Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Another oldie but

This, too, comes from the Stamford Advocate, originally, an excellent paper for a great city...

Alice has already gone through the looking glass, when Humpty Dumpty says to her with an air of scorn, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.” Alice presses him, asking whether he really can make a word mean so many different things. Humpty rejoins, “The question is—which is to be master. That is all.”

Humpty’s rejoinder is frankly chilling. If Alice believes that it is possible through appropriate language to stand in a relation of equality to one’s fellows (by using the same words, for example, or by trusting another’s language, which is a way of saying that one trusts that one’s fellows tell the truth), Humpty essentially claims that language has no power but what one gives to it. In other words, words themselves are meaningful to the precise extent that I have power to impose myself (therefore my language) on others. My will and the force I can bring to bear in championing its direction, are the ultimate arbiters of meaning. This is “creation of values”, which is precisely Nietzschean nihilism in its National Socialist permutation.

Humpty Dumpty’s stance toward language is eerily similar to those among us who, however well-intentioned, insist that the language of religious faith be allowed the same autonomy that the human capacity for religious conviction requires.

Take the basic statement, “I am a Christian in my own way.” This may mean that the person making the claim has his or her very intimate understanding of what Christianity requires. If this is what the claimant means, then there is not necessarily any problem. There will be no problem, so long as the person making such a claim goes on to specify that he or she believes all of the things that all (or the vast majority) of those who have called themselves, “Christians” have believed in the two millennia that have passed since Christianity’s foundation.

The problem is that most people who say things like that actually mean something quite different. Usually, people who say such things mean that they believe some things that Christianity teaches and disbelieve others. There is nothing wrong with that, in itself. There is everything wrong with rejecting some central tenets of Christianity and calling oneself Christian.

Imagine the Mad Hatter saying, “I don’t think that you have to go to Church or believe in Christ’s physical resurrection, in order to be a Christian.” Alice might say, “Well, going to Church is what Christians do precisely because for nigh on two millennia to be Christian has been to hold in the physical resurrection of our Lord, who said, ‘Do this in memory of me.’ Disbelieving the physical resurrection of Jesus does not, on its own, make anyone a bad person. It only means that he is not a Christian, who does not believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus. So it seems that you are wrong.”

Things begin to go badly awry when Humpty encourages him to drop the qualification on the grounds that it is useless. Alice has her idea of what Christianity is, and so does the Hatter, and that is just fine with Humpty.

We tend not to recognize that religious language is language just like any other, because we have (for the most part, and fortunately) been taught that each of us is free to develop his or her relationship to God as he or she thinks fit. Recently, however, we have failed to see that groups of people who see fit to develop their relationship to God in very specific, historically established and traditionally grounded ways, have a right to a word for their communion (etymologically so); they have a duty to use their word properly, and to protect it.
Think about it this way: what would we think of a person who claims to be a Yankee fan, but always roots for the Red Socks and is only happy when the Yankees lose? Would we accept that he is a Yankee fan “in his own way”? That is what Humpty would do, and you all remember what happened to him.

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