Dead Words

Nietzsche once said, “That for which we find words is something already dead in our hearts.” So, here are a few words: God, justice, love, truth, salvation, holiness, faith, and goodness, which according to Nietzsche are all signs that point to empty and dead realities. Being a Christian, I, of course, resist his assertion and yet I also affirm the truth of what he is saying. How is this so?…

When I first heard this aphorism, what initially came to mind is that throughout Church history people—mystics particularly—have had experiences of the divine that were beyond words to convey. Then I thought about the apophatic tradition within the larger Christian tradition, which basically asserts that God is beyond words and that we finite creatures would do best by acknowledging the limits of our understanding and language. Drawing upon my own experience I remember instances of becoming frustrated by the baggage of language when trying to express a shift in my understanding of God that came as a result of some kind of experience. It seems that this frustration arose because of the tension between the new and the old. I had a new experience, and yet I only had the same old words to express it, words that were bound by a tradition of usage that I feared would inevitably distort what I was trying to communicate. In light of all this, I find sufficient reason to affirm Nietzsche’ assertion. Words like “God”, “love”, “salvation”, etc, are all too often the empty husks of cultural decay that inevitably lull the soul into numbness. Likewise, I have too often read through books that gave descriptions of God, or the work he has done, only to get a sense that the reading gave me some kind of mastery regarding these things. This should never happen when talking about God. And yet, in spite of all this, even as this post demonstrates, I have an impulse (as do many others) to speak about God.

I find some resolution to this tension in the words of the apostle Paul, who when writing to the Christians at Corinth stated, “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’ power, so that your faith may not rest on men’ wisdom, but on God’ power.” For Paul, when it comes to speaking theological truth, the Spirit must make present the divine realities the words point to, and thereby give new life to words that are in bondage to decay and death. This new life, however, is not just given to words; it is also given to those who respond in faith to the words that are spoken about what God has done in Jesus Christ. In fact, it is probably most proper to say that words come to life for those who are coming alive. In this manner, Paul would very likely respond to Nietzsche by saying, “You only find words for something already dead in your heart because you are dying.” This leaves me with a final question for myself and for any others who might care. If words like “God” and “love” and “faith” are dead is it because they are no longer vital, or is it because we, in some very real sense, are dead?

4 Responses to “Dead Words”

  1. ROG  

    I always wondered if the reason the Jews weren’t supposed to say Yahweh was that God is not a truly knowable concept, and that we limit God by labeling God?

    I’ve had serious debates with people over me suggesting a female nature of God – if we’re made in God’s image.. – because the Bible says “Him”, and if I don’t buy the notion that God is the guy in the beard, than I’m a blasphemer. Really! I think that their, and even my, sense of God is way too constricted.

  2. Anthony Velez  

    I think that those who would charge you with blaspheme for suggesting a female nature of God need to return to the Scriptures for a closer reading, and they would also do well to become familiar with the larger Xian tradition. Within the creation narrative of Genesis it states that “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” It seems pretty evident to me that this passage is saying that humanity mirrors God in their maleness and femaleness, which further means that God has both the masculine and the feminine within himself.

    Having said this, however, I want to also say, at risk of seeming to contradict myself, that I don’t think that the reason we traditionally refer to God as him has anything to do with patriarchy (although I can certainly understand where that critique comes from). As I said, I do think that God innately possesses both the masculine and feminine, however, when it comes to his relationship to creation there is something predominantly masculine at work. There is something about healthy masculinity (not broken machismo or patriarchy) as seen in the traditional masculine virtues such as disciplined strength, sacrifice in battle, courage, the pursuit and affirmation of the feminine that reveals how God intends to be and is toward us whom he loves and redeems.

    In saying this, I can imagine how some theorists would attempt to deconstruct my notions of masculinity by pointing to the socially constructed nature of gender, and to some degree I would agree with them, but there are also points where I resist such critiques. That, however, is a whole other complex matter that I will save, perhaps, for a future post. For now I will just be forthright and say that I am operating within the bounds of Xian orthodoxy in my response.

  3. Rachel  

    “You only find words for something already dead in your heart because you are dying.” All I am going to say is…. WOW. It reminds me of something Budziszewski wrote in “What We Can’t Not Know.” I don’t have the book with me so this is a rough quote, but it went something like this:

    “A liar’s speech may not tell us about the state of the world but it can tell us about the state of his soul. What empty God-talk tells us is that where there ought to be God there is emptiness.”

  4. Anthony Velez  

    Rachel – Thanks for the kind response, and for the opportunity to revisit this post. When I go back and read my writing, it helps me realize I do have some decent ideas that I need to further develop.

    If I do go on to doctorate studies, perhaps I can find the thesis for my dissertation somewhere among the stuff I have written on this blog.