Why Words Matter
©2008 Matthew A. C. Newsome
I have a thing for what I call “bumper sticker phrases” – those little quips and quotes that are brief enough to fit on a bumper sticker. They remain in our memory long after the car in front of us has moved on because they are short and witty. This can be a benefit if the message is a good one. The writings of G. K. Chesterton are full of such gems. (My own bumper was adorned with a Chesterton quote, “Break the Conventions; Keep the Commandments”).
But these little platitudes can be a double-edged sword. What makes them very useful in conveying a good and truthful message also makes them efficient in spreading falsehood and confusion. All too often today it is the latter category that predominates, as we confuse sound bites for substance.
Consider one experience I had while traveling on the Feast of Our Lord’s Ascension. The choir in the parish I was visiting sang a song (one dare not call it a hymn!) during communion, the refrain of which began, “Jesus has no body now but you.” The point of the song was that we Christians must be the hands and feet of Christ in this world; fair enough, and a good message to remember.
However, one must question the prudence of the choir singing, “Jesus has no body” as the faithful are receiving the very Body of Our Lord in the Eucharist. Not to mention the fact that the priest had just given a wonderful homily about how Christ ascended bodily into heaven. (This occurred right around the same time that a “documentary” aired about Jesus’ tomb supposedly being discovered. Some talking heads were making that claim that such a discovery wouldn’t contradict Christianity because Jesus’ ascension was a “spiritual” one.)
I feared that many of the congregation wouldn’t recall the details of father’s homily past the end of the Creed. Yet they will drive home humming the refrain, “Jesus has no body…” These short phrases, especially when set to music, have a way of staying with us. The problem was not with what the songwriter was trying to say. The “body of Christ” is a very traditional metaphor used to describe the Church. There is a lot to be learned from it. However, the words chosen and the context in which they were used could easily lead to confusion about both the Real Presence in the Eucharist and the nature of Christ’s ascension. The words we choose to use are important, especially when we are passing on our faith.
This was brought to mind recently when I attended a Lay Ministry training session provided by our diocese, during which the instructor made use of the following “anonymous” quotation, which I wouldn’t be surprised to see on a bumper sticker somewhere. “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” (A quick Google search reveals the source is actually Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ, 1881-1955).
Now, I am not aware of the context of de Chardin’s statement, and that’s part of the problem. This “bumper sticker phrase” was given out of context (we were not even told the source), so the attendants could only judge it as presented. And it would seem to juxtapose the “human” and the “spiritual” in a very dualistic fashion. In fact, it immediately called to mind the error of the twelfth century Cathars (and certain earlier Gnostic sects, such as the Manicheans) that viewed the human soul as being trapped in our physical bodies. Salvation consisted in freeing our spirits from our bodies. This led to all kinds of extremes including, in the case of the Cathars, ritual smothering.
The resulting chaos nearly devastated medieval Europe. The Dominican order was founded in an effort to bring these wayward sheep back into the fold, and the Albigensian Crusade was fought in an attempt to keep France from coming apart at the seams because of this heresy.
While this “bumper sticker” quote does not endorse the Cathar idea of the human body as evil, it does lend itself to the interpretation that we are spiritual beings who are only occupying this body for a while (having a “human experience”). In reality our faith instructs us that to be human is to be both body and spirit. One cannot separate the two. The Catechism explains, “The human person, created in the image of God, is a being at once corporeal and spiritual” (CCC 362). “…[S]pirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature” (CCC 365).
The truly ironic thing is that the leader of this particular session was using the de Chardin quote in an attempt to teach the orthodoxy of the Catechism. “We are body-spirits,” the attendants were told. “True Christian spirituality cannot be dualistic.” Our instructor was correct on these points. But what will stick in the minds of the attendants is the poorly chosen quote from de Chardin, because it is memorable. Months from now, they may recall the phrase “spiritual beings having a human experience” and not even know where they heard it.
Imprecise language such as this can be a serious problem in Catholic education. Words do matter. If you make a habit today of arguing over the way things are phrased, people tend to accuse you of nit-picking, and say, “that’s just semantics.” But some nits are very important to pick! The above example deals with the issue of our nature. What is man? If you believe that our true nature is spirit, and we are simply “having a human experience,” this can lead to some very erroneous conclusions not only about our faith but also about our very being!
As important as the question of our nature is, even more important is the question of the nature of Jesus Christ. During the same Lay Ministry training session, our instructor cited the question posed by Jesus to Simon Peter (Mt. 16:15) as one of the core elements of our spiritual lives: “Who do you say that I am?”
We are all familiar with Peter’s response. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” But the attendants at this session were told that this was Peter’s “personal answer.” We, as Christians, must each answer this question for ourselves. Furthermore the answer for each of us will be different. And there is, we were assured, no right or wrong answer.
Well that’s just nonsense. The examples given to the attendants were designed to have us understand that we each have an individual relationship with Jesus Christ. This much is true. Relationships exist between unique individuals and therefore they will be different. My relationships with my children, my spouse, and my parents are all different. If you ask my daughter who I am, she’ll reply, “my daddy.” If you ask my wife, she’ll tell you, “my husband.” Ask my father the same question and he’ll say, “my middle son.” All of these are true. But none of them tell you who I am. They describe my relationships, not my being.
So it is true that our individual relationship with Christ will be unique. There was nothing erroneous about what our instructor was teaching in this regard. But she chose her words poorly in illustrating this point. If we are going to be in a relationship with Jesus, then we need to know Jesus. Just as in any relationship, we need to get to know the person. I want to really know Jesusas He is, not how I imagine Him to be.
To suggest that it is acceptable for us to have our own different ideas as to the nature and identity of Christ is plain heresy. It means that my Jesus will be different than your Jesus. We end up making God in our image, rather than the other way around. The whole concept of an objective reality of Christ’s existence is thrown out the window. Jesus ceases to be a real person for us and becomes an idea, a construct of our own minds.
I thought of all of this when our instructor told us there was no “right or wrong” answer to Jesus’ question. Peter certainly had it right. Any answer that was contrary would be wrong. It is as simple as that.
Historically, there have been many wrong answers to the question of Jesus’ identity. The Arians thought that Christ was the greatest of all God’s creatures, but not God Himself. They were willing to attribute every aspect of divinity to him other than divinity itself. Their wrong answer to the question, “Who do you say that I am?” rendered Christendom asunder.
Today we get hot under the collar if our favorite television show is cancelled, or our local sports team makes an unfortunate trade. But when it comes to issues dealing with our faith, too many of us have a “to each his own” attitude. This was not the case in the fourth century. Fr. Richard M. Hogan puts it this way:
It is hard for most of us to understand why people became so intense on what often seems to the modern mind to be a rather abstruse theological discussion. Our attitude is usually “So what?” What difference did either position really make in everyday life?
…But these were fighting words for Emperors, Popes, bishops, priests, deacons, and even lay people. Gregory of Nyssa mentions that if one goes to the public baths and asks if the bath is ready, the reply is that the Son came from nothingness (the Arian position). If one goes to buy bread, the baker remarks that the Father is greater than the Son! In other words, everyone was discussing these issues (Dissent From the Creed, 86).
For decades the ripples of the Arian heresy caused dissent within the Church. Many times the parties involved seemed ready to reunite if only some compromise could be made. Yet the Church could not bend on this issue of “semantics” because it dealt with the very fundamental question of the identity of Christ, the object of our faith.
By the time of the Council of Constantinople (381 AD), the debate was raging over whether it was proper to call the Son “one in being with” the Father (homoousios in Greek), or “like in being with” the Father (homoiousios). The letter “i” in the Greek alphabet is called iota. The debate between these two near-identical terms would give rise to the phrase “one iota of difference,” such was the importance of even a single letter to the fathers of the early Church.
“They’re just words,” I’ve been told when I teach on the Arian heresy. “Why does it matter, so long as we all have faith in Christ?” Well, it does matter. The bishops and theologians of the early church debated for decades because they knew that the words we use to describe our faith are of utmost importance. Words matter because truth matters, and words are the means we use to convey that truth to others.
If we are to be faithful to our call to “go forth and make disciples of all nations, teaching them all I have commanded you,” then we need to be sure that our words are precise and accurate. Pretending that there is no right or wrong answer to questions of such fundamental importance as the identity of Christ, or our human nature, does no one any favors. Relying upon memorable sound bites, because they seem witty, rather than using our reason and common sense, is just sloppy theology.
This is true whether we are teaching in a classroom setting, writing articles for publication, engaging in apologetics, or even selecting the hymns for Sunday Mass. Words are powerful, especially when they are memorable. As Peter Parker says in another great one-liner, “With great power comes great responsibility.”