Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Words Mean Things I: Notes Toward A Medium Opus XI

Of all the things they teach in seminary, the most important is vocabulary. You can't understand what all those folks through two thousand years and more of Church history (if you take seriously the Jewish roots of the Christian faith, then our faith tradition extends far back in time from the life of Jesus) if you don't understand the words. Just as philosophy uses words in specific ways that are different from mundane usage, so, too theology appropriates words and phrases for particular purposes. The difference between philosophy and theology on this point is the vocabulary and grammar, the syntax and structure of theology are unique. It is difficult to take theological language and set it down, say, in botany or even existentialist philosophy and make oneself at home. How much sense would it make to start blabbing about the hypostatic union in a class on ornithology?

There's a reason for this. It is summed up in the title to this post: Words mean things. Meaning is important. If words could mean whatever we wish them to mean, like the walrus in Alice in Wonderland, we are nearing the realm of chaos. Meaning flows from language through our lives back to language again. Of all the things that irk me, the claim that we are in the realm of metaphor or symbol when we talk God-talk makes me want to scream. If this is the case, pretty much anything will suffice to make intelligible the ineffable experience of the communities called Christian. Why not borrow the poetry of Rilke or William Carlos Williams (OK, I really like Williams, and there are theological themes there . . .) instead of deploying theological language? If it's all symbolism, we can use the songs of the Gershwins if we wanted.

This is not to say that we have to use the same, tired, many would say quite dead language borrowed from the Greeks, the Latinate West, and the Germans. Are we compelled to speak Spanish or Francophone African to be clear about how we understand our experience of God today? I think it is vital that we, particularly we Christians living in North America, understand how limited our understanding of the faith is, hemmed in by the narrow concerns of our (mostly bourgeois) way of living and our history of dehumanizing others, defining "human" by similarity of skin color and cultural milieu, and understanding difference as dangerous, threatening error. All the same, we North American Christians need to demand the integrity of our own experience of the encounter we have with God, and its various expressions. In order to do this, we need to be clear that the words we deploy have meaning. For this reason, we must always always always choose our words with the utmost care. 

Dutch Thomist Josef Pieper has a tiny volume, the transcript of a lecture he gave, entitled Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power in which he argues for the meaningful integrity of language. It is in the manipulation of language that power demonstrates its contempt for the powerless. In demanding meaningful discourse from those in positions of authority, we are demanding a respect for the substance of communication. Falling back on "symbol" and "metaphor" allows for the manipulation, and eventual destruction of other human beings precisely because we become used to them no longer understood as human.

So, too, with theology. Even learning the vocabulary of theology isn't enough; it's a starting point for joining a conversation that has ranged over time and space and language and culture and even, in recent decades, gender. One has to be aware of the plurality of discourses as well as the specificity and substance of the meanings invoked by the use of various words if one wants to "do" theology right. Not that this is either onerous or exclusive; it is little more than acknowledging that theology is little different from chemistry or pottery; you can't do the work of making our experience and the understanding of that experience intelligible if you don't know how to talk about it in ways that others who share similar experiences can understand.

Theology, like vocabularies in general, are not up for grabs. They are points of contention, to be sure, the focus of conflict; this is only because they are the one source of meaning in human social life. Our world is not only unintelligible without discursive interchange; it is empty, a surd, a meaningless flux of images and experiences that, absent meaningful, linguistic expression, just is. Words make our world. They take our collective experience and give it form and substance. All this is to say that this lesson first came in discussions with those who, in my opinion preferring an easy out from making any commitment to the substance of theological language, decided it would be easier to say, "It's all metaphor, really." It isn't, and is an easy out from the heavy lifting of actually learning something. 

When we proclaim our faith, we are making a commitment to a meaningful, substantive discourse that, as I have said repeatedly, can be summed up, "Jesus is Lord." Just as Jesus himself said the whole of the Law and Prophets could be summed up in the commandments to love God and love our neighbors, so, too, can meaningful Christian discourse and faith be summed up in those three words. Because, as I repeat, words mean things.

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