Biblical Teaching on the Use of Colorful and Harsh Language

In the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord warns of using uncivil and/or hateful words such as “Raqa” and “fool.” And yet the same Lord Jesus often used very strong language toward some of His opponents, sometimes calling them names such as vipers and hypocrites.

We live in a world that often insists on the use of gentle language and euphemisms. While doing so is not a bad thing, we also tend to manifest a kind of thin-skinned quality and a political correctness that is too fussy about many things, often taking personally what is not meant personally.

What is the overall teaching of Scripture when it comes to this sort of colorful language? Are there some limits and ground rules? Let’s take a look.

The word “civility” dates back to the mid-16th century and has an older meaning that referred to one who possessed the quality of having been schooled in the humanities. In academic settings, debate (at least historically) was governed by a tendency to be nuanced, careful, cautious, formal, and trained in rhetoric. Its rules often included referring to one’s opponents with honorary titles (Doctor, Professor, etc.) and euphemisms such as “my worthy opponent.” Hence as the word has entered into common usage, it has come to mean speech or behavior that is polite, courteous, gentle, and measured.

As one might guess, there are a lot of cultural variances in what is considered to be civil. And this insight is very important when we look at the biblical data on what constituted civil discourse. Frankly, the biblical world was far less dainty about discourse than we have become in 21st-century America. The Scriptures, including the New Testament, are filled with vigorous discourse. Jesus, for example, really mixes it up with His opponents—even calling them names. We shall see more of this in a moment. But the Scriptures also counsel charity and warn of unnecessarily angry speech. In the end, a balance of the scriptural witness to civility must be sought along with an appreciation of the cultural variables at work.

Let’s examine a few of the texts that counsel charity as well as a modern and American notion of civility:

    • Words from a wise man’s mouth are gracious, but a fool is consumed by his own lips (Eccl 10:12).
    • The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools (Eccles 9:17).
    • Anyone who says to his brother, “Raqa” is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell (Matt 5:22).
    • Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen (Eph 4:29).
    • Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged (Col 3:21).
    • With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be (James 3:9-10).
    • Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry (James 1:19).
    • Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt (Col 4:6).
    • Therefore encourage one another and build each other up (1 Thess 5:11).
    • But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips (Col 3:8).
    • Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification (Rom 14:19).
    • Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother (Gal 6:1).
    • Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort [the repentant sinner], so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow (2 Cor 2:7).

All these texts counsel a measured, charitable, and edifying discourse. Name-calling and hateful or unnecessary expressions of anger are out of place. And this is a strong biblical tradition, especially in the New Testament.

But there are also strong contrasts to this instruction evident in the Bible. And a lot of it comes from an unlikely source: Jesus. Paul too, who wrote many of the counsels above, often engages in strident denunciations of his opponents and even members of the early Church. Consider some of the passages below, first by Jesus, then by Paul and other Apostles:

    • Jesus said, “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good?” (Matthew 12:34)
    • And Jesus turned on them and said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are. “Woe to you, blind guides! … You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. … You hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. … And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers! “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?” (Matt 23 varia)
    • Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but he sent me. … You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. … He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God” (John 8:42-47).
    • Jesus said, Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Mark 7:6).
    • And Jesus answered them, O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long must I tolerate you? (Mark 9:19)
    • Jesus said to the disciples, “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matt 7:11)
    • Jesus said to the crowd, “I do not accept praise from men, but I know you. I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts” (Jn 5:41-42).
    • So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables (John 2:15).
    • Then Jesus replied, “Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!” (John 6:70)

Paul: O senseless Galatians, who hath bewitched you that you should not obey the truth … As for those circumcisers, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves! (Galatians 3, 5)

Paul against the false apostles: And I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve (2 Cor 11:11-14).

Paul on the Cretans: Even one of their own prophets has said, “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true. Therefore, rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith (Titus 1:12-13).

Peter against dissenters: Bold and arrogant, these men are not afraid to slander celestial beings…these men blaspheme in matters they do not understand. They are like brute beasts, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like beasts they too will perish. … They will be paid back with harm for the harm they have done. … They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their pleasures while they feast with you. With eyes full of adultery, they never stop sinning; they seduce the unstable; they are experts in greed—an accursed brood! … Of them the proverbs are true: “A dog returns to its vomit,” and, “A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud” (2 Peter 2, varia).

Jude against dissenters: These dreamers pollute their own bodies, reject authority and slander celestial beings….these men speak abusively against whatever they do not understand; and what things they do understand by instinct, like unreasoning animals—these are the very things that destroy them. Woe to them! They have taken the way of Cain; … These men are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm—shepherds who feed only themselves. They are clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted—twice dead. They are wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever. … These men are grumblers and fault finders; they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage (Jude 1:varia).

Now most of the passages above would violate modern norms about civil discourse. Are they sinful? They are God’s word! And yet they seem rather shocking to modern ears. Imagine getting into your time machine and going to hear Jesus denounce the crowds and calling them children of the devil. It really blows a 21st-century mind!

I want to suggest to you that these sorts of quotes go a long way toward illustrating the cultural dimension of what it means to be civil. The bottom line is that there is a great deal of variability in what people consider civil discourse. In some cultures there is a greater tolerance for anger. In New York and Boston, edgy comments and passionate interruptive debate are common. But in the upper-Midwest and parts of the Deep South, conversation is more gentle and reserved.

At the time of Jesus, angry discourse was apparently more “normal,” for as we see, Jesus Himself engages in a lot of it, even calling people names like “hypocrites,” “brood of vipers,” “liars,” and “wicked.” Yet the same Scriptures that record these facts about Jesus also teach that He never sinned. Hence at that time, the utterance of such terms was not considered sinful.

Careful, now—be careful here. I am not saying it is OK for us to talk like this because Jesus did. We do not live then; we live now; and in our culture such dialogue is almost never acceptable. There ARE cultural norms we have to respect to remain in the realm of Charity. Exactly how to define civility in every instance is not always clear. An old answer to these hard-to-define things is “I know it when I see it.” So perhaps it is more art than science to define civility. But clearly we tend to prefer gentler discourse in this day and age.

On the other hand, as already observed, we also tend to be a little thin-skinned and hyper-sensitive. And the paradoxical result of insisting on greater civility is that we are too easily “outraged” (one of the more overused words in English today). We take offense where none is intended and we presume that the mere act of disagreeing is somehow arrogant, intentionally hurtful, or even hateful. We seem so easily provoked and so quick to be offended. All of this escalates anger further, and charges of hate and intolerance are launched back and forth when there is merely sincere disagreement.

Balance – The Scriptures give us two balanced reminders. First, that we should speak the truth in love, and with compassion and understanding. But it also portrays to us a time when people had thicker skin and were less sensitive and anxious in the presence of disagreement. We can learn from both biblical traditions. The biblical formula seems to be “clarity” with “charity,” the truth with a balance of toughness and tenderness. An old saying comes to mind: “Say what you mean, mean what you say, but don’t say it mean.”

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Biblical Teaching on the Use of Colorful and Harsh Language

“Church-Speak” – Strange Things Church People Say

2.3.blogMany groups have a tendency to use words that make sense to their members but are unintelligible to outsiders. I have sometimes had to decode “Church-speak” for recent converts.

For example, one time I proudly announced, “RCIA classes will begin next week, so if you know anyone who is interested in attending please fill out an information card on the table just outside the sacristy door.” I thought I’d been perfectly clear, but then a new member approached me after Mass to inquire about the availability of classes to become Catholic and when they would begin. Wondering if she’d forgotten the announcement I reminded her what I had said about RCIA classes. She looked at me blankly. “Oh,” I said, “Let me explain what I mean by RCIA.” After I did so, I mentioned that she could pick up a flyer over by the sacristy door. Again I got a blank stare, followed by the question “What’s a sacristy?” Did I dare tell her that the classes would be held in the rectory?

I’ve had a similar reaction when announcing CCD classes. One angry parent called me to protest that she had been told by the DRE (more Church-speak) that her daughter could not make her First Holy Communion unless she started attending CCD. The mother, the non-Catholic wife of a less-than-practicing Catholic husband, had no idea what CCD meant and why it should be required in order for her daughter to receive Holy Communion. She had never connected the term CCD with Sunday school or any form of religious instruction.

Over my years as a priest I have become more and more aware that although I use what I would call ordinary terms of traditional Catholicism, given the poor catechesis (another Church word, meaning religious training, by the way) of so many, the meaning of what I am saying is lost. For example, I have discovered that some Catholics think that “mortal sin” refers only to killing someone. Even the expression “grave sin” is nebulous to many; they know it isn’t good, but aren’t really sure what it means. “Venial sin” is even less understood!

Other words such as covenant, matrimony, incarnation, transubstantiation, liturgy, oration, epistle, gospel, Collect, Sanctus, chalice, paten, alb, Holy Orders, theological, missal, Monsignor, and Eucharistic, while meaningful to many in the Church, are often only vaguely understood by others in the Church, not to mention the unchurched (is that another Church word?).

Once at daily Mass I was preaching based on a reading from the First Letter of John and was attempting to make the point that our faith is “incarnational.” I noticed vacant looks out in the pews. And so I asked the small group gathered that day if anyone knew what “incarnational” meant; no one did. I went on to explain that it meant that the Word of God had to become flesh in us; it had to become real in the way we live our lives. To me, the word “incarnational” captured the concept perfectly, but most of the people didn’t even really know for sure what “incarnation” meant, let alone “incarnational.”

Ah, Church-speak!

During my years in the seminary the art of Church-speak seemed to rise to new levels. I remember that many of my professors, while railing against the use of Latin in the liturgy, had a strange fascination with Greek-based terminology. Mass was out, Eucharist was in. “Going to mass” was out, “confecting the synaxis” was in. Canon was out, “anamnesis” and “anaphora” were in. Communion was out, koinonia was in. Mystagogia, catechumenate, mysterion, epikaia, protoevangelion, hapax legomenon, epiklesis, synderesis, eschatology, Parousia, and apakatastasis were all in. These are necessary words, I suppose, but surely opaque to most parishioners. Church-speak indeed, or should I say ekklesia-legomenon.

Ah, Church-speak! Here is an online list of many other Church words for your edification (and amusement): Church words defined

At any rate, I have learned to be a little more careful when speaking so as to avoid too much Church-speak, too many insider terms, too many older terms, without carefully explaining them. I think we can and should learn many of them, but we should not assume that most people know them.

The great and Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said that he discovered early on that he often got credit for being learned when in fact he was merely being obscure. And for any who knew him in his later years, especially through his television show, he was always very careful to explain Church teaching in a way that made it accessible to the masses. It’s good advice for all of us: a little less of the CCD and RCIA jargon and little more of the clear “religious instruction” can help others to decode our Church-speak.

I would not argue that we should “dumb down” our vocabulary, for indeed it is a precious patrimony in many cases. But we need to do more explaining rather than merely presuming that most people will know what some of our terms mean.

This video has a lot of gibberish in it, but it illustrates how we can sound at times if we’re not careful!

Here’s another funny one:

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: “Church-Speak” – Strange Things Church People Say

The Not-so-Nice Origins and Meanings of the Word “Nice”

Blog11-24Words can change meaning over time—sometimes dramatically. For example, “manufactured” originally meant “handmade” (manu (hand) + facere (make)). The word “decimate” used to mean “to reduce by a tenth” (decem = ten); now people usually use it mean “to wipe out completely.” The list of examples could go on and on. Yes, words do change meaning over time.

One word that has changed meaning dramatically over time is “nice.” Today it is an overused word that usually means pleasant, kind, or easygoing. In our culture there is often a standing admonition that we should be nice, as in “Stop fighting and be nice now!”

But the adjective “nice” once meant anything but nice in the modern sense. Rather, it was a derogatory word used to describe a person as something of a fool.

The word “nice” comes from the Latin nescius, meaning “ignorant, unaware” (ne (not) + scire (know)). The Old French word “nice” (12th century) also came from this Latin root and meant “careless, clumsy, weak, simple, foolish, or stupid.”

In the 13th century, “nice” meant “foolish, stupid, or senseless.” In the 14th century, the word started to morph into meaning “fussy, fastidious.” In the 15th century it meant “dainty, delicate.” In the 1500s it was used to mean “precise, careful.” By the 18th century it shifted to meaning “agreeable, delightful.” And by the 19th century it had acquired its current connotation of “kind and thoughtful.”

The word “nice” has certainly had a tortured history!

Given its older meaning of “ignorant, stupid, or foolish,” it is not surprising that the word “nice” is used only twice in the Douay-Rheims Bible, and in both cases pejoratively.

Today the word can have a meaning that is properly praiseworthy and is basically a synonym for “good.” For example, one might comment, “That was a nice distinction you made.” Or, observing a sporting event, one might say, “That was a nice move!”

However, I am also convinced that the word “nice” is beginning to return to its less noble meanings. This takes place when it is used in a reductionist manner that seeks to simplify the entire moral life to being “nice.” Here, nice is used in the sense of being pleasant and agreeable. To the modern world, in which “pseudo-tolerance” is one of the only “virtues” left, being nice is about the only commandment left. It seems that much will be forgiven a person just so long as he is “nice.” And little will be accepted from a person who is not thought of as “nice.”

I suppose niceness has its place, but being nice is too akin to being harmless, to being someone who introduces no tension and is most often agreeable. As such, a nice person is not so far away from being a pushover, one who is easily manipulated, silenced, and pressured into tacit approval. And thus “nice” begins to move backward into its older meanings: dainty, agreeable, weak, simple, and even further back into weak, simple, unaware, and ignorant.

The pressure to “be nice” easily translates into pressure to put a dumb grin on your face and pretend that things are great even when they’re not. And to the degree that we succumb to this pressure, we allow those who seek to shame us if we aren’t nice get to watch with glee as we walk around with s dumb grin. And they get to think of us, “What an ignorant fool. What a useful idiot.” And thus “nice” takes up its original meaning.

We follow a Lord who was anything but a harmless hippie, or a kind pushover. He introduced tension, was a sign of contradiction, and was opposed by many because he didn’t always say and do pleasant things. Not everything he said was “nice.” He often used strong words: hypocrites, brood of vipers, whitewashed tombs, murderers of the prophets, and evildoers. He warned of judgment and Hell. He spoke in parables about burning cities, doom, destruction, wailing and grinding of teeth, and of seeing enemies slain. These are not kind words, but they are loving words, because they seek to shock us unto conversion. They speak to us of our true state if we remain rebels. Jesus certainly didn’t end up nailed to cross by being nice in any sense of the word.

In the end, “nice” is a weird word. Its meaning has shifted so many times as to be practically without a stable meaning. Today it has further degraded and increasingly returned to its original meaning. Those who insist on the importance of being “nice” usually mean it for you, but not for themselves. They want to have you walk around with a silly grin on your face, being foolishly pleasant, while they laugh behind your back.

To be sure, being “nice” in its best modern sense has its place. We surely should not go around acting like a grouch all day. But just as being nice has its place, so does being insistent, bold, and uncompromising.

Can We Talk? A Brief List of Annoying Expressions and Verbal Fumbles

100213We all have certain phrases that annoy us; oddities creep into the language that invite comment or could use correction. To that end, I propose below a list of ten annoying and/or misused words and expressions.

Please accept this list in the humorous vein in which it is intended. I am playing the role of an irritated curmudgeon, but it’s just my shtick. Have some fun with me as I complain and then feel free to add to my list.

So, can we talk? He’s my list of annoyances.

1.  “With all due respect …” This phrase is typically followed by something that isn’t going to respect the recipient at all! When you open an e-mail and it begins, “With all due respect, Mr. Jones, …,” don’t you just wince at what you just know is coming? In a way, the expression is a form of lip service. It’s a way of saying, “I want to dispense with that silly tradition of having to accord you a modicum of respect and get on to what’s really on my mind, namely, that you’re wrong and probably clueless as well.”

2.  Decimate Today the word has come to mean “to destroy completely.” For example, “Our culture has been decimated by no-fault divorce.” The original meaning, to reduce something by a tenth, has been relegated to a secondary definition in many dictionaries. The word came from the Roman practice in which, after conquering a town that was guilty of some sort of uprising, the Romans would line up all the men of that town in the public square, and kill every tenth one. In effect, the message was, “This is what you get if you mess with us. It’ll be worse next time.” Alas, trying to recover the original meaning of this word may be a lost cause at this point. It may be destined to go the way of other Latin-based words such as “manufacture,” the literal meaning of which is handmade (manu = hand, facere = to make). Today something referred to as manufactured is typically not handmade. There are other English words that seem to have reversed meanings. For example, we drive on parkways and park on driveways.

3.  ServiceThere is a tendency today to take the noun “service” and turn it into a verb. It is common to hear someone say, “We service our clients.” or, “We serviced fifty people last month.” No! People are served, not serviced. Perhaps you may speak of a car as being serviced, but people are served. It’s hard to know where this manner of speaking came from, but I suspect it crept in from the world of prostitution, where prostitutes often speak of “servicing” their “Johns” (i.e. clients). We do not service people, we serve them; people are not serviced they are served.

4.  Not unlike This strange expression, in a way, cancels itself out as a double negative. For example, someone may say, “This car is not unlike that one.” If you put a few of those sorts of expressions into a sentence, trying to figure out exactly what the sentence means can make your head explode. In fact, it strains the meaning of the word “sentence,” which refers to a string of words that makes sense. Unless the person misspoke, this seems to just be a fancy way of saying, “This car is like that one.” Try to avoid making heads explode by not using the expression, “not unlike.”

5.  Proactive – This is another strange word that has crept into our vocabulary. How is “proactive” different from active? One might argue that there’s a temporal dimension here: one who is “proactive” is one who is ahead of his time. To be honest, I’m not sure what is meant when someone is called “a proactive person.” I think it is a compliment, in that the person is “ahead of the curve” or something, but it’s just not all that clear to me — but maybe I’m just being reactive.

6.  Utilize Why not just say “use”? This oddity seems to be waning in usage, and not a moment too soon as far as I’m concerned. I live for the day when we no longer use “utilize” things.

7.  Intellectually dishonest How is being “intellectually dishonest” different from being just plain dishonest? Is not honesty or dishonesty rooted in the intellect and manifested in speech? I’ve never heard other qualifiers attached; I haven’t heard of physical dishonesty or verbal dishonesty. “You’re being intellectually dishonest” seems to me to be just a highfalutin’ way of saying “You’re being dishonest.”

8.  Dialogue Why not just say “discussion”? Instead of saying, “I’m having a dialogue with him,” why not just say, “I’m having a discussion with him”? An even more egregious abuse of this word is to “verbify” it: “Let’s dialogue about this problem.” Why not just say, “Let’s discuss this problem?” Even worse is “We’re dialoguing about this issue” instead of “We’re discussing this issue.” Turning nouns into verbs or verb forms generally produces strange results. To quote a classic line from Calvin and Hobbes, “Your verbing is weirding me out.” So, let’s talk; let’s have a discussion, but let’s limit our usage of the noun “dialogue” and certainly avoid using it as a verb or using the strange construction “dialoguing.”

9.  Using “so” as an interjection I have seen this most often in academic settings. Typically, the word “so” tends to be placed at the beginning of the answer to a question. For example, “What do the data show in relation to this problem?” The response might be, “So … the data seem to indicate that things are going to get worse.” (People sometimes use an interjection as a delaying tactic while feverishly formulating an answer in their head, but that’s not the usage to which I’m objecting.) In this case, though, I’m suspicious that it is emblematic of the relativistic climate that pervades today’s academic settings. The interjection “So …,” expressed gently and slowly, seems rather more designed to make the person seem thoughtful and somehow not arrogantly certain of what he is about to say. So … I don’t want to come off is too nasty, but would you please stop saying “so” all the time?

10.  “Are you suggesting …?” This is a preamble to a question and is often used by members of the mainstream media to indicate incredulity at an outlandish statement or position. A reporter writing a piece on the Catholic Church might ask me, “Are you suggesting that people who don’t follow the teachings of the Church are in error?” There’s a part of me that wants to answer, “I’m not suggesting anything; I’m saying it outright!” Here, too, the relativistic climate rears its head. People don’t say things or claim things; they “suggest” them. Let me be clear: as one not heavily influenced by relativism, I can say that when I am asked a question, I state an answer. I do not “suggest” an answer—and neither should you, at least when it comes to faith or morals. Do not suggest the faith, say it. Say what you mean and mean what you say, but don’t say it mean.

OK, can we talk? This is my short list; what do you want to add?

Toward a proper and richer understanding of the word “Relevant.”

120513-Pope copyOne of the recurring words of modern times is the word “relevance” and it’s related form “relevant.” There is great insistence today that whatever is said, taught, or presented should be relevant. Often what this means is that it should be applicable, reasonable, understandable, easily grasped etc.

But there is also a more problematic temporal dimension often added to the concept, so that in this sense, relevance has to do with being in agreement with, or in step with modern times, with the thinking leanings, customs and mores of people today, here and now.

And not only are our ideas, teachings, and views expected to be relevant, so are our institutions, such as the Church. Widespread and often are the demands that the Church should be relevant; that her teachings, structure, methods and views should be up-to-date, and also speak to current issues in peoples lives.

With proper distinctions, relevance does have its place and is important. It is important for the Church to speak to issues which currently engage or beset people. An extended sermon on a Levitical text that explains how animals should be properly slaughtered during the Temple sacrifice might be properly critiqued as being largely irrelevant to the average Christian today. On the other hand, we moderns often face issues unknown to the ancients, such as the morality of in vitro fertilization etc.

Therefore there are necessary adjustments regarding culture and time that the church must make, and people legitimately demand.

However, as with many concepts that are in themselves good and proper, the demands for relevance are often taken too far, and become too strident. What many today mean when they demand at the Church be relevant is at the Church merely reflect the culture around her, that she be more of a thermometer recording the temperature, rather than a thermostat seeking to set the temperature. For many, relevance means that the Church should reflect the views of her members, rather than the views of her founder and Head, Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, and whose Word endures forever. Relevance to many also means that the Church should cast aside a large number of her most basic teachings and practices.

Thus there is a lot of tension around the words relevant and relevance. It is necessary to discern authentic concerns for relevance, and at the same time screen out inauthentic demands regarding it.

Part of the problem in determining the proper degree of relevance is that the word itself is often misunderstood and misused today. In a certain sense, many use the word to mean exactly the opposite of what it originally meant from its Latin roots.

The Latin etymology of relevant and relevance is re (= again) + levare (= to lift). Hence, the word means, most literally, “to lift up something once again.” And since “re” can mean a repetitive action, it can also mean “to lift up something again and again.”

The impression of the word is that something has either been dropped or somehow cast aside, and that someone reaches down and picks it up again. It is as though something which was dropped, or had fallen away, or fallen into disuse, is then picked up and presented anew, presented freshly. You could even theoretically apply it to something that was cast aside as “old-fashioned,” or out of date, that is taken up again, that is presented anew.

Thus, in a way, relevance, in its Latin roots actually mean something rather opposite of what people often mean today. Rather than referring to something that ought to be dropped as old fashioned or displeasing, it speaks of something that should be picked up!

Now all of this examination of the Latin roots suggests a possible way forward in capturing the word “relevant” and using it today with proper balance.

On the one hand the “re” in the word demands that while the Church must ever lift up  our unchanging truths, we cannot simply rehash ideas in the same way. The idea or truth is still  valid, but the way we express it may need adapting, may need RE-presenting. Obviously as the Church encounters new languages, translations need to be made. As cultures change, or situations and circumstances alter, some of the analogies and images used to express undying truth may need adjustment. So the Latin word captures the notion, that things sometimes do fall away or drop, and they need to be picked up again, and freshly RE-presented, that is, presented in new and fresh ways.

On the other hand the “levare” of Latin root also shows that if something significant has been dropped, it is important to pick it up again. For certain things cannot be allowed to drop or fall away, they must be picked up again and again.

And thus, despite demands that we let some of our teachings drop or that we make them go away, “relevance” and “relevant” in their Latin roots say just the opposite. To be “relevant” we must re+levare, we must insist on picking them up again and again, presenting them newly and freshly, but still lift them up. Even if the culture is dubious and hostile, we must continue to present, to re-present, to lift up again and again the truths that God has given us, which can never die.

And in this sense, to a world that demands we be relevant, we can say amen! We must pick up again and again the perennial truths which God is given us, but we must also accept the challenge to present them freshly and with the seal in a manner that is understandable, even infectious to our listeners.

Relevance anyone?

Words Fall Short: A meditation on the limits of human language and thought

By Antonio Litterio,  Licensed under  CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
By Antonio Litterio, Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

It happens, quite often, that our strengths are very closely related to our struggles.  And one of our strengths, clearly, is our capacity to speak and to write, to use words to symbolize reality, and thereby convey thoughts. So also our ability to think, to abstract and conceptualize, and interpret reality. I of course am a great believer in the magnificent thing we call speech, for I write every day, and I preach every day and like to consider myself a reasonably thoughtful person. .

To speak and to write, such a magnificent mysterious capacity within our soul. Somehow with our senses, and our mind we are able to grasp the physical realities, people places and things, as well as metaphysical realities such as justice, love , nature, and purpose. And we are also able to think and to abstract. There is not just nature, there is what is “natural,” there are not just trees, there is “tree-ness”, there are not just humans, there’s something called humanness. Yes, such a miracle, thought, language, speech, and writing. By it we communicate facts, ideas, feelings, longings, and yearnings.

Yet our language and even out thoughts have a fatal flaw that introduces a great human struggle. For “words” and thoughts, by their nature, reduce complex realities to a simple sounds (i.e. words), and concepts (i.e. thoughts). Words are little more than a grunt, a mere sound. And words in written form are the mere combination of letters we call a word. But words and even thoughts are not the reality we describe, they are merely a symbol pointing to that reality.

To say the word “tree,” neither produces the reality of a tree, nor fully describes it. The word “tree” can only summarize the whole range of realities and ideas such as: wood, roots, leaves, photosynthesis, strength,  shade, green, autumn colors, things made of wood, paper, furniture, and on and on. What a tree is, potentially or actually, cannot be reduced to a mere sound.

If  this simple word, “tree,” referring to a relatively simple reality is inadequate, how much more so far more complex realities such as the human person, justice, love, poetry, and above all else, God.

Yes, words are wonderful things, a kind of shorthand. But words can also get in the way, especially when we think that because we have named something, we have fully described or comprehended it. Not so, reality is always richer than the words or thoughts that we “reduce” it to. It is perhaps necessary for us to do this sort of reduction in order to manage, and not be overwhelmed,  but, again reality is always richer than the thoughts or words we reduce it to.

In this sense, there is an old saying which goes “Don’t think, look!” In other words, we tend to rush to analysis, rather than to savor reality. And while analysis is ultimately essential, we ought to try to experience reality as fully as we can, before we “reduce” it by analyzing it, before reducing it to thoughts and words.

Another related saying is, “Don’t just do something, stand there!” For too often we rush to respond to reality, rather then to experience and savor it. Reality is always richer in our analysis in our thoughts or words about it. And without experiencing it as fully as possible, reactions are often mistaken, or off the mark.

In a noisy age, it is important to rediscover the need to slow down and experience reality, and also the need for silent contemplation before quick analysis and the “necessary evil” of reducing reality to words and concepts.

There’s yet another old saying, likely from the far East, which says, “Those who know do not say, those who say do not know.” That is, words for fall short of the reality of what is known, and the wise person grasps this.

One of the Eastern fathers, when asked to explain this saying to his disciples said, “How many know the smell of a rose?” And all of his disciples raised their hands. But when he said to them, “Put it into words” everyone remained silent.

There is a humility and recognizing the limits of words. Some things cannot be reduced to words at all, other things only partially. The wise and humble person appreciates this. St. Augustine, when asked about Grace said, “If you ask me I don’t know, if you don’t ask me, I know.” In other words, this is a truth best appreciated, and savored, apart from words.

Silent contemplation of the very deep mysteries of God is a more proper disposition than many words. And while words are eventually necessary, the silence between the words when we speak of God, are probably more instructive than the words themselves.

St. Thomas said in the prologue to question three in part one of the Summa:Now, because we cannot know what it God  is, but rather what he is not, we have no means for considering how God is, but rather how he is not” (Prima pars, q. 3, prologue).  Since God is hidden, and we could never even come close to comprehending Him. His essence is therefore beyond anything we can describe with words. Words and analogies about God fall so far short, as to be more unlike him than they are like him. And thus we are reduced more to describing what God is not, than what he is.

And even when we say what he is, we really have little idea of what we are talking about.  God is not just wise or like some wise man, He is wisdom itself.  God is not just good or like some good person, He is goodness itself. He does not exist like we exist, He is not just some other object in the universe, he is existence itself. And while we are using these words, we do not really fathom what they really or fully mean. To some extent we know what it means to exist, but we do not know existence itself. We know good things, and good people, but we do not know goodness itself. These realities are too rich to be reduced to a manageable concept. or mere word.

St. Thomas Aquinas also said in his commentary on Boethius’ De Sancta Trinitate that while we can know God through His creation, and in God’s actions through history, the highest form of the knowledge of God is to know God as the Unknown (tamquam Ignotum).   That is, to have the wisdom and humility to say that the highest form of talking about the Holy Trinity is to know that one does not know, that one does not comprehend or grasp the essence about that which we speak. We can say what God is not, but we cannot say comprehensively what He is, in essence.

Now this is humility. It does not mean that we know nothing, but it does mean that we must approach God with humility, realizing that we know very little. And what we do know is more by negation, than by positively grasping that of which we speak.

Yet because we frequently are not humble, because we forget that what we know is very limited, because we forget that our words reduce even natural concepts to simplistic signs called words, and thoughts…because we forget all of this, we often get into hideous and prideful arguments.

An old saying goes, “The wise man may point to the moon, but the fool sees only the finger.” That is, words are like the finger, our thoughts are also like the finger, but our thoughts and our words are not the reality, they only point to the reality.

But instead of seeking the reality, we debate about the words, about the reduction that we call  thought. Surely this is unavoidable in an absolute sense, but if we can humbly realize that our words and concepts are not the reality, but only that which points to the reality, perhaps in this humility, arguments about “the finger” (to use our analogy) will become less destructive and hateful.

It is true, some words, and ideas are simply wrong, are not in conformity with the truth, and are quite out of touch with reality or revelation.  In such cases, we must critique, debunk, and demonstrate the error of such notions.

But in so many other cases, we end up debating things that we ought not to debate.  And we do so, not because the words that are spoken by others are untrue, but simply because they are not precisely the words we would use, or the formula that we prefer. Someone may speak poetically, but we  prefer science, and so we scoff. Someone speaks in terms of Carmelite spirituality, but we prefer Ignatian, so we scoff. Someone encounters God charismatically  but another, more traditionally. And out come the long knives.

How foolish. God and the life he offers is so much richer than our words, concepts, and thoughts. Of course there will be legitimate diversity, there has to be. The Church, in Her Scripture and Tradition certainly sets up guardrails, beyond on which we shall not go. But within the guard rails is a road with different lanes, different traditions, both intellectual and spiritual.

Perhaps an old story I heard once on retreat will help. It is about two blind men. Each of them went separately to a man who could see and asked, “What is this thing called Green?”  But of course. how does one describe the color green to a man who is never seen? All one can do is use analogy. So the man who could see, said to the first man, “The color green is like soothing and soft music.”  To the other man who came to him later, he said, “The color green is like the smell of cool mint.”  Both men went away reasonably content. Of course, neither of them had really experienced the color green, but had only heard an analogy of it. But when the two blind men got together they were heard to be screaming at one another, and even threatening violence as the one shouted, “Green is like cool mint!!” and the other said, “No! is is like soft music!”

Of course those of us who know the color green, know that it is a far richer concept than either cool mint or soft music.  We easily laugh at the the blind men debating which analogy was the correct one. Neither analogy was correct, nor incorrect, they’re just analogies, describing some aspect of “Green”, but not even close to the whole meaning. So we laugh. To use the previous analogy, the blind men were “seeing” only the finger, and missing the moon to which it points. Green is not cool mint or soft music, it is only like them in some distant way. In fact, green is more unlike cool mint than like it, more unlike soft music than like it.

But though we laugh at the blind men, we are so much like them in so many ways. We think we see so well, but much of reality is hidden to us. So many of the words and concepts on which we insist are but reductive analogies of a far richer reality. And while we may find certain approaches, certain words, certain traditions, certain analogies, to be more helpful than others, the reality to which these things point is so much richer than any reductive word, thought or analogy of them.

It is too easy, even in matters which the Church grants us freedom, to be like the two blind men savaging each other and threatening violence over whose analogies are the best. And yet, neither analogy is even close to the actual reality. More unlike it and like it!

Perhaps it is best to end were we began: Our strengths are often our struggles. Our capacity for language, for words, for signs, analogies, and all sorts of intellectual concepts, is a remarkable and magnificent capacity. But too easily our strength also becomes our struggle because we forget that our signs, words, analogies and intellectual concepts are not the reality they describe, but merely point to the reality, a reality that is far richer the words or concepts.

Only humility can help us, so that our strengths do not turn to become the very thing over which we struggle!

The LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him. (Habakkuk 2:20)

God Loves you. He even likes you!

God Never Forgets

082913Every now and then we need to be reminded that God really loves us. Some of us struggle with this notion especially when we have sinned or experienced a shortcoming.

Recently the readings at Mass have had the heavy theme of warning us about death, judgment, heaven and hell. But of course these warnings are given by a God who loves us and wants to save us.

Whatever the reason that perhaps at times we don’t feel very lovable, consider this:

  1. Before you were ever formed in you mother’s womb God knew you and loved you (Jer. 1:4)
  2. God knit you together in your mother’s womb (Ps 139:13)
  3. You are fearfully wonderfully made (Ps 139:14)
  4. Every one of your days and deeds were written in God’s book before one of them ever came to be. (Ps. 139:16)

So God knew you and planned for you. You cannot earn his love you already have it. In fact you had it before you were born, before you had done anything. As for your sins God knew all about them too.

Sin does not cancel God’s love but it does limit and ultimately sever our acceptance of that love. “Ah but what about Hell?” you might say. Yes as we have seen recently, a great tragedy, but do you suppose that God’s love does not extend there also? After all God does not destroy the souls in hell. He still sustains and provides for them. He loves them still. It is they who do not love him or His kingdom and he will not force it on them. But at least consider this fact that God does not annihilate them. I once had a reader write and tell me that God was cruel for not killing the souls in hell and putting them out of their misery. But their objection points to two common oddities of the modern era:

1.  That death is therapy, or escape. It is an odd modern notion, rooted in our obsession with comfort I suspect, that to not exist is preferable that existing. Yet, the desire to survive is common to all living things, except it would seem, certain post-modern men.

2. A second modern confusion is that the freedom to choose ought to be free of any real responsibilities or results. This immature conclusion is common to teenagers, but not to adults who ought to accept that the freedom to choose brings both responsibility and consequences that we ought to accept if we want to claim to be free and mature.

And thus, whatever objections we want to raise about God’s love, they are more about us and our distorted notions of love, than about God.

So face it God loves you, he even likes you. He does not love you because you deserve it. He loves you for “no good reason.” His love cannot be explained in any human terms. He loves you simply because he does, because he is Love. If you have never experienced this love, get on your knees and ask for this necessary gift.

Maybe these videos will help. The first one is a beautiful musical reflection by Don Francisco “I’ll Never Let Go of Your Hand” (available at iTunes). The Second one I have posted before about a young firefighter who powerfully experiences the unmerited love that God has for him.

Don’t Just Solve Mysteries. Live them. A Meditation on the Christian Meaning of Mystery

082613In our modern culture we tend to use the word “mystery” differently than the Christian antiquity to which the Church is heir. We have discussed this notion on this blog before. In this brief post I’d like to review that, and add a new insight I heard recently from Fr. Francis Martin.

As we have noted before, our modern culture tends to think of a mystery as something to be solved, and the failure to resolve it is considered a negative outcome. So, in the typical mystery novel some event, usually a crime, takes place, and it is the job of our hero to uncover cause of the problem, or the perpetrator of the crime. If he does not, he is a failure. And frankly, if word got out that, in a certain mystery movie, the mystery was not solved, there would be poor reviews and low attendance. Imagine in the series “House MD” if Dr. House routinely failed to “solve” the medical mystery. Ratings would drop rather fast.

But in the ancient Christian tradition, mystery is something to be accepted and even appreciated. Further, the attempt to solve many of the mysteries in the Christian tradition would be disrespectful, and prideful too.

Why is this so?

One reason is that the Christian understanding of mystery is slightly different that the worldly one. For the world, a mystery is something, currently hidden, that must be found and brought to light. The Christian understanding of mystery is something that is is revealed, but much of which lies hidden.

Further, in the Christian view, some, even most, of what lies hid, ought to be respected as hidden, and appreciated rather than solved. We can surely seek to gain insight into what is hidden, and mystery does reveal the depths of things and events. But, respectfully, we dare not say we have wholly resolved or fully comprehended everyone or everything. For, even when we think we know everything, there are still greater depths beyond our sight. Thus mystery is to be appreciated and accepted rather than solved.

Perhaps an example will help. Consider your very self. You are a mystery. There is much about you that you and others know. Your physical appearance is surely revealed. There are also aspects of you personality that you and others know. But, that said, there is much more about you that others do not see. Even many aspects of your physicality lie hid. No one sees your inner organs for example. And regarding your inner life, your thoughts, memories, drives, and so forth, much of this too lies hid. Some of these things are hidden even from you. Do you really know and fully grasp every drive within you? can you really explain every aspect yourself? No, of course not. Much of you is mysterious even to you.

Now, part of the respect that I owe you is to reverence the mystery of who you are. I cannot really say, “I have you figured out.” For that fails to respect that there are deep mysteries about you caught up in the very designs of God. To reduce you to something explainable merely by words is both disrespectful to you and prideful unto myself. I may gain insights into your personality, and you into mine, but we can never say we have one another figured out.

Hence, mystery is to be both respected and even appreciated. There is something delightfully mysterious, even quirky, about every human person. At some level we ought to grow in an appreciation that every person we know has an inner dimension, partially known to us but much of which is hidden and gives each person a dignity and a mystique.

Another example of mystery is the Sacraments. Indeed, the Eastern Church calls them the “Mysteries.” They are mysteries because, while something is seen, much more is unseen, but very real. When a child is baptized, our earthly eyes see water poured and a kind of washing taking place. But much more, very real, lies hidden. For, in that moment the Child dies to his old life and rises to a new one, with all his sins forgiven. He becomes, in that moment, a member of the Body of Christ, he inherits the Kingdom, and becomes the Temple of the Holy Spirit. Spiritually dead, he is now alive, and the recipient of all of God’s graces. These things lie hidden from our early eyes, by they do in fact take place. We know this by faith. Thus there is a hidden, a mysterious dimension to what we see. What we physically see is not all there is, by a long shot. The mystery speaks to the interior dimension which, though hidden from physical sight, is very real.

So mystery in the Christian understanding is not something to get to the bottom of. Rather, mysteries are something to appreciate, something to reverence, something to humbly accept as real. Aspects of them are revealed to us, but much more is hidden.

That said, we are not remain wholly ignorant of the deeper dimensions of things either. As we journey with God, one of the gifts to be sought is that we penetrate deeper into the mysteries of who we are, who God is, the mystery of one another, the mystery of creation, Sacraments and Holy Scripture. As we grow spiritually, we gain insights into these mysteries, to be sure. But we can never say we have fully exhausted their meaning or “solved” them. There remain ever deeper meanings that we should reverence.

In the video that follows, Fr. Francis Martin develops how mystery is the interior dimension of something. In other words, what our eyes see, or other senses perceive does not exhaust the meaning of most things, there are deeper dimensions that to some extent can be seen, and appreciated, but also respected as not fully seen or comprehended.

Fr. Martin gives the example of a man, Smith, who walks across the room and cordially greets Jones with a warm handshake. Jones smiles and reciprocates. OK fine, two men shaking hands, so what? But what if I tell that Smith and Jones have been enemies for years? Ah! That is significant. So the handshake has an inner dimension that, knowing it, helps us to appreciate the deeper reality of that particular handshake. To the average observer, this inner dimension lay hidden. But once we begin to have more of the mystery reveled to us, we appreciate more than the surface. But we cannot say, “Ah I have fully grasped this!” For, even here, we have grasped only some of the mystery of mercy, reconciliation, grace, and the inner lives of these two men. For mystery has a majesty all its own and we reverence it best by appreciating its ever deeper realities, caught up, finally, in the unfathomable mystery of God himself.

This video is part of a series Fr. Martin has done on the Gospel of John. I would strongly encourage you to podcast the series and view it or listen to it. It will bless your soul. Here is the podcast site for the whole Fr. Martin Gospel of John Series: Fr. Martin Gospel of John Series.