catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 13, Num 13 :: 2014.06.27 — 2014.07.10


Words, language and the naming of things

If we spoke a different language, we would perceive a somewhat different world.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

*culture is not optional is all about sharing our ideas and our beliefs. We simply cannot exchange ideas, explore lessons or journey forward without recognizing the power of the words we use, the language we speak, and the names we claim.

Let’s start with words. Words are symbols. They are not concepts themselves, but placeholders we use to denote an idea or a concept. The word “tree” is not a literal tree. Words represent something and we use them to convey our thoughts to each other. Those of us who like to talk never experience a shortage of words. In fact, we can even be guilty of using many more words than we need to in order to make our point. On the other end, there are people who are really skilled at conveying lots of meaning in very few words.

Students in a college class were instructed to write a short story in as few words as possible. The short story had to contain the following three things: religion, sexuality and mystery. The student who wrote the only A+ paper told this story: “Good God, I’m pregnant; I wonder who the father is?”

Words can pack a lot of punch, which is why we are being very careful and deliberate about what words we will use as placeholders for what our community is about. Our words can never be more than placeholders because we will never share exactly the same definitions of the words we use. Every one of us begins with a different genetic make-up followed by an entirely different set of life experiences. How then could any one of us possibly have the exact same understandings and concepts of the world in which we live and the words we use to describe it?

In order for our words to have any impact, they need to be shared within the context of a common language.

So what is language? Language is a wonderfully rich vehicle for communication. Language is how we share stories, express our wants and our needs, give our commands. Language is even how we talk to ourselves. But the richness of language as a communication system is also why it is the source of so many human problems.

Language has many styles and intonations. We use a different way of speaking and writing when we are with friends than when we are with our boss. We use a different language when we are with children than when we are in court. We use a different language with our life partner than we use with salespeople. We also learn different elements of language depending on where we live and how much education we get.

In one sense language liberates us and gives the opportunity to send and receive an unlimited number of messages and to share an unending stream of thoughts. On the other hand, it forces us to express those thoughts in strictly regulated ways. So the question that has been debated for the past 75 years is this: Does language shape us or do we shape our language?

In 1940 Benjamin Lee Whorf suggested that language restricts our ability to think. An entire generation bought into the premise that if we didn’t have a word for it, we couldn’t imagine it. This was used to conclude that Native Americans could not understand the flow of time while they also had an intuitive understanding of Einstein’s concept of time as a fourth dimension. Eventually his theory fell apart with the realization that just because we don’t have a word for it doesn’t mean we can’t understand the concept. Language does not keep us from thinking certain thoughts.

20 years later, the linguist Roman Jakobson came to another conclusion that is still standing up to scientific experiments today. He observed that languages differ not in what they may say, they differ in what they must say. So for instance, the English language almost always forces us to think in terms of single or plural when talking about things. And it requires us to identify “when” by picking one tense or another. In France or Germany, you would not be able to say you talked to a neighbor or any other person without indicating if that neighbor were male or female. These languages compel the speaker to think about gender.

Language also directly impacts our notion of space. In most of the world, we use right or left, ahead and behind to indicate direction. This seems natural enough for we are by nature egocentric and the center of our own world. Or are we?

An aboriginal tribe in Australia turned up and surprised everyone by not having self-centered directions. They only use cardinal directions. So they say things like, “Move a little to the east” or “there is a bug just north of your foot.” Take “three steps forward” becomes “three steps east” and “bend backwards” becomes “bend southwest.” About one third of the world’s languages use absolute directions for space. These speakers are so attuned to direction that they can accomplish navigational acts that scientists thought were beyond our human capability. If you saw one of these speakers pointing at himself you would naturally assume he meant to draw attention to himself. But this speaker would be pointing through himself as if he were thin air.

So language makes us pay attention to certain details that speakers of other languages don’t have to think about at all. Because these thoughts become habit at a very early age, they go beyond language, affecting our experiences, perceptions, feelings, memories and our orientation in the world. Language not only reflects our thoughts, it shapes the very thoughts we seek to express. Science is proving experimentally that language shapes our worldview and impacts our beliefs, our values and our ideologies, all of which has profound implications for philosophy and religion.

I have a friend Michelle Hamman who owns the company Mother Tongues, which makes shirts and other items that incorporate a word from another language for which we have no single word in English. One of my favorite shirts and words from Michelle is “mudita.” The word means “I rejoice in your good fortune.” I have come to love and embrace this word because it provides a values correction for me when I read my latest Facebook post and see another one of my friends in some exotic location where I would like to be. In the past, I might think I was “envious” or “jealous,” but now I really think about what those words mean and find that I can celebrate for them in the spirit of “mudita.” It’s a concept I can certainly understand, but it is not the first thought that enters my mind. If it were part of my original language I wonder how it might have shaped my reaction to the good news of other people throughout my lifetime.

A new language that many of us have found ourselves trying to master is that of the Internet and social media. In order to see those updates from my traveling friends, I need to know what Facebook is. And I’ve needed to learn a new vocabulary that includes OMG, LOL and emoticons. I got called into school to talk to my son Alex’s eighth grade teacher because he had written “WTF” on a paper. The teacher was obviously very upset and obviously expected I would be, too. So I pretended I was deeply offended — then went home and asked my son what WTF meant! Turns out she was right about his inappropriateness!

I’m still on a steep learning curve.  I’ve been trying really hard to figure out Twitter. It’s that program that lets you send short messages — I’m not sure to whom, but I know you have to keep them very short. I’m told that this is the place that people — especially young people — are connecting. It’s the thing everyone is doing when they’re standing in line anywhere. It’s the thing you’re not supposed to do when you drive.

But what kind of name is Twitter? It turns out that the co-founders wanted to give it a tangible name that would sound like what happens when you get a message on your cell phone. They actually considered the names Jitter and Twitch but decided those names didn’t inspire the best sort of imagery.

And how do you suppose I learned that? Yes, I Googled it. Google got its name from the nine-year-old nephew of a mathematician who was asked to invent a name for a number with 100 zeroes. He came up with a googol.  Names, it turns out, are important. When you blindfold people, you find out that a rose by any other name really doesn’t smell as sweet!

Which bring us to the fact that names are critical. One of the most liberating things I ever did was to change my name. Having been raised in home in which my relationship with my father was strained at best and having experienced unhealthy marriages that did not end well, I had accumulated a long string of names. Then, in the spring of 2010, I petitioned the court and dropped all of the extra baggage. Lee had been my middle name. And now, for the first time, I feel the congruence of my name actually proclaiming who I know myself, in my limited ego existence, to be.

My son Alex, on the other hand, took great joy in his naming from early on. One day, he came home from school very excited. He was five or six years old. He said, “Mom, I just found out that me and Alex Jones and Alex Smith all have the same middle name!” “Really?” I asked. “Yes,” he said, “Xander.”

As we think about our identity, we all hope to arrive at the naming place where we can find the words that capture the heart of what we are and what we seek to be as we undertake our own independent spiritual journeys.

Like you, I am also on my own spiritual journey. I was born into a Lutheran family and brought to church to be baptized at one week of age because the pastor was leaving. When I grew older I attended public school. For a while I thought I was incredibly fortunate. Here I was living in the best place in the whole wide world, learning the one true religion in the whole wide world. I was amazingly blessed. But by the time I was in third grade, I started wondering about things. Here I was being told at school about those terrible Russians that I was supposed to be afraid of. And for some inexplicable reason it started to dawn on me that Russian kids right at that same moment were in school being taught how terrible and frightening I was.

Then I started to think about those kids who lived in the most remote parts of China, who didn’t know about Jesus and would die without ever knowing Jesus. How come I was so lucky and they were not? What weird twist of universal fate left me in the most envious position in all the world and left others consigned to hell? I didn’t even know the words yet, but that was when I became a heretic and a pluralist. I realized that those kids were being raised in another tradition and that I had no more right to tell them they were wrong and try to take that away from them than they had to try to take my beliefs and understandings away from me.

I still feel the same way. I haven’t met anyone yet who shares my exact same concept of reality, my version of Truth as best I have crafted it to date. And hopefully, neither have you, because if you have, then chances are one of you has not done their own thinking.

It’s not impossible. You could have independently considered every question and nuance and come up with the exact same answers you were taught, but chances are better that if you agree 100 percent with anyone you probably believe it because it’s what you were told.  My son Alex and his friend both got the same question wrong on a test in middle school. That wouldn’t have been a big deal, but they both gave the same bizarre answer. Did they really do their own work and come to the same exceptionally wrong conclusion? Not very likely.

“Heresy” is a loaded word in our culture. It means someone who holds a controversial opinion that is at odds with what is generally acceptable — a non-conformer, a freethinker. Yep, that’s me. And I am very proud to be a heretic. Because I believe that without our own heretical insights and impulses, our spiritual journey becomes stiff and halted, if not stagnant and dead. 

If we are truly caught up in the mystery, then we have to discover at some point that no one can give us the answers, because the answers are always inside of us, usually just out of our grasp. Truth can be pointed to, suggested, guessed at, but we cannot for all of our attempts ever fully comprehend the great mystery of our existence. And so we speak in parable and metaphor, not in doctrinal certainties.

Shortly after I started my work with the Extended Grace community, I was invited to be part of a monthly gathering with people who called themselves “The Dick Rhem Society of Heretics and Believers.” It was the most amazing experience. People were actually saying out loud things that I had thought — and never dared articulate.  How liberating to be in a place where people can bring and share their heresies, not in order to convince everybody that they are the sole holder of truth, but so that we can all admit that the questions are still open and that mystery still remains.

I attended a church conference once where I heard Reverend Paul Rajashaker speak. Paul was raised in a Hindu home and became a Christian later in life. He suggested that the church’s approach to other traditions has been to embrace a “Theology of Hostility.” Many of us have experienced the consequences of this approach personally.   

We also have to be wary of falling into the trap of expressing our own Theology of Hostility. Instead of explaining ourselves in contrast to others, we must begin articulating who we are in a way that makes sense to the other. We must begin to approach people of other traditions and with other beliefs with genuine humility, eager to share not what we have been taught,m but what we have experienced to be true. And we must be willing to be changed by the witness they bring to us.

Because heresy does have a shadow side. It does tend to want to establish its own right thinking, declaring itself right and above reproach. When we end up thinking we are right and everybody else is wrong, we only perpetuate an ideology of hostility, pitting one set of human understandings against another.

The spiritual journey is not the practice of mindlessly repeating everything we have been taught. Nor is it the practice of disagreeing with everything for the sake of disagreement. The spiritual journey is about opening ourselves up to truth we do not yet have the words to describe or the language to share. Until finally we can move beyond this silly state of us vs. them and the construction of dualities that require barriers, boxes and boundaries.

We simply cannot have too much diversity, particularly as we engage around questions of dogma and doctrine.

What exactly is dogma? For that, it’s helpful to go back to the Internet and Google it. According to Wikipedia, it is a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true. And doctrine? It is a belief or set of beliefs held and taught by a church, political party or other group.

In the broadest sense, we all operate according to our own dogma. We make decisions about what causes to support, whom to vote for, even what to eat based on the principles we believe to be true. But a society of heretics and believers celebrates the fact that we reach those conclusions and live by those values because of thoughtfulness and experience, not because we have been told to, which means that it is safe for us to share our own reality without being corrected and without risk of having someone try convince us that we are wrong. With our defense shields lowered, we can engage in genuine conversation in which we get to experience the free exchange of ideas which we will integrate as lessons in our own way which will shape our independent spiritual journey, and on and on the cycle goes.

This cycle ultimately leads us to deeper and deeper truths, bringing us ever closer to our true selves. And in the process, we will use our words, we will finesse our language and we will become creative in our naming of things.

We have each other and these days, we have the resources of the entire world literally at our fingertips. We started with a short story so let’s end with one, too. It was a quiet night before Google and two people were sitting on a couch together sharing a snack. One said, “I just thought of something I’d like to know more about.” The other replied, “That’s a damn shame.”


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