A Language of Foolishness


I have been reading a couple of books on Pastoral Theology. One is a classic:  “The Minister as a Diagnostician” by Paul Pruyser. The other is “The Word of God and Pastoral Care” by Howard Stone. Both of these books note a problem with chaplains and other ministers.  The problem is the rejection of theological language in ministry in favor of the language of psychology (or sociology or social work).

There can be a number of reasons for this. First, some of the language of theology is academic and little adapted to practical ministry. Second, the language of the social sciences are often more precise and agreed upon (at least at a specific point of time).

But another thing is that sometimes ministers are rather apologetic about their tradition. In chaplaincy work, one has to minister to people that do not necessarily respect or understand one’s tradition and language. As such, it is tempting to incorporate the language of the social sciences on the presumption that it will be more accepted by those they minister to. Additionally, some chaplains become embarrassed by the sloppy thinking and language of popularized (TV) Christianity. They don’t wish to be identified with such forms of Christianity. (I can understand that concern.)

Unfortunately, much is lost. The language of Christian theology is better for existential questions, meaning, and ethics than the social sciences. Additionally, religious faith and spirituality are of great importance for countless millions of people.

This is not just a problem in chaplaincy but in missions as well. We want to contextualize our faith… interpreting it in a way that is understandable and appreciated by those who are not Christians. The challenge is finding the balance.

At one end, one can use language and concepts that make no sense to the hearer. It may be clear to Christians… but not very effective in bringing truth to others.

At the other end, one can lose the language and Christian concepts in the quest of being relevant in the context.  Again, not very effective.

Clearly, the goal is between the two extremes, finding relevance in context while holding to the truth in the message.

Losing one’s heritage is not the solution to contextualize to another heritage. There needs to be a tension between these extremes.

I have been there. I was at a Christmas gathering with a diverse number of people. Some were Christian of one variety or another, some nominal and some not. Some were generally secular. A couple were Muslim. I struggled in finding a comfortable language for expressing a religious Christmas message in that diversity. Using language that makes no sense to the hearers is useless. But using vague inclusive language essentially doesn’t say anything either.

I am reminded of the words of St. Paul,

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God   –I Corinthians 1:18

One must ultimately embrace a certain language of foolishness– a willingness to sounding foolish… while not embracing such a label as a badge of honor.

I am still struggling with this.

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