How do we develop experience-rich language?

Language can open the world to us. This is always true of descriptive language – by describing people and things we come to know them better. But it’s also true of language that isn’t trying to describe, but to convey a meaning or assert an opinion. Something about the world and our relationship to it is expressed in the way we say things, and something about ourselves is revealed in the words that we choose. This became apparent to Erin McGraw as she thought about the way that people express themselves in cyberspace. Often there is a gleeful meanness in the ways that people talk to each other while online, but its not hard to discover deep insecurities at the base of this meanness. People use phrases like “If you’re a student of history, as I am,” to assert their superiority over whoever they’re arguing with, and tell each other that “you’re opinions are just stupid.” And anyone who tries to express a reasonable perspective in the midst of an internet debate will be attacked from both sides, because the dialog isn’t really about learning from each other, it’s about winning a kind of competition. To Erin, these conversations belong to first order imagination. They follow scripts and rest in cliches and are always obedient to a rhetoric of dominance. How, she wondered, could we move beyond such rhetoric to second order imagination, which challenges cliches and moves us to words and ideas that are clearer, more thoughtful, more original, and maybe even wise? How can we use language to open the whole world to us, instead of just the scared little corners we’d like to hide in?

Her answer is that we must relearn the art of revision. When she and I got together to plan her talk to the Ministerium, we knew that we’d want to ask our members to revise a piece of writing as an exercise in avoiding cliche. Erin generously decided that she’d create a piece for us to pull apart. She sent it to me in advance, and I laughed out loud when I read it. It was full of every cliche about suffering and providence that I could imagine, and reading it felt a little convicting, since I’ve heard, and maybe even spoken, some of the platitudes on offer while in worship.

During the meeting, we realized as we were revising Erin’s document that people of faith have to battle cliche on two levels. Being part of the world we live in, we’re immersed in the languages of society, the internet, politics, pop culture, etc. Being part of our faith communities, we’re immersed in the received languages of our traditions. Such language isn’t necessarily bad, but it can become so insular that it loses all ability to communicate beyond the doors of our churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples. More, it can become shallow, not because the original ideas or formulations were shallow, but because we’ve repeated them so often that we’ve ceased to think about them. A piece of writing, Erin told us, is like a piece of clay. The more one works it, the more malleable it becomes. Revision allows us to sharpen ideas, or to shift them, to disrupt an old way of thinking and allow a new way of thinking in. It allows us to stop merely saying the things that sound good, and start saying the things we really mean. Solid and believable, she told us, is better than flashy. Deep considerations are better than empty ones.

She offered us some principles to guide revisions of our thoughts and statements. Revision, she said, requires patience. When revising, we should be wary of all-or-nothing statements, and entertain the possibility that different points of view might be valid. What we really want is dialog, and it’s hard to achieve this when we use a dominating rhetorical tone. We should keep in mind that cliches started as surprising and new formulations of ideas. They weren’t cliches when first uttered, and Erin pushed that idea to say that cliches were the very first things that human beings made. They were invitations to more creativity and a deeper pursuit of truth. Our problem is that we allowed them to become resting places.

In occurred to me, as she talked, that she was describing revision as a kind of spiritual discipline. One of our members, Michael Jupin, pointed out that the revision process challenges each of us to become more of a self. Cliches don’t differentiate us from the worlds that we inhabit. But to cultivate patience, hold ourselves open to mystery, and invite real relationship with a willingness to be vulnerable and, even, wrong, is to develop that deep humility that the mystics always describe as the key to knowing God. Something about the world and our relationship to it is expressed in the way we say things. Hopefully, when we move beyond cliches, we’ll find ourselves expressing our real beliefs and hopes as honestly as we can.