Monday, December 05, 2005

Yesterday's Language, Tomorrow's Needs

How hard it is to explain today's and tomorrow's realities using the language of yesterday -- that is something that seems to have come up on Toward2015 in the last few days. Quite honestly, the words "liberal" and "conservative," which still meant something a generation ago, have had their meaning scoured out, re-worked, even totally obliterated, in the rough and tumble of this deconstructed postmodern world.

As a result of today's climate I find myself wishing that I had taken much greater care in my studies of linguistic analysis in my student days. I think if I had done that I would have been much better equipped to work my way through the language quagmire in which we now find ourselves wallowing.

Someone who comes to the USA from another English-speaking country become quickly conscious of how eel-like words can be. Words which on one side of the Atlantic mean one thing, I quickly discovered when I arrived here, mean something slightly or totally different in this country -- and they may change their meaning again if I go to another part of this country. Thus, until you have adapted (and that can take years) you are in constant danger of miscommunicating. Often this can be entertaining, but I have been in circumstances where for a time it has really soured relationships because I have said something that has been totally misunderstood.

Those of us who are older, and who are much more children of the Enlightenment, are prone to use language differently than those who are natives in this emerging culture. We are also prone to carry with us the language and categories of the past and then to attempt to interpret today's realities through this grid. The words 'liberal' and 'conservative' are a case in point. I have honestly reached a point where I still use them because they are convenient shorthand, but am not necessarily sure what they precisely mean.

Yesterday evening I watched Prime Minister's Question Time on C-SPAN, which is one of the most entertaining shows on television. I always chuckle when I realize that a party of the left sits on the government benches on the right of the Speaker. Meanwhile the primary party of the right sits on the left, but alongside them is another party of the left, that calls itself Liberal Democrat. These folks used to be to the right of the Labour party, who are the major party the left, but now may be to the left of them -- or not, depending on where you are standing. Confusing? Of course it is, and so is the way we use language today because the categories we are attempting to describe do not fit onto yesteryear's Procrustean Bed.

The world we live in now has moved on from the world that these words more correctly described, and now we should be struggling for descriptive terms to use of the emerging world, and are failing miserably. Part of the reason for this is laziness. One of the problems that we have is that whereas the Enlightenment tended to think in terms of either/or, the post-Enlightenment world functions in terms of both/and. That I am theologically thought to be a conservative because I believe we have a responsibility to conserve the deposite of faith that has been entrusted to us, does not preclude me being a political and social liberal on certain issues, and a political and social conservative on others. Then in other aspects of life, this may be turned on its head again.

The truth is that I am not sure that I want to be pinned down to these categories any longer. My obligation as a faithful servant of Christ is to seek to be his obedient servant, and to place myself within the Scriptures and their worldview, which means that I am very likely going to be an uncomfortable fit in most places on the culture's spectrum of ideas and obligations. Gospel ideas are radical, conservative, progressive, traditional, forward-looking and even at times a little reactionary, and the challenge before us is living into them and finding a way beyond yesterday's terminology. It is our limited way of thinking that reduces the to just one point on this color-spectrum

The starting point of the task before us is to work hard to grasp exactly what is going on within the culture and then to seek to find the language that is most descriptive. The deconstructionist mentality that is now at play tends to believe that I can take words, use them, and interpret them according to my own lights. The result is that we lose our ability to properly communicate for in some way or other, language must represent reality rather than merely our own individual perception of what we think reality is.

This is not to say that language does not have some fuzzy edges, as in the case of an American English-speaker conversing with an English English-speaker and an Indian English-speaker, when it will be necessary on occasions to clarify the manner in which certain terms might be being used. However, most language is plain. When I say the word "horse" I should mean an animal that may be a variety of sizes, various colors, and can be used for riding, as a beast of burden, or for hauling transportation or farm equipment, I should not mean something that I have decided the world "horse" means.

This is the way the word "truth" is being used now. Because of the innate relativism in our culture, it is perfectly normal to hear people talking of as if there was a whole variety of truths, many of which are mutually exclusive of one another, but all of which are true.

My thesis is that if we are to understand (and then describe) what is going on we are going to need to be careful in the way that we use language, and that it is impossible to continue allowing yesterday's language (with all its baggage) to do the work expected of it today and tomorrow. Yet we are not working to move beyond this impasse. It will probably take a while for a new concensus to be reached, but this should not preclude us from taking the effort to push this descriptive task forward.

There are certain writing tasks that teachers will give their students to help them develop their vocabulary. One is, for example, to describe a screw without using the word spiral! Perhaps we should start looking for ways to describe our present realities without using the words "liberal," "conservative," "traditionalist," "revisionist," etc., for most of these descriptives belong to a world that is fast disappearing.

Personally I am at a loss to know how to describe myself. I conserve the Gospel as delivered to the saints, therefore that makes me a conservative, but I believe that there is an intense generosity in that Gospel, which makes me a liberal. I believe that that essence of the faith goes to the root of humanity's problems, and that makes me a radical, but as I live within the on going life of the church from the apostolic age until now, that must make me a traditionalist because I honor the tradition. I believe that the Gospel speaks volumes to now and tomorrow, and that must make me a progressive, but it challenges the values that have emerged in today's society (and which some in the church have taken on board), and I suppose that makes me a reactionary.

If I listen to the way others see me and describe me, almost all of these terms have been used of me, but affirmatively and perjoratively! Usually, the folks using such descriptions are Enlightenment-soaked folks who continue to see life in terms of either/or and find it difficult to grapple with the subtleties of both/and.

Do you see the nature of the challenge that we have before us?

1 comment:

James the Thickheaded said...

Good piece. I think Tom Oden's "Rebirth of Orthodoxy" makes it rather clear that orthodox views are ALL of these. We tend to want our words to have soundbite synonym-like definitions of one-word or less. The Oxford Dictionary is far more interesting as a study of language....and orthodoxy is far more interesting as a study of faith. And just because two folks are orthodox in their beliefs doesn't obligate them to be the same in all viewpoints. I think we are obligated to make our traditions live...and hence discover how they relate to the present. It is a puzzle within an enigma as they say.