Most nouns, while perhaps difficult to adequately define, are unproblematic in their use. Philosophers may quibble over the precise ‘essence’ of ‘table,’ but few will have problems identifying a given specimen as a ‘table,’ nor have problems understanding one’s meaning by using ‘table.’ However, more abstract nouns appear to cause more problems, and this is important in two ways: 1) many of the words we use in theological and social discourse are abstract, and 2) these words often carry practical, existential implications. In particular I have in mind words—of such import for Christian discourse as well as for ‘bourgeoise platitudes’—like ‘peace,’ ‘joy,’ ‘faith,’ and ‘love.’
The advent season generally sees an explosion of the use of these words in particular, often abusing the significance out of nativity phrases such as “Peace on Earth” and “Joy to the World.” But what do these words actually mean?
I see this as a problem not of semantics or of some deconstructionist banishment of meaning but as one of daily, ‘existential’ import. To take a current example, consider the word ‘peace’—one which I have habitually used to sign off written correspondence. What do we mean by it? What does it mean to wish for ‘Peace on Earth’ or to cause ‘peace on earth,’ or ‘so long as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone’? Or, indeed, to have ‘the peace that surpasses all understanding’?
We often use ‘peace’ in a political context as the opposite of war. But, as is highlighted in the recent debates over the invasion of Iraq or in millennia of debate over ‘Just War’ doctrine, sometimes ‘making peace’ creates war, or, conversely, efforts to ‘preserve peace’ can cause war. So, what is the essence of political peace? A state of sustainable non-war? Or is it dialogue? Or something else? We might say that the USA and Russia are currently ‘at peace,’ but would we be comfortable to say that the relations between them are ‘peaceful’? If not, then what does ‘peace’ really mean?
More importantly, in my view, is what it means for me to ‘live at peace,’ ‘be at peace,’ and ‘to have peace.’ While Western humanist platitudes may agree that ‘peace’ is a good thing, there is no real agreement on a practical, detailed basis of what that actually means. (i.e., does that mean invading Iraq or not? Does that mean remaining in Iraq or not?) And, how do I know when I am actually at, living, having peace? Am I living as a detached Buddhist monk in a mountain monastery or am I Mother Theresa in a leper colony? Is it a feeling, a series of actions, or a mental/spiritual state? If the latter, what in the world does that actually mean?
This sense of ambiguity surrounds another seasonal favourite—‘joy.’ Christian homiletics will often stress that joy is not a feeling, that it is not happiness, that it is not contingent on circumstances. But, then, what is it? ‘Apophatic’ definitions are about as intellectually and practically satisfying as so-called ‘Apophatic Theology’ is for the understanding of G-d. If I can’t create it or feel it, what is it? Can I do joy(fully)? And if I am not happy while doing it—but, since joy does not equal happiness—can I still be doing it joyfully? If so, how do I know? If joy is merely a matter of focus or intention, would it not be clearer to discuss it as such?
The worst offender of the list above, however, is ‘love.’ Being both a verb and a noun which encompasses everything from saccharine puppy posters to erotic relations to Calvary it seems to lack a precision perhaps more available in other languages. This is excessively problematic for the Christian because, we are told, ‘G-d is love’ and ‘love is the fulfilling of the law.’ These two oft-quoted phrases are meaningless unless ‘love’ is understandable in practical terms. To highlight how problematic this is, I mention one example. Take ‘a naughty child’ caught in the act of something expressly forbidden. What is a parent to do ‘out of love’? Some will say—spank the child, as love knows a child needs correction. Others will say—reason with the child, as the child needs to develop mentally and morally. Others will say—punish the child in some non-physical way, as spanking is unloving and cruel. What to do? All three positions will argue from ‘love.’ What can ‘love’ mean if it can mean, practically, three opposing things? Perhaps this is a facetious example, but it seems to me to highlight the danger of using the word without engagement with what it practically entails.
The nearly cliché phrase ‘love is the fulfillment of the law’ seems to be the most practically problematic in this regard. Law is eminently to do with behavior—i.e., with practical actions. While ‘law’ in the biblical sense should probably be best understood as ‘teachings’ rather than as Roman or modern law, a cursory look at Leviticus confirms the suspicion of the importance of actions—ethical, ritual, social. So, a ‘love’ not definable on some level in these terms is well-nigh useless. ‘Love your neighbor’ may be a phrase to which few would dare object, but the discord in culture—not to mention between and within churches—shows little to evidence that agreement. Is part of this a failure to understand/define ‘love’? Or is it simply a failure to ‘do’ love?
If many problems are caused by the misunderstanding or imprecise use of language, how should this be rectified? Language exists for communication: newly coined or specialized words (‘jargon’) only work for those who know their meanings. Communications can only occur with agreed meanings. This seems to leave us with an insolvable dilemma—either one uses the common, vague terms, perpetuating the current non-communication—or one uses newly coined terms or jargon (i.e., agape), and thus non communicate. How can this impasse between study, praxis, and communication be bridged? How do I understand what ‘love your neighbor’ means, do it, and communicate it to others?Jason M. Silverman 7 December 2007