Monday 13 February 2012

When words fail us

Cratylus was a late 5th century BCE philosopher, a contemporary of Plato. In fact, one of Plato's famous dialogues bears his name. Cratylus was obsessed with the study of words and with proper, accurate communication. He eventually became convinced that genuine communication first of all requires careful definition of the words themselves. Despairing of ever being able to define every one of them all precisely, he then one day renounced speaking entirely. Instead, he communicated only by moving his index finger. We can all think of those we sometimes wish would do the same.

Seriously though, was he extreme? Yes, but at the same time instructive as we approach St. Valentine's Day once again. Words, as T.S. Eliot also reminds us, often strain and break under the burden we frequently impose upon them. We know how true this is at some hour of deepest personal grief or when we attempt to comfort others similarly afflicted. But, it is also true in the uniquely human state of being “in love.” Valentine's Day cards generally fall far short of adequate never mind being really close to fully saying what is genuinely hoped for and intended.

However, my deepest concern today is to sound a warning about the dangerous use of words and language when it comes to religion. Millions of believers of all faiths (including some readers of my columns) need to be reminded that God does not write books. Human beings do. Yes, they can be guided and inspired. So too can great poets, dramatists, novelists, musicians, architects and all kinds of other creative spirits down the ages. What makes holy books different in their inner nature from other artistic creations is their subject matter and the intention of their authors/editors.

But, whenever faith communities, be they Jewish, Hindu, Christian, Islamic, or other make the mistake of taking their sacred texts as the ipsissima verba – the very words – which fully express the mind of God, you have bibliolatry. By that I mean the worship of a book rather than worship of God alone.

The results can be deadly as history has proven over and over again and present tensions in many parts of the world underline once more. Words, especially sacred words can sooth and heal and bring new life. But they can also kill and thus bring death and destruction. Extreme fundamentalism, the giving of absolute and final value to specific, time-conditioned, verbal formulae, creeds, or beliefs defies love, reason, and finally humanity itself. That's why St. Paul so long ago famously said: “The letter killeth, but the Spirit gives life!”

In the end, when it comes to trying to speak about God the problem faced by Cratylus emerges powerfully once again. All words are inadequate for the task. Certainly one cannot give any precise, literal definitions of the Ultimate Reality we call God. The world's greatest thinkers have endeavored through the ages to remind us that the truest language of theology is always that of parable, story, myth, poetry, symbolism and allegory.

With that in mind, let me—speaking figuratively or in a parable—send each of you a valentine in advance. It's this: God so loved the world that (S)he created you!

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