I’ve made my New Year’s Resolution. I hereby resolve that I will not participate in arguments based upon definitions.
A definition, by definition, defines. More precisely, it de-fines. Note the prefix. If you look up “de-” in a dictionary, you’ll find it means to remove, reduce, lower… In other words, definitions narrow any discussion. They shift the focus from lived experience to someone else’s wisdom, frozen into print.
Once, in an early essay, I used the phrase “by definition.” My instructor scribbled, “Whose definition?”
Because definitions change. “Sanguine” once meant bloody; now it can mean calm, cheerful, and confident. “Sanction” conveys either approval or disapproval, depending on context. “Loose” and “fast” contradict each other applied to a ship at a dock, but mean the same applied to a promiscuous person (traditionally, a woman).
In recent columns I have referred to Jonathan Haidt’s book about the political and religious values that divide us. Liberals, he says, place the highest value on compassion and fairness -- treating individuals equally. Conservatives, by contrast, place higher value on tribal cohesiveness, a moral consensus, and submission to hierarchy and authority. (Read his book, The Righteous Mind,for a fuller explanation.)
When Haidt graphs his conclusions, he puts liberals on the left, conservatives on the right.
The distinction, he says, dates back to France’s National Assembly after the Revolution. Those preferring change sat on the left, those supporting the status quo sat on the right.
But his definitions are backwards, a correspondent assures me. Traditionally, conservatives have defended individual rights. The left -- communists, socialists, and unions -- has emphasized solidarity and collective action.
Therefore, he argues, Haidt’s liberals are really conservatives; conservatives are liberal; the right is left, so the left must be wrong.
Or something like that.
Trapped by definitions
Definitions try to force new ideas into pre-existing slots. If the new ideas won’t fit, they can be safely ignored.
In another column, I wrote that the God I knew was not a person. A correspondent challenged me. The exchange went something like this:
Him: “So you see God as impersonal.”
Me: “That’s not what I said. I said God is not a person -- but is intensely personal.”
Him: “Then what personal qualities does God have? An intellect? A distinct character? A style?”
I could see this was going nowhere. He wasn’t being deliberately difficult. He just wanted to file my experience in “little boxes… made of ticky-tacky,” to borrow Malvina Reynolds’ lyrics.
Many people, I suspect, don’t realize the un-examined definitions they’re working with.
A friend yearns for mystical experiences. It won’t happen. Because, under pressure, he admits that an encounter with God requires getting knocked senseless, blinded -- or at least blind-sided -- and ordered by a disembodied voice like Paul Robeson’s to change his life.
Similarly, a woman in a workshop told us about the many times her life had been rescued by others -- her adoptive parents, her friends, her doctors, her children… “But,” she sobbed, “I don’t see where God had anything to do with any of that.”
Her definitions prevented her from recognizing divine influences in her life.
Definitions can be a straitjacket.
Hence my New Year’s Resolution. If you insist on dragging definitions into a lively discourse, count me out.
Copyright © 2019 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.
To comment on this column, write email@example.com
Cliff Boldt liked the quotations from Minnie Haskins’ poem, “And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year/Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown…” Cliff commented, “There is light, if we care to search for it. Some days quite dim but enough to proceed cautiously.”
Tom Watson: I like the first part of your last paragraph: ‘So as I stand today at the uncertain gate of a New Year...’ It strikes me that's always the way, not only with a new year but with each new day. The gate is always uncertain but we open it anyway and stride forth in hope.
“May all the days of your new year bring fulfillment in whatever ways you measure it...and on those days that feel less than fulfilling may something of kindness and grace hold your hand as you walk on anyway.”
Alan Edwards shared my discomfort with some of Minnie Haskins’ traditional theology: “That seems like so much wishful thinking by (us) humans. I suppose we’d like to think that, in spite of our ugly actions towards our neighbours (suburban and global) there just might be a ‘god’ out there (somewhere) who will ‘save us’ from the disasters we heap on others… and ourselves! Climate change is just one such disaster!”
Alan continued, “I would also like to thank you for your weekly comments (both Softedges and Sharpedges). I look forward every few days to receiving insights from another part of the world which (almost always) reflects my own feelings and understandings.
“I find your insights into human actions and the thoughts (or lack of) behind them to be helpful in sharpening my own. I especially like your comments arising from reflective thoughts while walking your dog, or other ‘observations’ from daily activities. I also walk my dog daily… and love the opportunities to think differently, in a different atmosphere. My dog clearly understands and encourages such thoughts!
“I have been a pastor for nearly 50 years, and your columns have helped me to use god-language that more accurately reflects my understandings. Your comments from your thinking about ‘God’ are intriguing and helpful. As a retired pastor, I am finding so much more ‘freedom’ now to think about God in ways that are more helpful… to me and to those I speak with! Thanks for your assistance in this endeavour!
Bob Rollwagen wrote, “Where is God when we need him? [Or her? JT] In the movie The Darkest Hour Churchill describes the presence of his parents during his childhood by stating that ‘his father was like God, always somewhere else when he needed him’. Churchill’s strong leadership in a time of need is one of the reasons we have a free world today; 2000 years ago, strong leadership of a man named Jesus led to social change and progressive thinking over the following centuries.
“As we enter a new year, we need to call for increased involvement by all in the structures of society that demand ethics and truth in the development of social equity and fairness as a basis for decisions.”
[JT note: Clearly, Jonathan Haidt (see column above) would define Bob as a liberal.]
Epiphany is supposed to mark the day the divinity of Jesus was revealed to other nations, represented by the visiting Magi. The reading is Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14. I wonder if Mary might have crooned something like this to her infant son after they left.
1 Life will be different for you, my child.
2 You will break out of our prisons of oppression,
our ghettoes of injustice.
3 Your mountains will rise clear in the morning,
and your valleys offer comfort in the setting sun.
4 You will not fall prey to prevailing values;
you will never exploit the powerless,
or profit from people's desperation.
5 Adversity will not grind you down,
6 nor will difficulties dissolve your determination.
They will only help you grow.
7 Everyone who meets you will see something special about you.
A bubble of peace will protect you;
10 A sea of calm will support you.
They will all see it in you, my child;
everyone will see it.
12, 14 You will do better than us.
You will not be bowed down by despair, nor bent by hate.
You will not be crushed by violence; you will not grovel after power.
13 You will be free to love, to care, to have compassion.
14 You are precious, my child.
For you, things will be different.
For paraphrases of mostof the psalms used by the Revised Common Lectionary, you can order my book Everyday Psalmsfrom Wood Lake Publishing, firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you want to comment on something, send a message directly to me, email@example.com.
To subscribe or unsubscribe, send an e-mail message to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can subscribe electronically by sending a blank e-mail (no message or subject line) to email@example.com. Similarly, you can un-subscribe at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I write a second column each Sunday called Sharp Edges, which tends to be somewhat more cutting about social and justice issues. To sign up for Sharp Edges, write to me directly, email@example.com, or send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org
And for those of you who like poetry, I’ve started a webpage http://quixotic.ca/My-Poetrywhere I post (occasionally, when I feel inspired) poems that I have written. If you’d like to receive notifications about new poems, write me at email@example.com, or subscribe yourself to the list by sending a blankemail(no message) to firstname.lastname@example.org(If it doesn’t work, please let me know.)
To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols. Some spam filters have been blocking my posts because they’re suspicious of too many links.
Ralph Milton’s latest project is a kind of Festival of Faith, a retelling of key biblical stories by skilled storytellers like Linnea Good and Donald Schmidt, designed to get people talking about their own faith experience. It’s a series of videos available on Youtube. I suggest you start with his introductory section: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7u6qRclYAa8
Ralph’s “Sing Hallelujah” -- the world’s first video hymnal -- is still available. It consists of 100 popular hymns, both new and old, on five DVDs that can be played using a standard DVD player and TV screen, for use in congregations who lack skilled musicians to play piano or organ. More details at wwwDOTsinghallelujahDOTca
Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,”an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. <http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca>
I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom
Alva Wood’s satiric stories about incompetent bureaucrats and prejudiced attitudes in a small town -- not particularly religious, but fun; alvawoodATgmailDOTcom to get onto her mailing list.
Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony”-- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’sreaders. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom or twatsonATsentexDOTnet