Language and Theology

I’ve been on a bit of a John Durham Peters kick lately. It probably has something to do with the podcast interview I recently put together with him (yes, this post contains a bit of self-promotion, but it’s for your own good!). In case the name doesn’t ring a bell, he’s a communication studies professor at the University of Iowa and the author of my favorite book, Speaking Into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication. I was putting together a Mormon-themed bibliography of his work and discovered an old Sunstone article on “perfection” in Mormonism. There is plenty of meat there to chew on, but I wanted to get some discussion going on word usage and Mormon theology generally. Peters asks what Mormons mean by “perfection.”

He notes that the answer isn’t merely theological but also linguistic. He cites two major shifts in the meaning of the word that occurred since the KJV translation gave us the command: “Be ye therefore perfect even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48; cf. 3 Nephi 12:48). Paraphrasing/quoting Peters:

First shift: Brought about by mass production. Perfection is not seen in terms of excellence, but as the absence of flaw, imperfections not exceeding a predetermined level. Flawlessness and finality took over the term, Peters notes.

Second shift:  Social Darwinism, which shifted the homeland of perfection from social groups to select individuals. Rather than perfection being perceived as coming about in society, the perfectible individual takes a more narcissistic center stage.

This perfection stuff is a topic all its own, but I want to draw specific attention to how Peters succinctly describes the direction of his investigation:

Since most Mormons [in 1987] belong to the English-speaking community, their words are subject to the broader shifts of meaning found in larger society; nevertheless, if we are not sensitive to what is happening to the words we prize, we may find our religious life and discourse infiltrated by meanings foreign to it. (John Durham Peters, “Perfection: A Social Criticism and A Theological Alternative.” Sunstone 11.3 [1987]: 20.

Peters spends the rest of his pages talking about the implications of shifting meanings of “perfection” in Mormon discourse and critiques the word in terms of Mormon experience and vision. I can think of a few dozen words off the top of my head that would provide a lot of room for this sort of really cool exploration. For instance, how has the word “apostasy” been defined and re-defined in Mormonism, and under what potentially fruitful or fruitless cultural influences?

Specifically in this post I’m wondering what sorts of words you’d like to see subjected to more scrutiny, and what sort of results you might anticipate from the venture.

16 Replies to “Language and Theology”

  1. Here’s another couple of words: “liberty,” “spirit.” In both cases we see a kind of inverse relationship to what Peters is doing, maybe.

  2. Nice, Blair! I just want to throw out an excerpt from a poem that’s part of my personal canon: “Shall we revise the language?/ And in revising the language/ will we alter the doctrine?” (R.S. Thomas, “Bleak Liturgies”). Does LDS thought preclude such closer scrutiny of words that might take people beyond the canonized doctrines of the church into less well-defined territory? Mormons do guard the meaning of certain words very carefully, and I like the perspective Peters adds to this discussion. Linguistic change is natural and perhaps necessary to introducing new meanings, such as the invention/revelation of that etymological surd “telestial.” The words I’d like to see scrutinized more are some of the usuals–“grace,” “salvation,” “priesthood.”

  3. A word I would love to see dissected is “know.” I’m not sure if that word’s meaning has fluctuated a lot in English’s history, but I’m curious as to whether it had the same cultural impact as it does today within our Church.

  4. “conservative” and “traditional”. Not terribly central doctrinally (although perhaps in an ironic way since we started out as tradition breakers), but very important culturally now, at least in the western US.

  5. The best way to all be on the same page with regard to the meaning of theologically significant terms is to use them the way they are used in the scriptures. It doesn’t matter exactly how those terms were used before they were adopted for biblical translations like the KJV, or how they are used now in the vernacular, in English, the canonical religious meaning of those terms is now defined by the way they are used in the KJV and other similar translations.

    Anything radically different than that is making up some sort of private dialect that is useless for discussing religion with other heirs of the Christian tradition. The writings of Paul as translated into English, for example, now define what sanctification and justification mean in our language, and any other creative invention of what those terms mean or should mean that is divorced from those writings is entirely beside the point.

  6. “The writings of Paul as translated into English, for example, now define what sanctification and justification mean in our language,”

    Rrrrrrrrright. That’s why there are acres of library shelves given over to arguments about those very definitions.

    There aren’t any self-evident definitions of complicated theological terms in the scriptures. You want to try boiling down scriptural usage of “faith”, or “charity”, or “priest”, or “help meet”? It’s hermeneutics all the way down, alas.

  7. That’s why there are acres of library shelves given over to arguments about those very definitions

    So what? That doesn’t contradict what I said.

  8. The writings of Paul as translated into English, for example, now define what sanctification and justification mean in our language, and any other creative invention of what those terms mean or should mean that is divorced from those writings is entirely beside the point.

    I’m not sure what you mean by this, Mark D, it doesn’t make sense to me.

  9. Or I should say I didn’t make any claim as to how “self evident” the definitions of those particular terms is, but only that the writings of Paul are _the_ normative source if you want to research what the religious sense of those terms is in the English language, because no one in their right mind uses those terms without qualification in discussions of religion in the English language except by reference to whatever Paul meant when he used the terms.

    “Whatever Paul meant” is what people generally mean when they use those terms without qualification because everyone else listening is going to assume that is what is being referred to.

    That there is no solid consensus about “what Paul meant” is completely immaterial to the claim that “what Paul meant” is the default sense of those terms in religious English. That is the common point of reference, that is how those terms were introduced into religious English, and without that common point of reference both of those terms are virtually meaningless, so far as any unqualified religious usage in English is concerned.

  10. BHodges, I mean that any debate about definitions is pointless without some point of reference, the most common of which is contemporary usage.

    I claim that the default religious sense of “justification” and “sanctification” in English is derived from the English translation of Paul’s writings, the KJV in particular.

    What I mean by the “default religious sense” is that whenever anyone a term without qualification in English discussions of religion, and Christianity in particular, the typical reader/hearer is going to make an assumption about which sense of the term is being used, and the “default” sense is the reading that the preponderance of the audience will use until further context gives them a reason to choose a different one,

    So if you are going to engage in a debate about what “justification” generally means in religious English, you are either debating what Paul meant by the term, how that meaning may have departed as a whole in the entire body of religious communication from what Paul meant by the term (as translated into English), or you are just making something up that has little or nothing to do with the sense that the vast majority of persons literate in English assume you are talking about, by default. One cannot just divorce a term from its history and etymology without reducing every claim about what it normally means to nonsense.

  11. Mark while I completely understand the point you are making and pretty well agree, I think it’s a bit complex. If only because that “starting point” of the straightforward sense of the term changes over history and place. That’s partially because the non-theological meaning of the words changed over time. But also because the straightforward sense was itself a product of theologians like Luther, Calvin and other preachers. So while there is default religious sense that arises out of the English language and normative context, that very language and context was subject to historical evolution via hermeneutics. (I know you agree, given your last line above – but I wanted to make this explicit)

    Where I think I’d break with you is the idea that there is a single normative sense – especially with these religious terms. There’s just too many different communities in America. The normative sense in a Catholic community in Louisiana is different from the normative sense in Ogden, UT and probably quite different from Arkansas or among atheists in a college town.

  12. Clark, I claim that the normative sense is [what Paul meant by the term] (brackets preserved), which is one layer of less indirection (but more ambiguity) than something like [what Protestants generally believe that Paul meant by the term]. The brackets here are important because there is not a definite consensus as to what Paul meant. Something like:

    sense(T,normative) = sense(T,Paul)

    where sense(T,Paul) is regarded as a loosely bound variable rather than a tightly bound one. Loosely bound to the universe of possible interpretations of what Paul meant by term T rather than something more tightly bound like the universe of possible interpretations of what Calvin meant by the same term.

  13. Or in other words, Christian communities generally agree that the proper meaning of “justification” is “what Paul meant” even if within any specific community they have localized interpretation of what that actually is.

    So “what Paul meant” with no premature binding or resolution is the normative sense in Christianity, and “what we believe Paul meant” is the normative sense within some narrower Christian community. Unfortunately late binding is a hard idea to get across, and ultimately the root of the confusion here.

  14. “Meditate” is a word that has evolved in contemporary society, including for many Mormons. Also “preside” and “patriarchy” are perennial footballs. We don’t seem to be saying what the rest of our culture is saying when we use these words, but the truth is, I don’t think we know what we mean either.

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