This fall, I led a prayer at my alma mater. I was back for homecoming and my ten-year class reunion. The chapel coordinator had emailed me several weeks before to ask if I could participate in the service as a representative of the class of ‘08.
“You’ll have two minutes,” she wrote.
“No problem,” I responded.
But it was sort of a problem.
I’ve had a hard time talking about my faith lately. I don’t know what words to use to describe my spirituality, what I actually believe, or what I even think about God, and Jesus, and Christianity. I’ve been an evangelical Christian my entire life, but lately the words I’ve always turned to from that tradition don’t seem to fit what it is I’m trying to say.
When I was attending my alma mater—a private university founded in an evangelical denomination—I was comfortable with words and phrases I had picked up in evangelical churches and circles. In my prayers, I said things like, God, guide our steps . . . be with our hearts . . . show us your will. In conversations with friends, I talked about my quiet time, what I felt like the Lord was telling me, how my personal relationship with Christ was going, and how on fire I felt for the Lord.
This lingo was once a part of my everyday vernacular. It was the only way I knew how to express my faith. Now, I’m slowly dropping this sort of language in search of something that makes more sense to me.
For this reason, even though I’d been given five weeks’ notice before praying at homecoming chapel, I put off thinking about the prayer until a few days prior. I knew sitting down to write it would not only mean facing this struggle for language, but facing this larger question looming behind it. Is my faith in Christianity changing as my language is?
Language and our Perception of the World
In her TEDx talk “How Language Shapes the Way We Think,” cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky explains that we now have data to support what linguists have long suspected—that language affects the way people think.
Boroditsky used the Kuuk Thaayorre people in Australia as an example. This people group does not have words in their language for left or right. They only speak in directions—north, south, east, and west. This affects how they view the world, space, and time—not as linear like English-speakers do, but oriented to themselves and where they are on the earth.
Boroditsky also says that language can affect the way we see colors. For example, Russian has separate words for light blue and dark blue.
Language can open people up to new ideas or it can close them off. As Boroditsky explains, languages that don’t have numbers or counting words can’t have mathematics and therefore do not have access to all of systems made possible by mathematics.
While my quest for a new way to speak about my faith is not equivalent to changing my language from, say, English to Russian, I do believe Boroditsky’s data can be applied here. Christian lingo can be considered a language in itself. We even have an unofficial but widely used name for this language: Christianese. If you’re unsure what Christianese is, an entire dictionary is dedicated to it online at DictionaryofChristianese.com. It includes phrases like baby Christian, Billy Graham rule, and cheap grace.
If, as Boroditsky says, how we speak affects the way we think, could it be that when we start using new words to talk our beliefs, it’s because our thoughts on that belief have changed? And further, as we change our language, can we also change our beliefs?
Changing and Renewing My Language
Most Recently, I’ve seen this play out in my use of the phrase quiet time.
A quiet time, as it was taught to me, is the daily time you spend alone reading the Bible and praying. I can’t remember the last time I used this phrase—even though I have spent time praying and reading my Bible alone. But I’ve been looking for something to replace that phrase. I landed on spiritual practice. I heard author Aaron Niequist discussing spiritual practice on a podcast and his thoughts resonated with me.
Niequist explained that in his evangelical upbringing he was taught one spiritual practice—the quiet time. He has since learned he can practice his spirituality in many different ways, not just in the morning with his Bible, highlighter, and coffee.
Simply by swapping out one phrase for another I have begun to see and understand my faith in a new way.
This isn’t just happening with my evangelical Christianese, either. In my Episcopalian middle school and high school, I dutifully recited The Lord’s Prayer, the Nicene Creed, and prayers written by saints like St. Francis of Assisi, but I didn’t think these prayers counted as prayer. I thought God only wanted my spontaneous prayer—the type that occurred during my daily quiet times. But more and more, these old prayers, written by other people, are beginning to connect with me.
I resonate with the clear command in the Lord’s Prayer that says, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” These words reflect the way I’ve shifted the focus of my faith from the moment of conversion to the life you live after.
I find comfort in the simple, universal declarations of belief found in the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one God . . . And in one Lord Jesus Christ . . . And we believe in the Holy Spirit.” I now care more about what unites denominations than what separates us.
And the Peace Prayer by St. Francis, much like the Lord’s Prayer, reminds me to keep sowing goodness in a world gone bad: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love.”
Language of Belief
When I finally sat down to write my prayer for homecoming chapel, I typed the words of St. Francis: “where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; and where there is darkness, light.”
The words are simple yet their rhythm is poetic. They are not flowery or cryptically metaphorical. They are practical, calling us to sow good things in bad places. They are easy to remember and understand. They aren’t mine, and they aren’t spontaneous. A non-evangelical wrote them a long time ago and yet these words, more than any others I prayed that day, felt the most personal and the most genuine.
New language is helping me articulate existing beliefs and form new ones. It’s not that I needed a new religion. I just needed a new way to talk about my religion.
Cover photo by Florian Klauer.