Diction and the Divine

By Ilana Blattner

Ilana outside “Saint Paul’s Outside the Wall” in Rome, where his tomb is located.

The words we use matter. Whether they serve us in academia, day to day conversation, or theorize the nature of the divine, a writer’s choice in diction can make or break the potency of their testimony. Given the mysterious nature of God at the outset, arming ourselves with words fit to tackle the topic is the first step to giving something amorphous a bit more shape.

Beginning with scripture itself, scholars have long been faced with the challenge of defining Christian vocabulary. The words picked to tell the story of Jesus Christ and the Christian community matter. If written or translated poorly, the message of the text can be lost, and when the message is that of unconditional love, it cannot afford to be misinterpreted. Despite language being a creation of man used to communicate with other men, however, somehow words are able to be transfigured to praise God and convey his message throughout the world and across time.

I was first inspired to write about the importance of rhetoric by Saint Paul. Despite having past contentions with the man, I have come to admire him greatly. The way he writes about God is unparalleled, and his rhetoric continues to inspire my own. It seems fitting, then, that when looking for a bit of spiritual guidance (by which I close my eyes and open the bible to a random page) that I opened to 2 Corinthians 10:9. Paul writes, “I do not want to seem to be trying to frighten you with my letters. For some say, ‘His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.’ Such people should realize that what we are in our letters when we are absent, we will be in our actions when we are present.” Despite being a scrawny, bald man writing from afar, Paul was able to move people to faith through the power of his letters and testimony. I am someone who is much less eloquent in person, so I found this notion reassuring. My testimony is no less true simply by virtue of the fact that I am unable to speak of it off the cuff, just as Paul’s was as potent despite being a somewhat unassuming man. 

After rediscovering Paul, I fell in love with Saint Augustine of Hippo. The way he spoke about his conversion and struggles in faith throughout Confessions brought me to tears, and I have countless sticky notes on my mirror containing his words of wisdom. Augustine is another author who understands the power words can hold, so much so that he has a tendency to craft paragraphs up to a page in length. This makes it nearly impossible to select my favorite, but today I will go with the testimony of his baptism: “Those voices flooded my ears, and the truth was distilled into my heart until it overflowed in loving devotion; my tears ran down, and I was better for them.” With the way he writes, one can almost feel as though they are walking the path of conversion alongside him.

Being conscious of the divine implications embedded within words allows for people to characterize and commune with God. Only in the exercise of careful and precise diction may we even attempt to do so. To say something we do not mean is, at the very least, careless and confusing for other parties involved. At its most perilous, however, when the stakes ride on someone making a breakthrough in their spiritual life or not, we owe it to our neighbor, as well as to God, to be responsible in rhetoric. When one is clear and inspiring in their theological terminology, they open an avenue that allows other people greater access to God. Theologians now and in the future must keep this responsibility at the forefront, so “that the dialogue of love might flow as naturally as with a person one engages in conversation.” (Søren Kierkegaard) May we be clear in our discussions, so that we may be clear about God.