Sallie McFague on The Power of Words

Richard Topping has asked me to write an entry for his Principal’s blog and I am happy to do so. A topic that is often on my mind is the power of words. When faced with a big issue—for instance, one like climate change—folks often don’t remember this. They plead that we “stop talking” and “take action.” But for us human beings, words are actions; it is our language ability that separates us from the other animals. It is our ability to create in words the “worlds” within which we live (our self-consciousness) that is our blessing and our curse. Jesus with his parables and Hitler with his Nazi rhetoric are examples of very different languages that result in profoundly different actions. And of all our language about any and all topics, our talk about God, our theology, is our most demanding and significant topic. Augustine used his highest, best language when speaking about God because he considered it our most important subject. Words are difficult and dangerous. Erich Heller, a German philosopher, warned, “Be careful how you interpret the world; it is like that.” This came to my mind listening to Richard’s speech on October 18 at the Convocation inducting him as VST’s 7th Principal. The talk was eloquent and economical—it said something important and did so in 8 minutes! Its ending sentence gave a summary of what VST’s task should be: it should help to inform the theological imagination of our students for the 21st century “so that they can give voice to thoughtful, engaged, and generous Christian faith for the love of God and for the sake of the world.” Listening to his talk, I recalled hearing a remark that such people are “able to speak five words with the mind.” Richard’s sentence is a bit longer than five words, but not by much—in fact, its central words are exactly five: “thoughtful, engaged, and generous Christian faith.” In our age of sound bites, which are often not mindful and of tomes of rhetoric which are seldom economical, one appreciates how rare and significant brief, thoughtful words are about anything important (and especially about God!).

Richard’s pointing to the theological imagination is a key to the kind of words he has in mind when he attempts to sum up VST’s mission. “Imaginative” language is not the same, old language that forms the conventional world in which we daily live. In several of my writings I call such imaginative language “wild space.” “Wild space” is the term that a couple of anthropologists use to express the hope that we all have deep within us that “things could be different.” At heart it is what most religions are about, summed up by almost universal agreement that, in different ways, they all agree: love your neighbor as yourself. Religions are counter-cultural, appealing to that crack in each of us that allows us to see, to imagine, a different, better vision of how we should—and can—live together on a more just, flourishing planet. The NGO’s put it this way: “a different world is possible,” and Christians talk about the kingdom of God coming on earth. Richard says that a theologically-educated imagination can make a people so turned around by its vision “that they grow discontent with what is, and start living toward more humane arrangements, where justice and peace embrace.” And such theological reflection is done in a context that is thoughtful, engaged, and generous—three words that call for much further reflection.

In summary, when people call for action, they need to think about words. Words are actions for human beings. “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” This is a lie. What we do is largely determined by the “worlds” within which we live and believe. These “worlds” are partly given to us and partly created by us. Things can be different but we have to help make them so, and our secret partner in all our actions are the assumptions within which we act. Richard is calling us to work as Christians with all others who imagine different, better “worlds” for all God’s creatures. I believe that is vision worth working toward.

— Sallie McFague