Dialogue and Language Makeovers, or, What Does “Died for Our Sins” Mean?

How do we know when our language needs a makeover?

One great thing about writing for the web is that it starts conversations with extraordinary people. Two months ago, Kathleen Turcic commented on an article I wrote for Huffpost Religion, and from there we had a most pleasant and stimulating email exchange.  In the process, she introduced me to her own venture, QuintessentialYou Design.

In a nutshell, Kathleen helps people live out their essential selves into their external circumstances, thus creating a life full of energy, passion, and purpose. While touring through her website, I was struck by how essentially spiritual and postmodern her language is. It’s not exactly light reading, but if you hang in there, I think you’ll find it expresses essential truths in words we’re all familiar with.

That got me thinking about the language of faith in general. How do we know when to keep using the time-honored words and phrases of millennia past, and when to update our language?

For instance: You may have noticed that I rarely use the word religion. Quite simply, it carries negative connotations for so many people that it can, I think, detract from my ability to connect with them. (The hordes of people who identify as “spiritual but not religious” serve as evidence to this point.) So I talk about faith, faith traditions, and spirituality, but I try to avoid the “R-word.”

Here’s why this matters. Most faith traditions have “good news” that cries out to be shared in, I would submit, respectful dialogue. Christianity, in particular, urges its followers to share the good news of Jesus. Yet these faith traditions, and their language, are at least two millennia old. Are we authentically sharing the good news in our postmodern world if postmodern people can’t understand our ancient language?

Wickedly controversial case in point: “God sent Jesus, his only Son, to die as a sacrifice for our sins.” To the ancient Jews, with their system of temple sacrifices and offerings, this faith statement probably made some sense; they at least had a point of reference from which to grapple with it. We postmoderns have no such point of reference. That’s why, to many people who are not Christians (and some who are), the statement makes God sound barbaric. What kind of God needs a sacrifice, let alone the sacrifice of his own offspring, to appease his anger?

Now, whether you take this statement literally or metaphorically, it does speak to the wild extravagance of God’s all-consuming love for humanity. But many people in our age can’t get past the seeming cruelty of the act itself. Do we need entirely new language, or perhaps a tweak of the old language, to make the same point? Can we change the language without changing the message?

I don’t know the answer, but I think this deserves discussion—not just on the “died for our sins” point, but on many others in many faith traditions. What do you think?

11 Responses to “Dialogue and Language Makeovers, or, What Does “Died for Our Sins” Mean?”

  • Kathleen says:

    John ~ Thank you for your mention of QuintessentialYou Design and my life’s passionate work. It is great that you focus on the language question. Language and its resonance to each individual’s being is critical to our creative process and often overlooked. It gives us access to the essential self emerging our external circumstances. This is not the language that we ‘think up’ or use automatically everyday but rather, language that is there, embedded in our being when we inquire and explore intentional questions that reveal our quintessential self.

    • admin says:

      Great points, Kathleen. They remind me of something I heard from a professional geographer: that nothing is as deeply embedded to, and specific in, a culture as its language.

  • Bobbie says:


    To add to Kathleen’s comments as a participant in her work, I would say that the resonance of the language in the QuintessentialYou Design process is the core of its success.

    The group with which I have worked has a keenly developed ear for the “perfect” word or phrase for self or each other, the resonance of which is palpable in the room.

    I think language evolves and in that evolution can lose some of its original intent or meaning. However, in our (group)conversations quite often the ancient meaning of a word is the very thing that resonates, even if the definition is askew to current understanding. So I wonder if what is required is a deeper understanding of language, postmodern,ancient or both.

  • Sylvia Metz says:

    John ~ I’ve been engaged in Kathleen’s work for some time and have continuously been fascinated with QuintessentialYou’s language — it is genius to me. Language has always been close to my soul, however, in beginning the central work of QYou – revealing your Blueprint – the resonance of words became fully apparent to me. I’ve come to realize words are energy; they emit vibrations… kinda like a tuning fork….and, when I feel that vibration, the rightness of that word or strings of words — I’ve gone beyond the word itself into the truest essence of what I am expressing. So…you may be onto something about updating words… particularly in the ‘R’ arena….. we need words that resonate with where we are now… in this age to better grasp the true essence of what Religion is trying to convey. What an interesting journey in language that would be. Many blessings to you …

  • Joann Yost says:

    John, you put into words what I am thinking but have not articulated when I stumble over the words “died for our sins” or “a sacrifice for our sins”, or the like. Do you know anyone who is or was a translator for the Wycliffe organization? They create translations of the Bible within the context of a myriad of cultures for whom a human or infant sacrifice is abhorrent. It takes a keen sensitivity to culture, to language, and to theology to get it right.

    • admin says:

      I don’t know any Wycliffe translators, Joann, but boy, their experience would be invaluable here. I’d love to hear their thoughts.

  • Pete says:

    Language is intrinsic to understanding.

    The communication of one’s own experience to another is transferred via many modalities of language, everything form a physical touch to voice to writen word etc. When one considers how we are often in conversation within our own heads is it not still the word we are listening to. And if we are “listening” is it not sound that we are hearing. I am not well versed on the subject, but I was told onece that an ancient language called Sanskrit uses a significantly larger alphabet thus encompassing many more sounds that our english alphabet does not, and as such is able to relate much more meaning in it’s use as a communication tool.

    If we have lost access to certain sounds, what have we lost in access to the communication of those sounds?

    Notice when you speak how your body vibrates in certain areas. Change your tone and volumn and the vibration within you shifts. Now take the words out of the equation and just listen to your environment. Notice the vibrations within your body as the environment changes will also shift. Music is a beautiful example of how vibtation affects our being.

    I am very familiar with Kathy’s work and have found it to be of profound influence on how I view, feel and live life. For me the conversation is all about getting present to one’s own language and how to interface it with our common agreed upon language out in the world.

    We all have our interpretations within, yet somehow out in the world interpretations get distorted. I believe we all have our own language within that resides in resonance and instead of trying to re-create our language to match what we are bombarded with externally, we could do well to turn it around and become familiar with our own language through a re-discovery. To feel my own meaning first and then to re-define and re-create the common language I use to interface out in the world gives me an opening to access my own potential that I can only describe as incredibly stimulating and profundly revealing.

    As I access a truer communication that comes from me, I am also experiencing a body presence and connection I can’t recall having before.

    John, as for “dying for our sins”; I do believe that the Christ Consciousness is the interface between the Absolute God, and us mortal men. Firstly the real meaning of the word “sin” is a “missing of the mark”. Secondly, the body that sinned was created through word, and thus vibrates at a certain frequency. So with that, to create the new body that hits the mark, we need to have the old body die. (Re-incarnation perhaps? ) Would it not make sense that Jesus as a man had to die, in order for Christ to live? Anyway, the new body will vibrate differently than the old body, and thus the listening will have changes as well as the speaking.

    And religion I feel is only an external attempt to give people an access to their internal Spirit. Focus unfortunately ended up as external as well. And all of this is about going IN.

    For the release of limiting vibrations and the getting present to the resonance of our true Selves and then communicating that to other, is it not the language we use significant to the whole experience?

    Sorry for my long winded-ness…I just love this conversation!!

    • admin says:

      Wow, Pete, so many interesting points. I love your idea of being present to our internal language and learning to interface it with the world.

      Your take on “dying for our sins” message is interesting too. I suspect that many traditionalists would see it differently–although, from the spectrum of responses I’m seeing (both here and elsewhere), I might be dead wrong about that.

  • J Morrison says:

    “Dying for our sins” is an extremely difficult concept to teach in Sunday School, let alone understand as an adult. Sadly, in a post-modern world we either get it or we don’t. Not only that, we tend to polarize ourselves and defend our understanding, or lack thereof, rather than being open to active listening and dialogue. Polarized, neither is good. One is a position of smugness, the other a position of fear.
    Languange and resonance are important. Take Oprah’s influence in helping people realize within themselves that “I am enough”. Before such a statement, imagine how many had sufferred from thinking “I am not good enough.” Many people, sharing the same good news to uplift the human spirit, in many different forms of languange, are needed so that each individual can find what resonates for them. John’s way of writing and presenting faith resonates with me because I am an Anglican/Episcopalian. Kathleen’s way of helping clients reconnect with their essence resonates with me because I am post-modern and her view breathes life into how I would like to see myself and the world. Oprah’s message resonates with me because realizing that I am enough connects me with the many who badly needed to such a message.
    Taking a literal view of the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus dying for our sins without examining the context from which it arose is limiting. And stopping at the phrase “dying for our sins” prevents us from getting to the best part of the story… so that we may LIVE. That I may live and be cpatured by the wonderful life-celebrating views of people like you John and Kathleen (and Oprah) has me thankful indeed.

    • admin says:

      What a great comment, Jerrie. I particularly like your observation that, because there are so many aspects of us, we need to seek out different sources of resonance for those different sides. It reinforces my belief in the need to draw wisdom from anywhere we can find it, regardless of the label attached to it. Thank you for your input.

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