For the past several months I’ve been undergoing a struggle with the presence of uncertainty in my life . It would be reasonable to connect this state with our imminent return to New Jersey, and the fact that I have virtually no idea what I will be doing for work once I get there. Strangely, though, I am not actually feeling terribly anxious on that front. Unbelievably for a slightly OCD, highly goal-oriented, hyper-planner like myself, I find myself strangely calm in the face of the vast blank canvas that is the next landscape through which my career will pass. I have this strange, passive, peace posture that has taken up residence in my mind and that keeps telling me “you’ll figure it out in due time. Don’t stress about it.” I’m a bit bemused by this development, and I am hugely grateful.
I am, however, wrestling mightily with a very different source of insecurity. The main catalyst for this struggle has been the church we are attending here in Milan. Given the fact that we are a Protestant, English-speaking family living in 95% Catholic Italy, our choices for church fellowship are what I would call limited. Add the fact that we have two young children, one of whom is voracious for a sunday school program that can feed her insatiable appetite for learning about God (in English), and “limited” turns into one church option. This option can, in my opinion, be fairly categorized as fundamentalist. I, in the opinion of anyone who has ever had a conversation with me lasting more than five minutes, cannot be so categorized. In my more irreverent moments I may have occasionally referred to myself as a recovering fundamentalist, but usually I am content just to recognize that my faith journey has been a long one and leave it at that. I have walked in the shoes of biblical literalists and gotten painful blisters from them, and then come to realize that God didn’t make my feet (or my mind, to really stretch the metaphor) to fit those shoes. God has instead prepared much more supportive footwear that speeds me toward eager knowledge and worship of Jesus, and to the scandal of some I still deign to consider those feet shod with “the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace” (Ephesians 6:15).
For many years I have felt at peace with the answers I have found to foundational questions about how God speaks through the Bible and how I can most responsibly engage the task of reading and applying scripture in the context of my life. I won’t pretend that these answers were easily come by, or that the process of finding them was without pain, and doubt, and anxiety, but until a few months ago I would have said those struggles were in my past.
But it appears that I can only be hammered on by fundamentalist preaching for so long before developing some bruises. My confidence began to shake. What if I’m wrong? What if “historical context” is just a screen I am hiding behind to excuse God and myself from things in the Bible that I don’t like? What if I’m really making an idol of my own mind by thinking that I have to wrestle with difficult texts instead of just submitting to them? What if I am rejecting God’s right to be God by questioning the absolute authority of the “plain meaning” of this or that text and subjecting it to the test of cultural changes that could alter its application.
I imagine that even the language and framing of some of those queries might have just alienated any of my readers who have not been frequently immersed in the theological morass of arguments about Biblical inerrancy. If that is you, and if you are still reading (thank you!), I apologize. It’s unfortunately ground that I have covered with too much angst, and argued with too many words to be able to just boil it down to plain talk. If I were to try, however, I guess I would summarize it this way. My pastor says that the Bible is God’s Word (and by that I think he literally means that it is essentially dictated by God with no interference from the human authors God used). The consequence of this position is that it’s my job to just do what the Bible says, no questions asked. When I put it that baldly it seems clear to me that some of the mystery of God is missing from that equation, and yet the absolute certainty of the position has a compelling seduction. Oh to be so sure of everything you believe. Oh to know, with no doubt, that all you have to do is read your Bible and you will know exactly what God wants you to do in every situation in your life. I don’t like a lot of the places that view takes my fundamentalist brothers and sisters in terms of beliefs and behaviors, but the assurance of it does demand some attention.
And so, I’ve been struggling: reading my Bible with renewed appetite to know what it says; praying painful prayers of confession about my own pride and of requests for guidance; talking to myself so incessantly that I am sick of my own voice inside my head; and reaching out to a few trusted family members and friends to seek community and advice. One of these friends recommended going back to trusted resources that have helped me with this struggle in the past. Again, my immediate context imposes limits on this endeavor, because most of my precious seminary books are locked away in some storage bin in Memphis during my European sojourn. There is one book, however, that I happened to pack in the Italy boxes (or that the Holy Spirit guided me to pack — fundamentalists don’t have a corner on that market!). It is a book by one of my former seminary professors called Cultural Interpretation and it applies the methods of sociolinguistics to the process of scriptural interpretation. Now, I may have just lost whatever hardy readers had been hanging with me through the first batch of ten-dollar words, but if any of you are still there this is the “basic tenet” of the theory of sociolinguistics: “context shapes the creation and use of language” (Brian K. Blount, Cultural Interpretation, Fortress Press, 1995, p.vii).
It is not such a complicated or controversial idea, really. Especially not after nearly three years surrounded by a context and language that are palpably foreign to me. I had academically assented to this proposition when I studied it eight or nine years ago in seminary. I now experientially know it’s truth. Languages do not simply differ in terms of the sound combinations they associate with a given concept, as though the concept were an abstract reality that has some independent being apart from language (sorry Plato!) — the concepts themselves are bound up in the language. Alright, there are actual concrete objects, like a chair or a ball, where the difference in language is really just one of sound. But the important ideas (like what English-speakers mean by faith, and truth, and even God) cannot be so easily dissected from their linguistic roots. To speak a language with any level of fluency, you have to be inhabited by the culture and the perspective on reality that birthed it. I have noted frequently that I actually undergo a noticeable personality change when I speak in Italian rather than English. Suddenly I am more social, more friendly, more ready to agree with conversation partners and more hesitant to pose a counter point. This is not just a function of the limits of my fluency; it is the cultural context of the language itself. The language subtly changes the way I see the world and my role in it.
The point for this post is that language matters, not just which words you choose, but the bank of words that you have to pick from. For those who may have never experienced this language/culture shift, perhaps there is an example that can shed some light on the idea. A number of Italian words have made their way into English usage and thus will be familiar to my readers. This fact may appear to undermine my point, but stay with me, because the migration of languages can have an impact on the words’ meanings. In other words, borrowed words, at least more “conceptual” ones, don’t simply transfer all of their meaning from one language to the next. The cultural context of their new usage shapes their meaning. One such word is “bravo.” I have heard this phrase often enough in America, almost universally in the context of rather high-brow cultural performances. It is a word that is shouted to a performer from the audience to indicate appreciation of their mastery in a given performance. It is a very clearly defined and straight-forward usage, with a self-satisfied veneer of culture that relishes the European roots of the phrase.
This was my framework for understanding the meaning of “bravo” when I moved to Italy. I was almost immediately struck, upon entering the country, that something very different was meant by the term here. Setting aside the Italian particularity in terms of number and gender (“bravo” is only applied to a singular man or boy; for women/girls or groups the word is changed: brava, bravi, etc.). Beyond this variation, the word itself is thrown around with almost careless abandon. If I understand something said to me in Italian, I am awarded with a “brava.” If my children are well-behaved in a store, people comment to me that they were “bravi.” In fact, this is one of the most common positive descriptors that I hear. From to teachers, to nannies, to local business proprietors, everyone is described as “bravo.” Bravo isn’t just an expression of praise, a way of saying “well-done,” it is a character trait. For my first few weeks I was under the vague impression that Italians were simply mad for extravagant expressions of praise, but I slowly came to understand that the word just means something different here. To understand that meaning, I needed to learn more about the culture that used it. When a friend talked about wanting her son to be “bravo” she was describing a desire for his character that didn’t really translate to English when she switched languages and said she wanted him to be a “good boy.” Yes, she wanted him to be “good,” to be “well-behaved,” but there was another element to it as well, a component of conforming to a certain standard for behavior that would be worthy of eliciting praise. It’s an echo of the performance-centered American meaning, but it looks totally different as a character trait.
The point of this extended linguistic discussion to my struggle with uncertainty is this: once I understand how dependent I am on language to shape my way of seeing the world, and once I see how incomplete any given language is in its ability to express things that are outside the scope of its generating culture, the yearning for certainty cannot survive. To grasp such certainty I would have to condense truth down into a concept that could be fully contained within the English language, and that is palpably absurd to me.
I am not making any claims about absolute relativism with this statement. I am fully convinced that God has a concrete essence that isn’t dependent on any language, but that in fact illuminates the very inadequacies of that language. The greatest truth of my life is the experience of contact with that God who leaves me speechless in awe and love and gratitude for the chance to know (even if only dimly) and be known (utterly and completely).
My point here is not that God is relative, but that God is not relative, while language is. God isn’t limited by language and it is one of the greatest of all miracles that we do have revelation from this God, but one of the primary mechanisms for that revelation is the written word, and to access that revelation I am dependent on my language as an access point. This dependence on language creates uncertainty, the recognition, when I am honest with myself, that I cannot possibly have an absolute lock on truth. My language isn’t that big. It is shaped by my culture and by experiences with words in all kinds of mundane settings. As such, all I can hope for this side of eternity is a small and shadowy approximation.
It’s not certainty, and that can be really hard. But after months of struggle I am starting to settle down with uncertainty. I’m starting to feel, after all this, that perhaps uncertainty is bravo.