Lately, I have been thinking about how we write about things that have never really existed. As an English and Creative Writing major, a longtime poet and lover of stories, I know a little bit about language’s power to articulate that which we cannot see or touch. I often find my greatest solace in my ability to articulate that which brings me joy or annoyance or curiosity or despair. But can existent vocabulary ever sufficiently articulate an imagined future? And how can we make our writing, our articulations, accessible to everyone?
My time at Life Together has thrown the English language’s beauty, as well as its tendency to fall short, into sharp relief. My site placement, Episcopal City Mission, has been undergoing long-term strategizing, and as I was editing and commenting on one of the strategy documents I realized I have no idea what the term “right relationship” means. In this case, the document’s author used “right relationship” as a barometer to identify the existence of a more just, equitable world than ours.
“Right relationship” is a term I have heard in all varieties of Christian circles throughout my life, and yet, I probably couldn’t define it for you satisfactorily. What is right relationship? My gut definition is an equitable relationship with God, oneself, and fellow humans, but even this definition yields innumerable questions. I also wondered, who is going to feel left out by this specialized term? A priest who is consulting on our strategizing work responded to my question of definition, “We don’t know what right relationship is because we have never truly experienced it.”
I believe firmly that this is the work of prophets. Walter Brueggemann, an author and theologian, wrote: “Prophets are people who, because of their roots in the theological or tradition and because of some emancipatory experience in their own life, refuse to accept the definitions of reality that are imposed upon us by the socioeconomic political power structure.” It seems a necessary paradox that language provides both pathways and obstacles to collective imagination of a better world.
My hope is that we can figure out how to be prophets in this sense. If we can balance our languages’ capabilities and shortcomings, perhaps we are inching closer to the brighter world we use language to imagine.