Russian writer Leo Tolstoy is considered one of the greatest novelists of all time. War and Peace and Anna Karenina have inspired millions over the last century. Less well-known about Tolstoy, though is that he had a profound effect upon many due to his interpretation of Christian ethics, especially regarding non-resistance and pacifism. In 1884, he expounded upon his beliefs in What I Believe, and this work was promptly banned in Russia for its negative depiction of the state and the Russian church. After the book had spread throughout the world and garnered attention, Russian secular and religious intellectuals began attacking his ideas. The Kingdom of God is Within You, published in 1894, is a further explanation of his beliefs and a response to his opponents.
(This is part six of a series liveblogging Tim Suttle’s book, Public Jesus. You can read the introduction to the series here, my post on the first chapter here, and a discussion on Suttle’s Introduction here. Each chapter will be liveblogged.)
Have you ever read a novel so captivating that you find yourself lost in another world? Watched a film so enthralling you were literally on the edge of your seat? Heard a sermon or lecture that challenges your way of thinking, not in a confrontational way, but in a way so refreshing you find yourself not caring that it just questioned everything you’ve previously believed? If you’ve tasted of this kind of “languaging”, you will have a sense of the Christian vocation.
Artisans of written word and the craftsmen of stories know intimately the power of language. Language can be a weapon or an instrument of peace. It can tear down or build up. It can unite and divide. It can reject and accept. We are communicators swimming in the ocean of language, yet many of us often fail to recognize how poorly we use our language in ways that honor God.
While we certainly have the power to shape our language, it is also true that language shapes us as well. Without getting too philosophical about it, a simple example will do. Libertarians often stop an argument between a conservative and a progressive by saying, “You both are framing the argument in the wrong way.” The key here is framing. (By the way, I’m not claiming libertarians don’t poorly frame arguments.) In the same way our simple debates are shaped by the words we use, language itself is so deeply rooted that it affects our world view.
As citizens of the Kingdom of God, followers of Christ ought to be willing and able to do what Jesus did: use the power of language to describe a different vision of reality. When we do, Tim Suttle believes that “God just appears and happens in the moment and leaves us forever changed.” Most of us tend to ignore nuance and look at the world in binary: conservative/progressive, rich/poor, black/white, attractive/unattractive, and so on. But think about what Jesus did; he sided with the unclean, the outcasts, earning himself the title “friend of sinners.” Somehow, Jesus was able and eager to say “yes” to those on the “wrong” side. In doing so, he was able to communicate a vision more radical than a mere elimination of “them” (the bad ones). He came into the world to redeem it, to rescue it, to bring it new life.
Suttle’s chapter on “languaging” God could be condensed into this: “The Christian’s most sacred vocation when relating to another human being is to try to become the conduit through which that person comes into contact with the risen Savior. As we relate to one another, God can ‘happen’ to us over and over.” The whole point of the incarnation is that “God can happen to anyone, anytime, anyplace…” When we pay attention, we can be a part of that. But that’s the hard part, this paying attention business. Without being hostile, we often treat those unlike ourselves indifferently, being inattentive in an equally dehumanizing way. The first step to languaging God is to refuse to ignore the world around us.
There are two things we’re supposedly not to talk about in polite company: religion and politics. Why? It’s divisive, almost inherently so. Good dialogue about such topics takes time. Discussing controversial topics thoughtfully is an art, and takes patience. It takes little time to rouse the passions of the opinionated. It takes gracefulness and humility to dialogue meaningfully. This is why how we speak and how we listen is so important.
Instead of using our words to divide, we ought to use them to embrace. Do we frame discussions in such a way that tilts the conversation our way? Or do we use grace and humility to hear out the other person? When we look into helping those in need, are our words and actions showing them pity or love?
When we become artisans of a new way of speaking, we language God to our world in a way that honors God and respects our neighbor. In this way we bring peace while we preach peace, something both libertarians and Christians are passionately committed.