Yesterday, I took my kayak out into the Everglades. I paddled across a lake, through a series of mangrove tunnels, and then out into a remote lagoon where I fished for a while and then just sat. My little boat rocked in gentle waves. An alligator surfaced and, upon seeing me, gently submerged and swam away. An osprey hovered, curled like a fist, plunged into the water, and then rose, shivering off spray, a fish wriggling in its talons. Then all seemed still for a while, with only a whisper of wind riffling the lake. A swallow-tailed kite appeared, swooping and soaring in silence just above the mangroves, a graceful miracle in motion. I felt full. I simply needed to be there for a few hours, out in the wild, just to listen, watch, observe, all the more because I’ve been hunkered down in what I call the “writing cave,” a place where I am deep, deep, deep into words … the words of this book, in fact.
I felt I needed to shake off words just as that osprey had shaken off water. I have a theory. When our ancient ancestors developed the capacity for language, words became increasingly all-encompassing. Words became not only our primary way of engaging with others socially but they also became the tool by which we each conduct our own inner dialogue. Language became so powerful, both interpersonally and intra-personally, that the web of words in our heads often felt more real to us than the web of life outside our heads.
[Read our Animal Wisdom Collection.]
Language, we discovered, was a tool we used to describe reality, but it also could become a substitute for reality. We might say it was the original form of virtual reality.
Christianity evolved as, among other things, a language, a set of words pointing to a set of ideas. This language was necessary to liberate people from another language, the language of empire and domination. This liberating language evolved and shaped the inner architecture of generations of Christians, furnishing them with foundational terms like sin, grace, and salvation. These terms were woven together in stories, and the stories were woven together in a framing story—another phenomenon of language. But like everything, language evolves. Meanings modify. What once was liberating can become a cage in which we pace, dreaming of freedom.
Many people today are pacing the cage. Old Christian words have been emptied of their substance, or their meanings have mutated. The old framing story doesn’t fit the reality we experience and feels instead like a conspiracy theory or manic fantasy. We can’t help but feel that the language of Christianity creates a make-believe world, a rabbit hole, an alternate reality, where angels and demons are real but climate change and evolution aren’t. The gap between actual reality and the Christian linguistic reality stretches our credulity to a breaking point. That’s why many can no longer stay Christian, and that’s why many of us who choose to stay Christian must deconstruct the Christianity we inherited—and shake off much of its language.
Christianity evolved as, among other things, a language, a set of words pointing to a set of ideas.
But we can’t underestimate the staying power of conventional Christianity. Even if millions of us renounce it, even if we vow never to set foot in its physical architecture again, its language is still encoded in our inner architecture, in our deepest neural pathways, and many of our social networks. How can we possibly gain leverage to see, deconstruct, and change something so total, so all-encompassing?
To do so, we need something even more immersive and powerful, something capable of disrupting and transforming the vocabulary and grammar that have helped make us who we are.
Where can we go for that kind of immersive experience? What can jolt us out of our addictive obsession with the virtual reality of language?
The answer may be as close as our own front doors. If we take our bodies outdoors and into the natural world, if we go far enough and return often enough and stay long enough, we can let our inner beings realign with the original language and architecture of creation. We can get off the theological elevators that take us up, up, and away, into the abstract sky, as Diana Butler Bass puts it, and descend from our heads into our hearts, our bodies, and our bare feet, thus becoming more grounded.
St. Augustine (Sermon 126.6) put it like this:
Some people, in order to find God, will read a book. But there is a great book, the book of created nature. Look carefully at it top and bottom, observe it, read it. God did not make letters of ink for you to recognize God in; God set before your eyes all these things God has made. Why look for a louder voice?
Meister Eckhart put it no less strongly: “A person who knew nothing but creatures would never need to attend to any sermons, for every creature is full of God and is a book.”
[Read: “Lessons From an Underwater Monastery.”]
When I echo Augustine and Eckhart by recommending we engage more deeply with creation, I’m not simply talking about going outdoors for recreation or even inspiration, as fine and healthy as those excursions can be. What we need is deeper than that, because so often, we simply bring our old linguistic architecture with us into the outdoors. As we walk through the forest or prairie, our language chatters on, naming, categorizing, and judging everything we see just as we’ve done before, noticing what we’ve been trained to observe and missing what we’ve been trained to miss. Instead, we need to enter the natural world mindfully, reverently, as silently as we can, waiting for the beauty, intricacy, and wonder of what is outside us to overwhelm and hush the barrage of words chattering inside our heads.
In this silent encounter with the natural world, we render ourselves vulnerable to it so that it can impress upon us a new inner architecture, one that is shaped by and in harmony with its wordless patterns and wisdom.
We invite natural reality to shape and reshape our inner “civilized” reality. In Christian terms, we let God’s original word (or logos) outspeak our human words (or logia), to transform us into different kinds of receivers, different kinds of Christians, different kinds of humans.
From Do I Stay Christian? by Brian McLaren. Copyright (c) 2022 by the author, and reprinted with permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group
Want more? Read: “Spirituality and Rewilding.”