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Meaning Matters

June 6, 2009

Words don’t truly matter. We like to think that they do because they have meaning and we know that meaning truly matters.

When I wrote Taking Language at its Word? this is what I meant: we cannot trust language to tells us the truth without rigorous interpretation, meaning-seeking, and hermeneutics. The rigor of this search for meaning is that it is elusive and scarce and never rests.

In this Augustinian restlessness, we find the universal call to holiness intimately attached to the human quest for meaning. Since Truth (God, in other words) is excessive, meaning is as close as we can get. And even when we hold a morsel in our hands we lose it, like water through our fingers, and are left to begin anew. Meaning is spoiled by remaining still or being contained by human hands.

This dynamic sounds exhausting, but only in it (and we can never immerse ourselves in it completely; Truth it is too deep to ever touch bottom) can we live as human persons made in the image of God.

This is not an academic or bookish call to study. It is a call to contemplation. And contemplation is not the sole domain of monks and nuns; nor is it is the task of inactive or unproductive rumination. It is a call to action in the most prescient activity we can possibly imagine: conversion.

I understand and admire those who see this activity as a matter of holding fast to language that seems indisputable and sacred. There is nothing as noble as those who burn with passion for the preservation and recovery of the dignity human person. As much as I  long to be able to enlist and assist in this task of linguistic preservation and restoration, I cannot.

Please read what I say carefully: This is not a surrender or defeat to the powers that erase and disfigure the image of God written on our restless hearts. Instead, it is an act in solidarity with those who oppose such powers and a call to continue to “go out into the deep.” Not with me—God knows (of course) that I spend most of my time in the kiddy pool we call academia and the blogosphere—but with “Him whom they have pierced.”

The Truth of the Pierced One conveys the meaning of His teachings: Death to self, love of enemy, loss as victory, last as first. These odd things commanded by that strange, audacious Rabbi measure the depth of conversion and the universal call to holiness. Going out into the deep means that we cannot fight as the armies of old, we must be made new in the commandment of radical, selfless love on grand display at Calvary.

Therefore, to begin to recover and defend the dignity of the human person, we cannot simply assert the brute language we take to be self evident. We cannot assume that we are telling Truth when we use words. They are cloaked in meaning and Truth is beyond their mere connotations.

We—myself first and foremost—should strive to seek out ways to convey the gospel of life we find in the excessive meaning of the Cross. This is what Francis understands in his famous dictum: “Preach the gospel at all times, when necessary use words.” It is meaning, not words , that can bring morsels of Truth into the world.

Only that Truth can save us.

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25 Comments
  1. Mark permalink
    June 7, 2009 3:15 am

    What a confused piece of writing! Meaning is more important than words? Oh! Who doesn’t know that ?! That’s why people should always try to insist that words do have meanings and pushed back against the deconstructionists who insist otherwise.Any way if we don’t assert that we are telling the truth by using words then the Church should better packed up and get out of the evangelization stuff. Never heard of George Orwell essay on English Language? Still I don’t see how one can imply that words don’t matter in the abortion debate in America. For the very reason many people have objections against strong and particularly graphic words is that they know what they mean and don’t want to be so described as they want to retain the moral highground. That does not mean that we should stop saying that abortion is murder, that Tiller was a butcher (and a particularly perverse one at it: http://kgov.com/gallery/abortion/wichita-memorial/memorial.html) and that his “medical practice” was an exercise in mass murder. For this is the Truth, whatever Derrida and his ilk may say, in the same way as a bystander infront of a pile of rotting bodies in Auschwitz will reckon that the SS were particularly evil people. on this particular matter, Joe Hargrave is absolutely right: if we can’t reckon that at the end of the day a spade is a spade and can’t muster the courage to say it, then we are undoubtedly in the age Nietzsche’s superman where one gives whatever meaning one wants to words like a Humpy Dumpty and, logically, do whatever one wants to do. Sorry Sam Rocha, words do matter and we are entitled – no, we have an obligation to use them to describe reality faithfully.

  2. Mark DeFrancisis permalink
    June 7, 2009 11:25 am

    What charitable readings and replies!

    By the way, Derrida is no longer the conservative bogey-man.

  3. June 7, 2009 12:07 pm

    Yeah, Derrida and his deconstructionist ilk (like me) really do think words have meaning. That’s why we use them!

  4. June 7, 2009 12:36 pm

    …we cannot trust language to tells us the truth without rigorous interpretation, meaning-seeking, and hermeneutics. The rigor of this search for meaning is that it is elusive and scarce and never rests.

    [...]

    …we cannot simply assert the brute language we take to be self evident. We cannot assume that we are telling Truth when we use words. They are cloaked in meaning and Truth is beyond their mere connotations.

    I’m not sure it follows from these points that words do not truly matter. I’d say they don’t matter in an eternal sense, as words are not eternal things, but I’d say they matter in a temporal sense.

    We cannot truly speak the Truth, yet we do not remain silent. We use words to speak the Truth even though they cannot contain the Truth. Words matter because we use them.

  5. David Nickol permalink
    June 7, 2009 2:03 pm

    Is abortion murder?
    Is a fertilized human egg a person.
    Does a fertilized human egg have “the Right to implantation”?
    Is sexual intercourse with contraception sodomy.

    Is the Eucharist cannibalistic?

    These all seem to me to be questions in the same vein as, “Is a virus alive?” I would never argue that, say, “Benedict XVI is alive” and “John Paul II is dead” are in any way meaningless or untrue, or that the words “dead” and “alive” have no objective meaning. However, when you get to the question of whether a virus is alive, you get different (and meaningful) answers depending on your definition of life.

    Language about abstract concepts is not something that can be applied with mathematical certainty. Of course, this does not mean that making judgments where abstract principles must be applied is not important. Juries are frequently required to come up with conclusions and do so “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The Supreme Court has to decided whether laws are constitutional or not, and we take their decisions very seriously, even when they are 5-4.

  6. June 7, 2009 3:46 pm

    Mark: I am in full agreement you that my writing here (and elsewhere) is confused, highlighted by the fact that I feel that it has given some impressions that I did not intend to give. For that, feel free to be annoyed with me. What I would like to do here is use your critical remarks as an opportunity to clarify what I mean(t).

    To begin with, you should notice that if I mean to make an argument for the irrelevance of words, then, I should start with an eraser, not a pen, so to speak. In other words, there is something hypocritical about using prose to say that its word-components are unimportant.

    So let me be clear: Words do matter. They are very important, crucial even. But they do not truly matter on their own because they give themselves to us in their meaning, not their temporal grammar or whatnot (Kyle: here is my reply to your remark).

    You (Mark) seem to agree and find such a thing insultingly uncontroversial when you write: “Meaning is more important than words? Oh! Who doesn’t know that ?!”

    I am sorry to have made such an obvious point. However, my larger point is that if we admit to the obviousness of that point (which you do), then, we have a lot of work ahead—work that is not academic or professorial, but, rather, salvific and eternal. Describing that work is truly the heart of this “confused piece of writing.”

    What puzzles me is that you go from granting the basic point of my post (and critiquing it as too obvious) to passionately attacking a host of Derridian, postmodern demons. I assume that you take me to be one of them, or, at least, my post reminds you of some of them.

    Again, let me be clear: This post is rooted in the reality and truth of the Cross and the universal call to holiness via conversion.

    If that makes me Derridian, then, I would be very interested to learn about your reading of Derrida. Unfortunately, from my own reading of Derrida, this is not the case (but I may very well be wrong about this).

    Add to that, your statement that: “…if we can’t reckon that at the end of the day a spade is a spade and can’t muster the courage to say it, then we are undoubtedly in the age Nietzsche’s superman where one gives whatever meaning one wants to words like a Humpy Dumpty and, logically, do whatever one wants to do.” is either a very original or very misunderstood way of characterizing Nietzsche.

    Philosophical quibbling aside, what you are saying in that passage seems to be that I am advocating for a relativistic approach to language. Please know that this could not be further from the case. I am not, in any way, a relativist.

    So when you say that “…people should always try to insist that words do have meanings and pushed back against the deconstructionists who insist otherwise.” you are not engaging with my argument here. At least not with my argument as I intended it.

    You see, the meaning you have taken from these cold words has created the very space of hermeneutics that I hope we would use in the preaching of the gospel of life, with or without words.

    And for that, I thank you.

    Peace.

  7. June 7, 2009 3:50 pm

    Kyle, I fear you may have inferred much of the same meaning about my words as did Mark. This points the blame in my direction, of course. However, I do not want to say that word do not matter, pure and simple. I want to say that words only matter insofar as they have meaning and since meaning a slippery thing, as it should be, we must apply a great deal of rigor to interpreting their meaning and the greater meaning of the world in general. Which can only lead to deeper levels of understanding and conversion, I would think.

  8. June 7, 2009 3:55 pm

    I put “truly” in italics to see if that helps. I fear, though, that the first stanza in my post may be taken in too much consideration without the explanation that follows.

  9. June 7, 2009 4:58 pm

    Thanks for the clarification, Sam.

  10. Joe Hargrave permalink
    June 7, 2009 5:46 pm

    What I dislike about this discussion is that it makes complicated a very simple thing.

    This is a polemical war. After Tiller was gunned down, secular leftist bloggers began declaring that it was our words that killed him, as much as the man who pulled the trigger. One blog was actually titled, “Words Do Matter” or something similar.

    The problem is that the ‘pro-choice’ movement never really says that our words are lies; only that they are inflammatory. They would prefer we say ‘fetus’ instead of ‘unborn child’ or ‘baby’. They would prefer that we refer to abortion as a ‘legitimate medical procedure’ or the ‘termination of a pregnancy’ as opposed to child murder.

    In fact, they would prefer to just leave aside the whole issue of what it is being ‘terminated’, most of the time.

    My argument is that these words that we use are not political propaganda, but what any intelligent human being would recognize. Don’t like the word ‘murder’? What other word do we have to describe the deliberate destruction of an innocent human life? Don’t like the words ‘butchery’ or ‘mutilation’ or ‘destruction’? Have you seen an abortion? Is there any other honest description of the procedure? It is a violent, messy, bloody procedure.

    It isn’t even about words, really, because the images work as well as any description. They work better, in fact. A picture is worth a thousand words, as they say, and a picture of a butchered ‘fetus’ is more inflammatory than anything I can say. I could never speak about this again and just show the images. Unless you’re claiming that they were photoshopped or something, how can you deny the truth they convey?

    Frankly, I don’t care if Sam or anyone else has some deeper philosophical problem with ‘Truth’ or whatever. The point here is that the choicers, the people who want abortion to remain legal in the US, are effectively declaring that words and images that they don’t necessarily regard as lies (and therefore truths? partial truths?) ought to be banned or regulated. They are admitting that the truth is too hard for some people to handle.

    And I’m saying, we can’t have a civilization based upon that. It’s like saying, ‘don’t look at your mother’s face’ for a few days after your alcoholic father beats the hell out of her, because we wouldn’t you to hate your dad. It’s like saying, ‘don’t ask questions about what goes on at that Auschwitz place – you might not love your country as much’. It’s pure garbage, it’s the argument of butchers and cowards who want to keep their evil, selfish deeds in the dark, who scurry like rats when the light is shown upon them. It is absolutely unconscionable.

    So, protestations aside, I and others will continue to speak and show the truth about abortion. And it will be, in the end, for the people to decide.

  11. David Nickol permalink
    June 7, 2009 8:56 pm

    Why are there so few women writing on Vox Nova, and why don’t they ever weigh in on these kinds of abortion discussions? I think it’s very easy for men to rant and rave against abortion when they know they’ll never get pregnant.

  12. David Nickol permalink
    June 7, 2009 9:06 pm

    My argument is that these words that we use are not political propaganda, but what any intelligent human being would recognize.

    Joe,

    So when you talk of butchery, mass murder, baby killers, and the Holocaust, it’s just plain speaking. But when other people make the case that pro-life rhetoric was one of the contributing factors to Tiller being shot, it’s political propaganda.

    That seems fair.

  13. Joe Hargrave permalink
    June 7, 2009 10:51 pm

    David,

    Typical leftist nonsense: only women can speak about abortions, because only women can have them. Guess people without kids should stay quiet about child abuse. And how could we ever condemn killing Jews, when we just don’t understand what it’s like to be a Nazi?

    Ranting and raving – that’s what I’m doing here. You’re using language to discredit me, while taking swipes at me for allegedly doing the same thing to your pro-choice comrades.

    Yes, when I talk of butchery, it is plain speaking, because that is what is taking place. When I speak of mass murder, it is plain speaking, because murder is taking place, and there is a whole lot of it going on. As for the Holocaust, I never said abortion was directly comparable to the Holocaust, but they are in the sense that those carrying out both atrocities didn’t want the public to know all the details.

    When other people make the case you mention, I don’t know what to call it other than a despicable attempt at censorship. As I said, they do not – because they cannot – say that we are lying about what happens in an abortion mill. They just don’t want people to know about it or see the images. The more people remain vague about what an abortion is, what it entails, and what it looks like, the easier it is to discuss it as if it were any other policy issue – like whether or not we ought to patch up the potholes on Main Street or some other mundane matter.

    So yes, David, I’m making a distinction. I’m saying that what I am saying about abortion is true, and I’m saying that even if it inspired a handful of people to vigilante violence, it is still the truth – and if your problem, your issue, is with the truth, then you need to focus on that truth, and not the messengers who bring that truth. Otherwise you really are nothing but a shameful propagandist. Yes, I’m saying they are, and we’re not, because I think it’s right.

    And I think its silly to charge me with holding a double-standard unless you have some argument to make showing that it is, in fact, a double standard. Since you don’t, I’ll just assume you are complaining for the sake of complaining.

  14. June 8, 2009 8:00 am

    Joe: I hope you got my note in your comments about this post. I do not see it as a refutation of your work there, although it is the product of your provocation.

    Putting that aside, I am a bit surprised by some of the things you have to say here. In our fruitful conversation in your com box I felt we came to a decent mutual understanding. Namely, that the “facts” of the matter (e.g. murder) do not reveal the truth of the matter.

    One the biggest problems with your reading of this post is that you seem to think that it would condemn, or look down on, telling the truth. That is not the case. Not here, not for me. I think it is fine to describe, in graphic detail, the real procedure of abortion to someone, provided that that description is meaningful.

    Too many times we seem to think that shouting “truth” will do the trick, because the truth is, well…, truth. But, as I have pointed out to you, murder comes in degrees in courts of law, which should tell us that it is not so simple in real life. So the “truth” of murder needs to be said with attention to the meaning of the words we use.

    If the purpose of telling truth is to convey the Gospel of Life, then, we cannot sit on the laurels of keywords that seem obvious to us. We need to see what those words mean to the person we are speaking to and how that meaning will bring them closer to the Truth.

    To the end, when you write, “I don’t care if Sam or anyone else has some deeper philosophical problem with ‘Truth’ or whatever,” you seem to ignore this gravely important portion of what I wrote: “This is not an academic or bookish call to study. It is a call to contemplation. And contemplation is not the sole domain of monks and nuns; nor is it is the task of inactive or unproductive rumination. It is a call to action in the most prescient activity we can possibly imagine: conversion.”

    I also said as much when I replied to Mark when I wrote: “we have a lot of work ahead—work that is not academic or professorial, but, rather, salvific and eternal.”

    So, let me say it again: This is not academic stuff here. Of course my prose is heady and obtuse (sorry!), but the meaning I intend is that is we see this entire thing happening within the economy of salvation, then, we must attend to it with love. Doing so demands restless hermeneutics.

  15. David Nickol permalink
    June 8, 2009 8:13 am

    Typical leftist nonsense: only women can speak about abortions, because only women can have them.

    Joe,

    Of course, that was not what I said. I said on Vox Nova, rarely if ever do we get a discussion of the issue from a woman’s perspective. That is quite a bit different from saying only women may speak about abortions because only women can have them.

    Certainly men have a right to their say in the abortion debate, but I stick by my second sentence. It is easy for men to pontificate on abortion when they will never have one themselves. What if we had a discussion here of prostate cancer and “watchful waiting” versus immediate surgery, and only women said anything, and furthermore they claimed to be speaking the plain, objective truth? I am not saying that there might not be many wise and thoughtful comments, but when there is an issue that directly impacts only one gender, wouldn’t you expect that gender to have an important perspective?

    And of course it is entirely celibate men (the popes, bishops, and so on) who hold all the power to formulate the “rules.”

  16. June 8, 2009 8:32 am

    As a Catholic woman, I don’t believe it is “celibate men who hold all the power to formulate the ‘rules.'” I believe it is the Holy Spirit who is ultimately making these “rules.” And speaking of language and meaning, referring to Church teaching on sexuality as merely “rules” is certainly reducing the power and truth of Her Wisdom to its lowest denominator.

  17. June 8, 2009 8:54 am

    By the way: Everything I say in this post is readily inferred in the other one I cited, “Taking Language at its Word.” I suggest read it to contextualize what I mean in this one.

    Neither of them are addressing abortion outright. That one is being written still.

  18. David Nickol permalink
    June 8, 2009 9:30 am

    And speaking of language and meaning, referring to Church teaching on sexuality as merely “rules” is certainly reducing the power and truth of Her Wisdom to its lowest denominator.

    Maria,

    Which is why I put “rules” in quotation marks.

    Granting the Holy Spirit guides the Church, he (or she) still must use human beings, with all their flaws, as instruments. Remember what then Cardinal Ratzinger said about the influence of the Holy Spirit in electing popes:

    “I would not say so, in the sense that the Holy Spirit picks out the pope. … I would say that the Spirit does not exactly take control of the affair, but rather like a good educator, as it were, leaves us much space, much freedom, without entirely abandoning us. Thus the Spirit’s role should be understood in a much more elastic sense, not that he dictates the candidate for whom one must vote. Probably the only assurance he offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined.”

  19. jeremy permalink
    June 8, 2009 10:18 am

    I don’t understand from your remarks or your quote why you put “rules” in quotation marks?

  20. David Nickol permalink
    June 8, 2009 11:03 am

    I don’t understand from your remarks or your quote why you put “rules” in quotation marks?

    Jeremy,

    For much the reason Mary said. A great deal lies behind the “rule” that abortion is always prohibited. For those who believe Catholic doctrine and internalized the teachings of the Church, it would almost be silly to talk about a “rule” about abortion. Not to knock Orthodox Judaism, but it seems to me many of the observances are pretty much rules. You follow them because God said to, not because they make any sense. And you find ways to observe them to the letter without inconveniencing yourself. For example, you are not allowed to carry anything outside the home on the Sabbath, and that includes a handkerchief. So you pin it on your sleeve, and you are not carrying it, you’re wearing it. Or you establish an eruvthat extends the boundary of your home.

    I once had a fascinating chat online with a Jew who said he resented people trying to come up with rational explanations for things like kosher foods. (For example, pork was a health hazard during Biblical times.) He said he liked the idea of obedience for its own sake — you did things because God required them of you, and you needn’t have a reason.

    In any case, Catholicism’s moral guidelines are more than mere rules. Presumably, if you really understood the reasons behind the “rules,” you wouldn’t need “rules.”

  21. Gabriel Austin permalink
    June 8, 2009 3:45 pm

    Would the opening words of the Gospel of John have any relevance here?

    “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”.

    Anent rules, I suspect that the answer, for example, of the rule about not eating the fruit of the forbidden tree was simply like the rule of most mothers about eating your vegetables: “Because I said so”.

  22. Joe Hargrave permalink
    June 8, 2009 5:14 pm

    David,

    I couldn’t care less if only women spoke about prostrate cancer. Seriously. I don’t even understand the possible implications of this ‘what if’.

    Every unborn human being butchered in the womb had a father, however. So where are the fathers of aborted babies (oh, pardon me, fetuses)? I don’t see them here either.

    This is a matter of morality and law that does not require subjective, personal accounts. What they have to say is completely irrelevant. Human beings at all stages of development have a right to live, whether their mother is sad, angry, depressed, poor, rich, white, black, or whatever. Nothing excuses or justifies abortion, with the possible exception of saving one’s own life.

  23. Gabriel Austin permalink
    June 9, 2009 4:17 pm

    David Nickol Says June 7, 2009 at 8:56 pm
    “Why are there so few women writing on Vox Nova, and why don’t they ever weigh in on these kinds of abortion discussions? I think it’s very easy for men to rant and rave against abortion when they know they’ll never get pregnant”.

    I think because women are too sensible to get into a male discussion. From Martha Beck’s EXPECTING ADAM:””You guys think just because a baby isn’t born yet, it doesn’t exist. Get rid of it before a man ever sees it, and it never happened. Ask any woman who’s five months pregnant whether her baby exists or not”.

Trackbacks

  1. When does human life begin: asking the wrong question : Aprehendite disciplinam
  2. Meaning, Belief, and Abortion « Vox Nova

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