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.
“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.