Wisdom and the Insufficiency of “God-Talk”


There is something about the biblical God which enables a “secular” account of human life to be given.

• Colin E. Gunton
Quoted in Fretheim,
God and World in the OT

• • •

I absolutely love the quote above. When describing the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible, von Rad made a similar statement when he observed the language such literature uses: “experiences of community life are understood in a predominantly ‘secular’ way or, to be more precise . . . as a secular entity governed by Yahweh.”

In other words, the Bible’s wisdom literature gives the lie to the notion that religious people must fill their mouths with religious language all the time. “God-talk” is not the only way there is to speak about matters that are ultimately divine. It is also overly restrictive and insufficient to describe the actual world God made and the life humans experience in this world.

In God and World in the OT, Fretheim observes how scriptural wisdom teaching is universal. Israel’s wisdom teachers borrowed liberally from their Ancient Near Eastern neighbors and also phrased most of their own instructions in terms that evoke creation at large and not the specific redemptive covenant history of Israel. Wisdom herself speaks of God’s worldwide perspective in Proverbs 8:30-31 —

 I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
    rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world
    and delighting in the human race.

Furthermore, wisdom is presented, as the quote from von Rad above indicates, in secular terms. Fretheim comments:

God allows the creation to be itself, which includes both being and becoming. That is, creatures are able to be what they were created to be; at the same time, because the creation is not a fixed reality, creatures are in the process of becoming. In this complex and ongoing process, God honors the createdness of the creatures, while not removing the divine self from their lives.

All of life is sacred, but that does not mean we must talk about all of life in sacred, special language. We can talk about mathematics in mathematical terms, the sciences in scientific terms, history in terms of people and events in the context of natural human and societal processes, human relationships in terms of the actual physical, emotional, down to earth things we experience in life.

As people of faith, we are certainly free to talk about how we think God is involved in any matter — that is a legitimate topic of inquiry. And it is always appropriate to be thankful to God and cognizant of God’s presence. But we don’t have to automatically bring God-language into every conversation or consciously try to speak of God’s participation in every matter we discuss.

In fact, to do so is to act in a way that is contrary to the way God made the world. He has hidden himself, by and large, and left it to humans to discover this world and this life and give our own language to our experiences.

God gave us the Bible, you say. Isn’t that what it’s for? Well, despite what people claim about the Bible, it most certainly is not a textbook for understanding everything in creation and in our life experiences. And in those parts of the Bible where we are given such instruction (the wisdom literature), the language is predominantly universal and secular!

But just in case you don’t feel right about not fitting in with those who are truly “radical” in their faith, “on fire” for God, and “sold out” for Jesus, here’s a video that will load you up with proper spiritual language so you won’t feel so left out. I’m truly not sure what world this kind of speech was made for, but it’s not the one in which I live.

44 thoughts on “Wisdom and the Insufficiency of “God-Talk”

  1. It’s a hard thing to watch our loved ones, friends and relatives, suffer. You and your friend have my sympathy; I hope and pray that he/she recovers soon.


  2. “I think it was in vogue about a decade ago . . .”

    Thanks, numo. I wasn’t in vogue then, never have been, so I’ve missed a lot while poking around things to come. I’ve probably been described as a bit awkward myself.


  3. I understand your point, tho I myself don’t hear people using the word around me noticeably, never have. I do occasionally use it myself when appropriate and people seem to understand what I’m saying, don’t roll their eyes or look blank. If you aren’t going to let me use the word and aren’t going to provide a substitute, how am I going to express what is a meaningful part of my life and path of growth? I guess in calling on you for a word to substitute I am forcing you to think about what you are actually saying. I can’t think of a better word myself. Help me out here.

    I am currently listening to some solfeggio music and evaluating its effectiveness as a healing and meditative medium. It seems to me that if it actually works, it is going to use the process of resonance, spirit, soul, and body. Actual measurable and sensible resonance, not some metaphor or expression. How can I describe this to you without setting off your alarm system? Like I said, I rarely hear the word in conversation, haven’t noticed it in particular here. Maybe you need to hang out with different people.


  4. My quibble isn’t with the concepts or processes, but with the incessant, intractable use of the words themselves. In many conversations, no one can burp out loud without someone having it “resonate” with them. There needs to be a moratorium on some words so people are forced to think about what they’re actually saying.


  5. “God has given the world life to live….” This is so good, Robert F. And, I might add he has given us life to live as well.

    I was thinking this morning about my friend who has been in the hospital for months and asking God what purpose could be served by allowing this when it dawned on me that not everything is a cosmic lesson; sometimes the circumstances we find ourselves in are just the unfolding of our lives as the consequence of countless decisions and the brokeness of the world and God just allows it to play out while somehow always being there. I don’t want to confuse it with Deism but more like the father of an adult child–deeply interested and invested and always loving but allowing their children to live their own lives.

    Your thought addresses that nicely.


  6. The world, human and non-human, may at times be awe-inspiring; the world, at other times, may be ordinary. Either way, it exists in its own right, and God has freed it, by the very act of creating it, to be itself. And God has made himself small and invisible so that we do not have to always be tripping over him, thinking about him or speaking about him, as we move through the world, as we explore the world, or as we are oblivious to the it. God has given the world life to live, and it seems to please him to keep a low profile as the world unfolds in its freedom.


  7. I think it was in vogue about a decade ago, in general usage, as in “That resonates with me.” Always thought it was a bit awkward.


  8. Christiane, i wish there was no divide between secular and sacred. In reality, i don’t believe there is, but we persist in creating either/or paradigms, don’t we?


  9. Long time reader, first time commenter….I love this idea! This makes me think along the lines of what Augustine…was it him? Who said , “All truth is God’s truth”….something along those lines….


  10. I suppose there has been a certain amount of ‘Christianese’ since the days of the early Church. In Rome, when Christians were lion-food, it was not unusual for people to hesitate to reveal they were Christians around them what would happily toss them to the lions . . . soooo . . . they developed ‘signs’ and phrases whereby they could identify themselves as Christian to other Christians . . . the ‘fish’ symbol was one

    if I am not mistaken, today fundamentalist-evangelicals are terrified of ‘the culture’ and like to keep their own company and not ‘mix’ too much with the heathen outside world, hence all the ‘wife stays home’ and ‘homeschooling’ and the exclusive nature of their communities of faith . . . so out of this ‘fear’, would they not feel better if they hung out with them that talked the talk, so to speak (forgive the pun) . . . like ‘code’ words and phrases, not meant so much to convey meaning as to provide a sense of security of the safety of ‘tribe’ ?

    the ‘code’ is cult language, not ‘Christian-ese’, and we have all fallen into it from lack of discernment :), but I daresay we’ll get over it . . . good grief, a few more Josh Duggars and even the fundamentalists may get over it


  11. is possible we take for granted the ‘natural world’ as ‘secular’ when in fact it is something awe-inspiring if we saw it through fresh eyes . . . taking anything ‘for granted’ may be the most ‘secular’ thing we do


  12. I don’t see “resonate” as any kind of jargon at all, and that is what we are talking about here, jargon. I think you could easily demonstrate the process of resonance to third graders with tuning forks and maybe a guitar, and that they could easily make the jump to resonating personally to an idea or a color or a piece of music. It seems to me a basic human means of perception that most people are familiar with, but if the word has somehow become politically incorrect, what is its replacement? Personally, I find the word highly useful.


  13. Is “resonate” Christianese? I’ve always thought it was New Agey, or something of that sort.


  14. Peace, this is a serious question. I have long used a particular spiritual process of finding my way thru the morass of life that seems to have worked fairly well for me so far in my search for truth. Not 100% but a whole lot better than relying primarily on either intellectual or emotional tools, tho they can help. I can’t think of a better way of describing this than resonance or the lack thereof. Resonance I think of as a musical term tho obviously it has a basis in physics, and in any case is not particularly a spiritual term.

    Discernment, on the other hand, might be primarily a spiritual term. I wouldn’t use it to describe how I pick out or distinguish bad apples from good, but I would to describe separating promptings of my ego from promptings of my spirit for example. Both of these terms, resonance and discernment, work for me, but obviously would be offensive in conversation with you.

    So what would you suggest to call these two central spiritual processes in a serious conversation?


  15. Things exist in their own right, and call out to be considered apart from theological considerations. They give rise to a “secular” account not on the basis of any reading of the Bible, but as a result of their own inherent qualities.

    Do you approve? Will you put back your sword?


  16. Yes, “The Master’s” desire is to fill the universe with noise so that the sounds of heaven would be drowned out, so sayeth Screwtape.


  17. Well, as long as it doesn’t “resonate” with you, you won’t have to “discern” anything.


  18. I would hope everyone would recognize my above comment as satire. That being said, that language is prevalent in the Christian community of which I am a part and I at times lapse into it; being immersed in it it’s hard not to have it rub off. On the rare occasions that I do use “Christian speak” it seems so unnatural to me that I have often found myself wondering if I’m really a Christian at all. It’s so nice to be able to come to a place like this and escape the goofiness.


  19. And some of the noise blocking the Word to Resound is in Christianese.

    (Didn’t one of the Screwtape Letters wax lyrical about the Glory of Noise Noise Noise?)


  20. That video was hysterical. I actually know people who talk like that!

    So did I. (shudder shudder)


  21. Agree completely. Over the years, I have become highly allergic to Christianese, and that’s one of the shticks that really grated on me.

    I have only one word to describe watching that video:


  22. Facebook is a pretty toxic forum; almost nothing is taken lightly there. The negative bias of Facebook continuously astounds me.


  23. “the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible” “the Bible’s wisdom literature”

    Yes! Instantly understandable and reasonably definitive for the topic at hand. Thanks!


  24. I once posted that video, shoot Christians say, on my Facebook feed. I thought it was funny and an interesting look at how we Christians, a lot of us at least, talk to each other in our own language. I thought others might appreciate seeing how we might appear or sound to others. Wow, was I wrong. I only got comments reflecting confusion and offense. I took it down.


  25. That video was hysterical. I actually know people who talk like that! Might we call these the real “cultural Christians?”


  26. ” . . . Where shall the word be found, where will the word
    Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence . . . ”

    (T.S. Eliot)


  27. There is something about the biblical God which enables a “secular” account of human life to be given.

    There is something about human life and the world that invite a “secular” account of them to be given.


  28. I guess most people know the video is a take-off on the video, “Sh*t, Nietzsche says:”

    If not, and if you aren’t too offended by the blue language, this video above is quite a treat! You have to copy and paste it into your browser.


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