Found in Translation

Found in Translation

January 11, 2015           Rev. Fiona Heath

As religions go, Unitarian Universalism is pretty young. While some form of our theological underpinnings has been around almost since Christianity began, as a formal religion we are less than 200 years old.

Christianity as we know it only truly began to come into being about 300 years after Jesus, as doctrine and rituals began to consolidate and be agreed upon.

So, young as we are, it isn’t entirely surprising that we struggle with theological language.

We are a new way of being in the world.

We are still sorting out how to name our particular and unique spiritual orientation.

We are an “open source” tradition – we have no sacred text.

We come from protestant Christianity and retain much of its forms, but our living theology is more closely related to taoism and neo-paganism.

As a community, we come from a variety of backgrounds, some from no religious tradition at all, some life long UUs, to those coming from immersion in other religions.

This makes it hard to find the common words to describe our own unique way of being in the world.  Words that work for one person – like worship – might cause a negative reaction in another person with a different history.

It takes some intentional work to find our way through the language, from agreeing on common words and accepting others we might not personally be so comfortable with.

Working out our common language can be frustrating.

Buttons get pushed, people get reactive, the conversation shuts down.

It can feel like there are many more important things to do –

Ending racism, fixing climate change, housing the homeless.

Arguing about god vs holy vs sacred vs the divine can feel self-indulgent.

But this is necessary work if we are to go forward.

We need to work out how to name this uniquely UU way of being in the world.

Language matters.

I grew up in the era of policemen and firemen and business men.

It was all about mankind and he was always the pronoun.

And it worked.

It didn’t really occur to me that women could join the police force.

Language reinforced a professional world of men and a domestic world of women.

Now, we live with police officers and firefighters and business people.

We talk about humanity and use various pronouns, including zie for transgendered people.

It makes a difference.  It opens us up to new understandings, new possibilities.

We live in a society of much greater gender equality than the one I grew up in.

More and more women are astronauts, leaders of nations and C.E.O.s.

Language shapes how we understand the world.

It contains and expresses our experiences.

We can’t fully understand an experience for which we have no words.

In the African language of Xhosa there is a term Ubuntu, which Reverend Desmond Tutu describes as “a person is a person through other persons. We are made for togetherness, to live in a delicate network of interdependence.”

Here in the West, we don’t have an equivalent term for the concept of Ubuntu.

We cherish individuality, the lone hero, and our laws and cultural norms reflect a society of individuals.

If we thought more about Ubuntu and less about individual choice, we would live differently. Language matters.

And we need spiritual language, language for that which is so difficult to express in words, for that sense of life between us and beyond us, of belonging to something beyond ourselves, that force of spirit that compels us higher and deeper, that power and energy that lies at the heart of all life.

We need words to form and shape our understanding of this great mystery.

We need words that help us speak to the dearest and deepest experiences of our lives.

And the words that work for you might not be the words that work for me.

And that is okay.

As we move towards our common language, through experiment and conversation, we can be open to those differences.

We also have the power to adapt words.

Language, after all, is ever evolving.

We might want to be like Humpty Dumpty.

In Alice in Wonderland, Humpty Dumpty is speaking with Alice and says

“There's glory for you!' “

Alice says “I don't know what you mean by "glory".

“Of course you don’t”, says Humpty Dumpty, “till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"'

'But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument",' Alice objected.

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said… 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'

'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master — that's all.'

 And many of us are Humpty Dumpty, very comfortable at taking a word and redefining it.

Some of us can hear God and can translate it into Spirit or Peace or That Which Holds All, whatever concept works for us.

For some of us, God can only refer to that big guy in the sky.

It can be difficult – even confusing - when a word is used in a way that is different to how we understand it. And some words have such a singular entrenched meaning that it may not be worth trying to redefine it. But, as UUs, part of our work together is to find our common language.

It is helpful to remember that words have multiple meanings.

Language is constantly evolving.

Meanings are worked out in the present, worked out in community.

Meanings arise from the consensus of the common.

Awful, for example, used to mean full of awe.

Now it means something negative or terrible.

Part of our task, as people of the chalice, here and now, is to work together to create our common language.

To consider the words we use to express our spirituality.

We do this so that in the years to come, we will be able to learn ever more clearly – experience ever more deeply - what it means to be Unitarian Universalists.


I spent a lot of my time at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, where I did my master’s of Divinity, translating Lutheran language into chalice speak.

My course notes have lots of margin scribbles as I tried to interpret sin, salvation, redemption, heaven, prayer and other terms with meanings I could use in a UU context.

I could translate the concept that God’s grace is for everyone into the inherent worth and dignity of all. The notion that Faith is tied to “good works” is really a call to justice, equity and compassion for all.

It became easier and easier to hear a Lutheran concept and rework it into a term that my head and my heart could accept. But the translation wasn`t always successful.

The internet is littered with examples of unfortunate translation attempts.

From the mystifying airport sign that says

“please wait outside rice-flour noodle”

To the jam that “tastes like grandma”.

The troublesome sign on the stairs that reminds us to “slip and fall carefully”.

Some turn into poetry, such as the sign on the lawn which says

“Do not disturb. Tiny grass is dreaming.”

Sometimes we just can’t translate the language.

The words just don’t work in our context.

They don’t tell the story we need to tell.

We don’t come from original sin, as UUs we accept that all children are blessings in the world. We don’t seek salvation, we don’t seek redemption.

UU Professor Sharon Welch says that our work is to be human, to learn how to be the perfectly imperfect combination of spirit and body.

We are not seeking a way off this world, waiting for a better life in heaven, but are working to be part of the reciprocal relations of this interdependent web of life.

We revel in the here and now, in living in the present.

We see the spiritual and the material as intertwined,

“everything is connected and the web is holy.”

We belong to the earth and celebrate the mystery.

Some of us have experiences of the presence of God, some of us don’t.

Our common ground is the sense that the earth, this planet, has intrinsic worth.

Canadian Unitarian Universalism is evolving into religion that focuses on harmony between nature, the self and society.

We have a different cosmology, a different sense of human nature than Christianity, than Judaism, Hinduism or Buddhism.

And so I am careful with the words I use, sometimes adapting religious terms freely just like Humpty Dumpty, other times finding new ones.

I use the word worship, for me it means giving worth to the world, to the universe, and one another. But if it means worshipping God to you, then it should.

I say we celebrate the mystery.

I use the term mystery because there is so much that is a mystery,

whether your religious approach is mystical or scientific.

We have barely begun knowing this infinite, dark matter filled,

ever expanding, Einstein curved universe we live in.

The term mystery acknowledges there is always room to learn. 

But I also hope mystery makes space for those whom God is a living and loving presence.   God, the Divine, is also a mysterious force.

I use the word blessing instead of prayer. 

I still associate prayer with praying to something or someone so the term just doesn’t work for me.  Some atheists have no problem with prayer but I prefer blessing, which seems more open and inviting.

I use reflection instead of sermon.  I use reflection because for me, it more accurately describes this jumble of words I serve up on Sunday. 

If I do this well, I am reflecting backthe external realities and the interior aspirations of this community.  I am reflecting on the issues and experiences and meanings that matter to us as a collective.   

I try to find words that can encompass both ardent atheists and dedicated theists.

I want words that include all of us, that describe our common ground, rather than block someone out.

That said, we all need to sort out our own vocabulary.

We all need to find the translations that work for us.

Words that work for me may not work for you.

We must make space for these differences and respect them.

We hold hands with those with different interpretations.

Part of our strength is our ability to embrace diversity.

Let us treat each other with respect and kindness as we seek the language with which to speak our common stories.

In the weeks to come I invite you to seriously consider what words you use to describe your spiritual understanding.

Do you use the term God?

What do you mean by God?

Do you pray?

What does worship mean to you?

I encourage you to think and reflect on what words work and don’t work for you.

I encourage you to share them with one another and with me.

Every Tuesday, I will be posting a theological reflection on a term on my blog, the empty  It will also show up on facebook.

I invite you to read and comment with your own reflections.

A language of reverence, a language of spirit, calls us out of our own small selves and into the larger whole. It tells a story of how humanity belongs to the earth, how we are part of a very great and grand and mysterious universe.

A UU language will tell stories of how we are all connected, how what we do matters, how we need to work together to care for one another and the planet, how a small group of people can change the world.

This chalice tradition tells stories of how the ordinary can be extraordinary if only we pay attention, if only we look and truly see the wonders of each moment of life.

May we find a way to tell these stories,

May we find a way to live these stories.

May it be so.


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