bible interpreted John one, one by saying in the beginning was the conversation that God intended through Jesus to start a conversation with us that would go on and on and on and on until that final time when Jesus comes for that last time in our lives and whatever that means and whatever that looks like at that point, we begin a new conversation in the life to come.

Jonathan Merritt:

And so in this life, as we look at history, if you read a great book would be Yalo peons book Jesus through the centuries where he begins to trace the various versions of Jesus and the Jesus who was crystallized through the Renaissance is not the Jesus who was crystallized in the American civil rights movement. Hmm. They're the same. And they're also not the same. You see they're versions of the same thing. And so, uh, when we think of Jesus in this linguistic metaphor, that Jesus is the conversation. It calls us into, um, a relationship with God to use a phrase that is new every morning that we get new mercies, uh, from Jesus every day. And they don't look the same and they don't feel the same and we are not the same. And that is both the mystery of the life of faith. And that's the gift of it, I think as well.

Ryan Dunn:

All right. You're ready to go write that sermon now.

Jonathan Merritt:

I guess? I think so.

Ryan Dunn:

Well, thank you so much for offering all these words for us. These ideas. This has been, this has been really educational for me. This has been excellent. So thank you so much, Jonathan.

Pierce Drake:

Yeah, same, same, very good.

Jonathan Merritt:

Well, it, it has been such a gift for me and, and the pleasures, all mine. Thank so much for giving me the opportunity to hang out with you a little bit today and start a bit hopefully of a conversation with your listeners.

Ryan Dunn:

So what's next for you listener. I invite you to take some action by reading more from Jonathan Merritt, Jonathan merit.com. That's uh, no H in Jonathan, Jonathan, me.com. You can also to take the appreciative action of listening to more episodes of this podcast. I think you're gonna like an episode with Amy,Julia Becker about being a person who heals divides or Jonathan brought up themes of deconstruction. And we go heavily into that topic with AJ Swoboda in our doubt and deconstruction episode. We also got into it with Brian Zahnd in our reconstructing burned out faith episode. My name is Ryan Dunn on the behalf of Pierce Drake I wanna thank you for listening. Thanks to United Methodist communications for supporting this podcast and thanks to Reed Gaines for editing. And thank you again for listening. We'll talk to you again real soon. Peace.