Thursday, June 30, 2005

Definitions.

This is probably one of those times when my linguist friend’s training would come in handy. Unfortunately, he is off canoodling with his girlfriend and is thus unreachable. (Well for another two days. Then he’s sleeping in my guest room for the weekend.) But for the second, I’m left to puzzle through the religious language discussion on my own.

I have a lot of sympathy for what PB and Oversoul have to say. So much that it is my strong temptation to declare them right and go eat dinner.

But I’m troubled by a few points, and I’m at the office waiting for a courier anyway, so here goes:

PB writes, and beautifully, Most people I know who use traditional religious language have hefted the heavy ax of critical thought over each word and cracked it open over many years, researched it, followed its etymologies like so many Encyclopedia Browns, considered its political and social implications, prayed over it, tried it out in different settings, and claimed or re-claimed it only after a tenacious battle with it.

Most people whom I am on even remotely the same theological page with have redefined theological language totally. Maybe they’ve kept the spirit, and I’m sure they think they do, but they have redefined the words.

Example:

“Sin” as defined by the shorter OED: Transgression of divine law, a violation of a religious or moral principle. (It being the shorter OED, the actual definition is longer and more complicated, but that’s the jist.)

“Sin” as defined by my office’s receptionist, a Mormon: “Doing wrong. Well, there are different kinds of wrong I guess. I guess sins are wrong that’s against the bible.”

I’d say that if you ask 100 people to define sin, 99 of the resulting definitions would be somewhere in the neighborhood of those two.

CC is one of those people who has wrestled mightily with the subject of sin. If you ask CC to define sin, you’re going to get “It’s something you do, anything you do, that distances you from what makes you a good and useful person. If you reverently and respectfully pull the plug on your terminally ill father to relieve his pain, that’s legally murder, but I don’t think it has to be sin. If you cheat on your taxes and feel so bad about it that it distances you from your life and the good that you do, or makes you feel like doing the right thing doesn’t matter, that’s sin. ”

And it is totally my right to define sin that way.

But if I go up to that Mormon receptionist and start a discussion of sin, very quickly we’re going to realize that we’re not on the same page. And that’s OK for an informal discussion.

But I bet that PB and O-Soul are the sorts who have wrestled with sin. (OK, that didn’t come out right.) They’ve wrestled with the CONCEPT of sin. And I bet that if we were to talk about sin, we would be talking about different things, especially if their definitions were more thoughtful and sophisticated than mine, which wouldn’t be hard to do.

We had a guy on Bnet for awhile who used “BS” as a synonym for “belief system.” He insisted that he meant no offense when he called what we believed “BS” and that we had no right to take offense since he’d said what he meant by the term and we should respect his definition of how he wanted to use words in his post. BS was his term and he’d define it however he pleased. Oh, and by total coincidence he was an athiest of the slightly evangelical variety.

We b-netters collectively felt this argument was, well, BS.

I do think there’s a difference between everyone making the concept of “sin” useful in their own slightly convuluted way, linguistic contortionists wrapping ourselves around the parts of the term we like and deftly avoiding the others, and BSguy’s consternation that he couldn’t redefine a commonly used insult into a useful term.

But I have trouble articulating what that difference is.

And I don’t think that what I understand as O-Soul’s solution, everyone using historical UUism’s definitions of the terms, is going to fly either.

One could argue that I am being legalistic, but in a world where special appliances are available to Orthodox Jews so they can technically avoid work on the sabbath, my blow-job queen college freshman-year roommate considered herself a technical virgin and where pacifist Quakers once hired people of other faiths to fight the Native Americans, I think legalism is a good policy.

Assistance?

CC

20 comments:

Matthew said...

I think you raise an interesting point. I also think that the point you raise is one of the reasons religious naturalists, whether of the theist or non-theist variety, tend toward using everyday language when talking about religion instead of employing a special religious vocabularly. When one considers this, it is possible to realize why, for some people, calls to reclaim or create a language of reverance is not a neutral and accomodating position.

I think that Peacebang has committed a blogging sin by writing interesting and provocative things and then maddenly turning off her comments! Can blogging atonement, redemption, and forgivness be far behind? :)

Chalicechick said...

I have to say that I worried I was messing with PB's hiatus by posting this. I mean, she turned her comments off, so I didn't know if I shouldn't be responding on my own blog.

But O-soul did it, so I figured it was cool.

CC

contribUUtor said...

I think I would need to see more of a discussion on the religious terms being used. I have heard "God" used in ways that excite me (get your head out of the gutter) and ways that annoy me. Context is everything.

Matthew said...

CC: How can you be on a blogging hiatus and still post? I'm telling you, PB has got the blogging bug and she'll be back soon. (At least, I hope so.) Look at me: I stopped blogging and now I'm a ghost of my former self, hanging around the comments section of other people's blogs, jonesing for public discourse. Pathetic, really.

contribuutor: I think you are right about context. I have no problem with religious language I don't agree with being used in a service as long as it is used respectfully and in context. A few months back, I was preaching about how Unitarians and Universalists had re-imagined the angry God of Calvinism. Theodore Parker wrote a hymn on that theme and I asked the choir to sing it. Before it was sung, I introduced it, explaining its origin and why it was in the service. People could then enter into the experience in a variety of ways that didn't require but could include theological agreement. When I am listening to someone else preach, I'm grateful when it is clear they respect the freedom of the pew. You can tell, because they my preach their own beliefs without an expectation that you will necessarily agree with them. What peeves me are coercive elements in a service ("Let the people say Amen", etc.) that demand agreement and force people to feel awkward and either part of the group or not part of the group based upon whether or not they can agree in good faith.

Oversoul said...

Yes, context is very important.

Actually I think CC’s definition of sin is pretty close to my own; I think ol’ Alfred defined sin (and I’m paraphrasing from memory, so bear with me) as choosing, in the presence of a higher option, to do the less than noble thing. That’s a really bad paraphrase, so this weekend I’ll have to find what he really said, but the point is that for me sin is doing harm when you should have known better. It’s an ethical thing.

So I’d agree that relieving the pain of a loved one is not a sin, whereas wandering around the hospital pulling out life support willy-nilly is.

“And I don’t think that what I understand as O-Soul’s solution, everyone using historical UUism’s definitions of the terms, is going to fly either.”

What I meant to convey was that when people join a UU church, as a refuge from a more traditional and conservative religious background, they needn’t freak out by religious language if they were to recognize that UUism has its own history which defines many “typical” religious terms differently than they might have experienced them growing up. It doesn’t mean that they have to agree with a UU definition, or the particular religious concept itself, but I think it would help relieve anxiety to know that when a UU says “salvation” they don’t mean “get out of hell free ‘cuz you picked the right deity.” When we say “scripture” we’re likely to mean the Bhagavad Gita as much as the New Testament.

Catholicism and Judaism both use the term “marriage” but define it quite differently (Catholicism wouldn’t recognize the union of a man and a woman as legit if one were divorced with a still living spouse, for example). If I were a Catholic convert to Judaism (or vice versa) I’d want to know what they mean by the term, in the context of their tradition.

Chalicechick said...

I think the point for me isn't that Catholics and Jews have different definitions, it's that they each have a definition. (Some variance within those definitions, but nothing like the variance you'd see if you asked 100 UUs to define "salvation," which ranges at least from something like typical Christian salvation to people who would respond "a myth.")

We don't have anything like one definition and I don't think practically or as a matter of polity we're getting one.

I don't mind using religious language myself, but I do find myself having to define my terms enough that it isn't especially useful for communication.

I find that when we talk about God that all-powerful/limited, omniscient/limited, omnibenevolent/vengeful/basically well-meaning/indifferent, personal/nonpersonal, creator/force of nature/base of morality/ground of being/all of these/none of these/something else, we have to stretch the definition so far to mean anything that the term effectively becomes meaningless

CC

contribUUtor said...

If someone were to stand in the pulpit and say "I feel God has blessed my life and called me to Ministry" then I think people will generally understand the intended meaning, and should not be offended by the use of the word. Sure, everyone might understand "God" in different ways, but that should not make the usage of the word meaningless. Similarly when I use the word "worship" with christian office mates I don't feel the need to explain exactly what I mean by worship. If they understand it in their context it is probably closer to what I intend than if I tried to explain it.

Chalicechick said...

In a general sense, yes.

But if we're going to be using these terms every week in sermons, don't we need a collective understanding of them?

S

Chalicechick said...

That was badly phrased. Sorry. Headache.

Yes, an example of something like that is easy enough to understand. One doesn't have to agree with it, but I get the jist.

But if we're going to be preaching on these terms and really using these terms to help people get where we're going theologically, it's not going to do a lot of good if everybody is using them a slightly different way.

Do I want us all to sit down and work out the terminology? No, and I don't think we could.

I just question the usefulness of terms that each individual must reengineer for themselves to make them work and few people engineer exactly alike.

CC
who supposes that a minister could come up with his/her own definitions and school his/her congregation in them, but would still have to say "And why I mean by faith is..." each time there was someone new in the pews.

Anonymous Poster said...

If I understood CC correctly, sh is saying that everyone in a church needs to agree on a what religious terms mean. i don't think they do. But they dop need to agree on what th acceptable different ways of defining religious language are in their community. (E.G. Some UUs can define 'prayer" as an occasion for reflection, or as attuning one's self with the universe, or as talkjing with God. These are recognizably UU ways of defining prayer. Someone who defines prayer. consistantly, as an occasion to appeal to God to torture and punish those who ahve wronged one, wouldn't be defining prayer in a way that most UUs would recognize as aa UU manner.)

Kim said...

Some UUs can define 'prayer" as an occasion for reflection, or as attuning one's self with the universe, or as talkjing with God.

the definitions need to be similar enough to get us all to picture the same sort of thing when we say the word -- so one person won't picture driving the car while another pictures watering the lawn -- but the details don't have to jibe.

Happy Cindy said...

This comes up a lot in our Religious Education Program. Some new families come from UU backgrounds, but in my congregation they are mostly people who were raised in other traditions-- often traditions with very specific definitions for theological words. In order to explore religious questions w/ kids, we, the adults, have to be able to talk about them.

We haven't even gotten to deeper theological/moral concepts like "sin," there is a tremendous difference of opinion over the use of the word "faith." Recently something came up in the annual meeting that included reference to ourselves as a Faith Community. My congregation has been named, and defined, The Unitarian Society for over 100 years. At the joining of two congregations (in, hmm, 1900?, 1917?) they specifically opted for Society. For many, both newer and long time members, our historical identity as a center of intellect and religious dialogue preclude our existence as a Faith commmunity. The thing didn't pass because of the word faith. Individuals who were uncomfortable with the term usually said that the idea of Faith generally includes a G-d, by implication at least, and therefore was an unacceptable description of our congregation.

I responded to this by writing a pamphlet on the use of Religious Language in the RE Program. In it I defined faith,(an orientation toward committment and trust) belief, doctrine, creed, and a few other words. Not to make everyone use them the same way, that'd never be possible, but to provide an alternative definition for those who have knee-jerk reactions to the language of their youth, and for those whose language of reverence does not include any reference to deity.

This provides us not with a solution everyone can agree on, but simply with a starting point that I can use for conversation w/ parents. I don't need them to agree with my definition, but they need to know that I, as DRE, approach the subject in a certain way. This clarity makes room for them to be able to articulate their similarities and differences. I can drive the car while someone else waters the lawn if we both know that we're both going to call that activity blurgitz.

Anonymous said...

I have heard "God" used in ways that excite me (get your head out of the gutter) and ways that annoy me.

And? So, you don't think that God's both exciting and annoying? Maybe even "exciting" (get back into the gutter)?

For a congregation made up heavily of battlescarred (or at least personally scarred) Humanists, feeling beseiged by fundie Christians, having our previous minister use the phrase "that which has been called God" allowed people to think with him, listen, and come along for the conversation. But we seem to be past that, now.

Oh, the phrase still gets used; it gets a laugh (and so do variations... providing a wonderful way of bleeding the tension out of some topics, like the ill-received use of the word "tithe" in the pledgge campaign a year ago (talk about a tizzy...). My wife's referring to "that which has been called tithing" seemed to defuse some very antagonized people and helped avoid a useless conflict).

It's worth having a whole set of terms, and using them. There are times when I'd still want to use "that which has been called God" to help people over the roadbump word. But having established that we can and do use the word in ways that accept a variety of interpretations, it's not reasonable to insist that we constantly use explanatory notes and circumlocutions.

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Barnegat Blummis said...

I think "blurgitz" is a great word. It is one we use in our family and have for many years. We also use "blummis" and "kai stakka" and "fongiorta" and "wakka-wakka", "blutnik", acumbalakkachimba, gazorta, gazimba, and flesticle. You're welcome to use them or to google them.

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George W. Bush will go down in history as the absolute most disastrous president ever.

He is a flesticle and blurgitz, it goes without saying.

But then again, I just said it.