Etiolated Language

I have written before about how language is debased such that Christian concepts are built into secularism in a confusing way. It is unfortunate not just because precision is lost. It is also unfortunate because it serves to obscure the naturalism endemic to modern secularism.   The operating assumption you’re routinely expected to embrace is that there is no God, no heaven, and no spiritual realm at all.

 

The words used nonetheless import notions of transcendence, teleology, redemption, and a host of other essentially Christian concepts. The result is that when we read about “transcendence,” for example, we’re to understand not that which transcends the material plane altogether, but rather only that which is less usual and more noble. With the word thus drained of its potency to express spiritual reality, we’re left with no word for true transcendence.

 

Poet Christian Wiman wrote of this phenomenon this way, in the context of considering poets who use spiritual imagery but eschew spiritual reality:

 

“they . . . partake of a common tendency among modern artists: the art contains and expresses a faith that the artist, in the rest of his waking life, rejects. And quite often, . . . the art relies on, even while extending, the religious language for which the artists has no practical use and of which he is perhaps even contemptuous.”

 

While I see this tendency to inject ambiguity and debased meaning as unequivocally negative, Wiman sees a potential silver lining:

 

“Is this a failure of art, then, since presumably a living poem ought not to rely on language that is dead at the root? Or is it a triumph of God, resurrecting blossoms from a branch that seemed irrevocably withered? If the former, how does on change one’s art? If the latter, how does one change one’s life.”

 

I love the sentiment, but I fear that the positive effect of these “resurrecting blossoms,” if they be such, are only realized if the fraud is uncovered; that is, when the reader or hearer identifies the dead root and recognizes the misuse of the word. I don’t think that likely, by most readers. Poets themselves misuse the words, and who do we expect to be more masterful of words, than a poet?

 

Spiritual transcendence loses its meaning if the word “transcendence” always and everywhere means small-t transcendence from one physical realm to another physical realm. “Redemption” means only the simulacrum of real redemption. Even “spiritual” means something like contemplative, rather than referring to something beyond nature. This tendency doesn’t just introduce fuzziness into discourse on religion. It dumbs us all down, in service to the reigning god within: naturalism.

 

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