The Taser's Edge


Relinquishing Power, Surrendering Language

In his Paradox: The Spiritual Path to Transformation, Bernard Tickerhoof devotes a good deal of time to the paradox of language.  While I’ve read plenty of the same ideas elsewhere, Tickerhoof does it much better than many theorists, because he is concerned with what the paradox of language can offer for human wholeness and transformation.

Concretely, he goes into the world of the word and concept of ‘surrender.’

While I have no vested interest in the word “surrender,” on the other hand I do have a great deal of interest in clarifying the experience that I am saying is the most fundamental experience we can have in the spiritual life.

He then moves on to explore other possible words for the same ‘fundamental experience’, weighing their various strengths and weaknesses (often in the form of assumptions borne by the hearer).  The list: abandonment, detachment or nonattachment, apatheia, kenosis, release, relinquishment, submission, and letting go.

It’s a beautiful exercise.  Tickerhoof is not content to say, “We must have this particular word” (the power play).  Nor does he argue that there are all kinds of words that mean the exact same thing and can simply be stuck in there (the chosen ignorance).  He makes clear that there is range of meaning among all these ‘synonyms.’  Then he goes even beyond that to say that after all the discussion he still wants to use ‘surrender’ to describe the experience in this book (as opposed to his self totally fading away).

For me personally, relinquishment really resonated, and I tried to bring it into my meditation this afternoon.

Now I’m thinking about what Tickerhoof did in that passage more broadly.  We are well aware today about how important our language is, especially in theology.  But I wonder if there is an evangelistic purpose to language which we miss when we fight so hard for a particular word.  Jesus’ message is hard enough without us adding to its hardness, so maybe we should be more willing to get imaginative with our language, for the sake of the hearer.

God as ‘Father’ is always the first example to come up.  Why can’t we, like Tickerhoof, try to hold onto whatever Jesus is holding onto by repeatedly referring to God as His Father, but let go of our hold on a particular word to describe that experience?  For some reason, for many ‘conservatives’, it is impossible to consider using a broad range of terms and at the same time not giving up on the one which they believe to be the best.  There’s a difficult both/and here–imagine what ‘Father’ really means, explore it for the sake of others for whom the idea and baggage of fatherly authority might be difficult (in the process finding out that maybe we didn’t know what Jesus was talking about either), but don’t feel like you have to reject it altogether for yourself.  Can we do all that?

This post would be really great if I could just list off a ton of ‘synonyms’ for Father half as good as the ones Tickerhoof offers for surrender, but that would take more thought than I have to give at 12:04am.  Here’s one, though, which the Bible uses: El Shaddai.  For comfort’s sake we like to translate it “Almighty God,” but a number of scholars think it might be something more like “Breasted One.”  Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Amy Grant.  (I swear that I haven’t always wanted to say that, but I’m glad for the opportunity.)

And so, maybe another name for Father is Mother.  That’s actually pretty easy to imagine, if you ask me, given a decently healthy set of parents.  Why do we feel so uncomfortable saying it, or adding it to our public worship, when we know how much rightness there is in it?  If we paid attention and were ready to learn as we called God Mother, we would learn better why we call God Father.

To bring it home and back to where we started (paradoxically?), a passage from St. Francis and the Foolishness of God quoted in Paradox. Read it as an invitation to give up the power claim on the language of Good News:

Relinquishment is much more than giving up material goods.  It means giving up prestige and privilege, learning to listen and accept criticism and learning how to use our power differently and ultimately to share our power.  At the very least, our task as the non-poor is to share the power available to us–our resources of wealth, education, influence, and access–with those who lack these things.  This is not charity or ‘noblesse oblige.’  It is a fundamental letting go to allow the very structures that benefit us to be transformed so they will no longer impede but will include and benefit others.

I love that final challenge, the belief that the powerful sharing what they have and choosing to let go of control might change things around here.  For me, it makes it clear that when we think of structural changes only in terms of who has money, we are missing a whole lot of structures of injustice.  An evangelism which not only welcomes and includes, showing us as individuals that we are loved, but which also actually transforms the structures of this world?  That’s what I’ve been looking for all along.