Language and the Corruption of Meaning

It is interesting (which is, in this particular context, a euphemistic way of saying “tragic”) the way the dynamic and cultural nature of language can completely transform the meaning of words. Specifically it is “interesting” how Christians have been able to constantly reinterpret the Bible and the rich theology therein—at times under the conscious aegis of contemporary contextualization but more often entirely unconsciously and thus uncritically—with a ceaselessly shifting cultural lexicon. Words which have a very specific meaning have crossed time and language, arriving at the present only semantically equal to the original with the meaning totally lost. The form persists while the function is obscured. There would be little cause for alarm if, as many seem to think, the problem could be solved merely by opening a dictionary of ancient words. In truth, the dictionary only compounds the problem: explaining ancient words with modern glosses or, at best, drawing tenuous parallels to modern concepts.

That is perhaps all too vague to be much of a complaint. An example: Vladimir Lossky has suggested to some acclaim that the formula “one substance in three persons” has been corrupted by the modern understanding of personality. Speaking of the Father, Son, and Spirit as “persons” was filtered (and thus altered) immediately into Latin where the term carried with it a connotation of “mask” that is entirely absent in the Greek. The concept was further altered in the West as culture embraced a radical form of humanism in the Renaissance and, even more dramatically, in the Enlightenment. Western culture (and this embraces the Eastern Church) now understands the person in terms of radical individualism, the thing which makes the “me” actually “me” and not “you.” Contemporary culture lacks not only the appropriate language to speak about the hypostases of God but lacks the appropriate concepts to grasp the personhood in theology. The solution for generally embraced in theological discourse is to abandon the corrupted terms (something that the preceding sentence demonstrates that I am guilty of as well). Instead of the three “persons,” English theology reverts to a transliterated form of the Greek: “hypostasis.” This by no means solves the problem. Simply changing the word to more nearly resemble the original does not automatically attach to it the original concepts. Even as theologians strain to unravel the mystery of the original terminology, how the ancients conceived of hypostases is continually colored by how moderns conceive of personhood. In its extreme form, this tendency produces literature like The Shack where God is depicted as three people with different voices, different senses of humor, different tasks, and different interests, in short, different personalities. This, for Lossky and later for David Bentley Hart, represents a fundamental reversal of the way conceptual transformation ought to work. Christians are constantly allowing the changes in the concepts conveyed by language to alter the original concepts: modern personhood explains theological personhood. Hart suggests that rather than altering the language (i.e. using “hypostasis” instead of “person”), people ought to be rethinking the concept of modern personhood. A true understanding of theological personhood ought to have radical effects on how Christians conceptualize human personhood. In the most basic terms possible, instead of thinking that God is persons in the way humans are persons, people ought to understand how they are persons by thinking about how God is persons.

The problem is not restricted to the esoteric fields of theology proper and anthropology, nor is that my primary concern in arguing this point. In fact, the specific problem which is the catalyst for this thought was actually inspired in part (heaven help me) by the pope and in part by the Jars of Clay song, “Love Song for a Savior.” The pope, several weeks ago, warned a group of children that the “love” which was being peddled on the Internet and in popular culture was not really love at all. I agree, but, while the pope may recognize (at least in speeches) that “love” as expressed in the contemporary idiom is not love in the true sense, in the Christian sense, the secular definition of love has crept into our religious thought and corrupted our understanding of love as God intends it or as the biblical authors mean it. Case and point is the aforementioned Jars of Clay song, the first verse of which describes a girl in a rosy haze thanking Jesus for flowers, running into his arms, and singing over and over: “I want to fall in love with you.” This picture of “true love” is contrasted to those people who sit in church and ignore the sermon. Someday, they too will sing the young girl’s chorus: “I want to fall in love with you…my heart beats for you.”

It could not be more evident (to me at least) that this is a clear permeation of the secular idea of love into what ought to be a truer, more theologically sound conception of love. Jars of Clay is by no means the lone, or even the most egregious, offender. This idea of Christians “loving” Jesus and God “loving” us has seeped into our hymnography, into Christian pop music, into sermons, and into the popular consciousness. The idea is pervasive that the way God loves mirrors in some way the sentimentality of the contemporary understanding of love and that we should, therefore, reciprocate that “love” in kind. The statement “I love Jesus” is more likely to denote nothing more than a positive affection for the Savior than it is to suggest any concrete reality that aligns itself with biblical or historical theological perspectives on love. The affirmation that God loves us is likewise diluted beyond the point of substantial meaning such that God might just as easily be caricatured as our Heavenly Father who carries pictures of all His children in his wallet.

It may be alarmist of me, but I would suggest that the contemporary contextualization (which is, in this particular context, a euphemistic way of saying “rape”) of the meaning of “love” is the root of a number of significant theological problems. I wonder, for example, if the “faith alone” mentality which understands faith as the mere desire of Jesus to “come into my heart” is possible with a more concrete, less romantic view of what it is to love God and be loved by Him. More certainly, this false idea of love stands behind the overwhelming majority of objections to Christianity which begin, “How can a loving God” and end with a description of behavior which we would never permit from our spouses or relatives or friends—as if that were some kind of objective measure of love. Still more troubling are the manifold “loveless” marriages that people are stuck in. Love, rightly considered, is not something that is fallen into our fallen out of so much as it is something which the lover consciously chooses to express to the beloved through certain behaviors and dispositions. If God could fall out of love with humanity, then we would all be quite doomed. For just this reason, I object to the language of Jars of Clay about wanting to “fall in love” with Jesus, not—as with Dr. John Stackhouse—because it gives me the “homoerotic creeps” but because loving Jesus is not something which I fall into anymore than love (properly so-called) is something which I fall into with my wife.

The problem is not, as I said, so much with the words. We have preserved the right language. God should be spoken of as three persons and our basic stance toward Him ought to be described as love. The problem is the direction of meaning transformation for our words. Rather than allowing love rightly understood through divine guidance to determine how we ought to love both God and neighbor, we allow how we love apart from divine guidance to influence what we think is expected of us in the greatest commands. Human personhood ought to be defined relative to divine personhood, and human love ought to be define relative to divine love. In reversing these, our “contemporary contextualization” of meaning has led us into an unbelievably “interesting” modern problem.

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