September 4, 2005

Frozen language among Friends

Answering that of God in everyone.
The peace testimony.
The letter killeth but the Spirit giveth life. (1656 Epistle from the Elders at Balby)

These Quaker phrases are examples of language used so frequently that much of the original life and meaning of them - and the contexts from which they first emerged - have been lost.

I'm concerned that these phrases are not being given the weight they once were by Friends. As a result, we may end up describing some of our key principles with phrases and acronyms ("SPICE") that are barely connected to the undergirding structure of our faith and practice.

By way of metaphor

I've been thinking that using and even acting from such automatic phrases, without considering the historical and theological roots from where they come, might be like living in a multi-story house and never checking the electrical, gas, heating, and water systems that keep the house running.

Or maybe it's more like caring for a tree, but only tending to the visible part--its bark, branches, leaves, blossoms, and fruit--but never watering the roots....

I'm not sure these metaphors hold, though. They are just beginnings of my wanting to understand what's going on with the contemporary use of our language of faith.

Language and registers

Among linguists, the phrases at the start of this post might be considered examples of "frozen register." I learned about registers and a language's level of formality when I was working as a professional sign language interpreter.

Often sign language interpreters cringe at interpreting the dreaded Star Spangled Banner, or worse: the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous. I'm not kidding.

Here's a worksheet for the Star Spangled Banner. How would you write these phrases in modern English? How would you explain what this song means to a foreigner or to your 4-year-old grandchild? Most of us don't think about what this anthem means anymore.

It's become rote.

And I would venture to say that some of our Quaker phrases have become rote. We say them and we are often out of touch with their connection to the Light Within and the Light's impact on us, personally and corporately.

Eventually, if we are not mindful, we will no longer speak from our own direct and personal experience of "answering that of God in everyone," for example. If we are not mindful, we will begin parroting the words that beloved Friends have used with us for years and years, because we seldom make our faith explicit to one another.

An experiment

I wonder what might happen if we intentionally drop certain phrases from our Quaker vernacular, at least for a time, and do this as a discipline when interacting with new attenders and with seasoned Friends.

Phrases that I am currently avoiding are "Quakers have a (blank) Testimony that says..." and "Quakers have no creed."

What descriptions and new expressions might take the place of pat phrases? Might we be more inclined to offer an experience we had among Friends, from our spiritual journey, as a way to illustrate the point we wish to make? Might we take a bit more time, describing the connections between practice, belief, and tradition among Friends?

My personal hope is that the additional explanations will ground us more completely in our Quakerism and will help convey our faith as a complete gestalt, rather than as segments or individual threads of a tapestry.



Joe G. said...

I've avoided these terms or phrases in the last few months, mostly because I cringe when I use them or I haven't an idea of what they actually mean (to myself or anyone else):

"hold in the Light", as in, "Please hold in the Light so-n-so who is dealing with cancer."

"that of God in everyone", as in "Quakers believe that there is that of God in everyone."

Good stuff, Liz

PS: Thanks for your comment to my post today - you kind of beat me to the punchline. I think you'll understand when you read my "follow-up" post tomorrow.

Johan Maurer said...

This friend speaks my mind.


Thanks for helpful observations, yet again.

Mary Kay Rehard at Friends Theological College in Kaimosi, Kenya, is someone who's re-forming the Friends voice in a simple (not simplistic), contemporary, non-jargon way. Some of her output is available in the Hill of Vision pamphlet series from Kaimosi Friends Press. (Write to ftc1 a t fum d o t org.)

I'm reading Jamey Gambrell's wonderful edition of Marina Tsvetaeva post-revolutionary prose, Earthly Signs: Moscow Diaries, 1917-1922. As bodies float around in our waterlogged consciousnesses and consciences, maybe poets such as Tsvetaeva have a role in keeping language alive in distress and agony as well as the routine fabric of life and the times of ecstasy.

Anonymous said...

I'm actually sortof,sometimes,inaway, trying an opposite experiment: to use more often and more intentionally the images and phrases from the Bible that people don't even think about anymore: feet of clay is an example from a recent conversation. In a quiet, embarrassed way, I'm trying on this Christian identity. How far can I go before anyone notices?

Gil S said...

I'm with Robin on this. I do use some of the phrases you mention but only when I mean them, not automatically. I talk about being led by my Inward Teacher because that's what it feels like.

I also talk about God, and even use the G- word in ministry. To put that in context, in the meetings I go to in Britain YM very few people ever do that, or if they do will immediately follow it up hurriedly with a phrase like 'or whatever that means to you'.

There is a great fear that using the word might cause offence. Now I don't want to offend and I want to hear others' truth but I think that means that I must speak my truth too.

Basically I think I'm saying that we can use words from the past if we know what they mean and mean what we say. As Samuel Bownas put it 'Old words opened in new life are always new.'

Liz Opp said...

Thanks for these insightful comments. As usual, I find myself stretched and nourished and refreshed as a result.

Beppe, I'd much rather support you in your integrity in NOT using language that is hollow for you. Even Quakers can put peer pressure on one another, and in some ways, that makes it harder for us to be faithful to the Spirit, not to social expectations.

Johan, thanks for the resource. I've looked at FUM's webpage for Friends Theological College, and I've sent an email asking about the pamphlet you mention. I really am an amateur linguist, it seems...

And Robin and Gil, it sounds like the two of you, like myself, lean on language that has Life in it for us, based on our experience. To substitute other words or phrases may take us away from our integrity with God.

I appreciate how you lift up the possibility that in fact there may be little merit in engaging in the experiment as I've put it, if it means diminishing a piece of our measure of Light. And in fact, might we better serve the Spirit--and our faith community--if we reclaim "old words" that can carry "new life"...?

Ummm, am I flip-flopping here, supporting Beppe to avoid language that is empty for him, while also supporting Robin and Gil to use possibly the same language that has power for them personally?

I'm realizing that I'm thinking of my responses to each of you as part of another duality among Friends:

habitual, familiar vernacular <--> resonant vernacular


Johan Maurer said...


The Rockridge Institute in Berkeley "seeks bright and dynamic Cognitive Linguists who can analyze conceptual structures behind public policy ideas and language. Both entry-level and senior positions are available."

Some Quaker phrases have become dear to me, although I recognize that even those phrases can be a linguistic cold shoulder. At the end of our worship, the pastor (or someone) often says, "Are all hearts clear?"-- and he or she means it, because sometimes there is still something that needs to be said.

Rightly or wrongly, I distinguish this sort of usage from anticontextual uses of "that of God in everyone," or citations of the phrase "the letter killeth but the Spirit giveth life" that neglect its pre-Balby New Testament origins (2 Corinthians 3:6). The words "Are all hearts clear?" may sometimes need to be explained, but their use is not a theological misappropriation.

Unknown said...

Very early in my Quaker career someone stood in meeting and said she was intimidated by the word "concern". She ahd taken tos aying she had a "bother" about something instead of a concern.

It stuck in my mind. When I was starting my own blog, I recalled her concern about concern and wrote that I had a niggle about it.

Liz Opp said...

More great comments!

Johan, you write, "The words 'Are all hearts clear?' may sometimes need to be explained, but their use is not a theological misappropriation." Thanks for making the distinction between oft-used phrases and phrases that are now disconnected from their theological/biblical origins.

Since I was not raised with, nor have I studied, the Christian texts, I myself had not realized that the quote from the Balby advices comes directly from the Bible. I find myself beginning to wonder what other popular Quaker phrases have their roots in Scripture...?

I know that there is a text (or maybe several texts) that pull apart the writing of Fox, Woolman, and others, tracing certain phrases to Scripture. My, my, I certainly have a gap in my Quakerism, which you and a few other Friends keep gently lifting up for me.

I also appreciate the comment made by Kwakersaur about the word "concern." This comment reminds me that we cannot grow if we keep ourselves separated from uncomfortable words and experiences. At some point, we must bring ourselves closer to those discomforting things, preferably with support, so that we can learn from them, be transformed by them, and come that much closer to living into Heaven on Earth.

I often tell my close friends that there is a difference between "caretaking" and "concern for." If I caretake you by changing my language, I might be stifling my authentic self for the sake of your comfort. But I can express my concern for you and say, "I don't wish for you to be uncomfortable, and if I change my language, I feel like I am not speaking with integrity..."

Then perhaps we will have a deeper sort of dialogue and learn about what is important to each other... And find a way for each of us to stretch into the situation and respect one another's needs, growing as a result.


Anonymous said...

Well yes. How easy to forget that "answering that of God in every one" is not a directive, but a description of the effect of obeying the charge of God about being patterns, being examples, wherever we go, so that our life and conduct are an example to every one. When we begin to live that way, then we _will_ come to walk cheerfully, and answer that of God in others. Likewise, many Friends quote the elders of Balby who would not think of quoting Paul approvingly - but he said it first (2 Cor. 3:6).

Fox and other early Friends did not preach on texts which had not yet been opened to them inwardly and personally (e.g., Fox apparently never preached on Romans 3:23). Perhaps we need to follow their example - not to avoid these phrases, but to use them only when they are inwardly meaningful. I fear that if we who have this bother abandon them entirely, these words will come to mean only what those who are still using them want them to mean; and to me, at least, that would be a loss.


Liz Opp said...

LLW, I am grateful for your comments. And I find myself asking another question:

What might happen if we ask one another, when we hear these phrases being used, "Friend, what do you mean by that?"

Perhaps then we can help draw one another out, and draw out the Life and the Spirit that inhabits these words for us, individually and corporately.

You say it so clearly, Friend, and I can easily extrapolate: "I fear that if we who have this bother abandon [these practices] entirely, these [practices] will come to mean only what those who are still using them want them to mean..."

Oh my. I am so very grateful for our Friends who minister to us, to me, the value of conserving the tradition and manner of early Friends.