The Linguistic Blackhole of Postmodernism

Beautiful Cathedrals in France“The Meaning Gap

Here it is worth exploring one apologetics issue in a bit more detail, to show just how wide can be the gap between the meaning we have for a word and the meaning that a skeptic has for it, even for seemingly very ordinary words: What does it mean to have faith in God?

We can define faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” but for most skeptics, this definition merely illustrates the problem. If faith is “the assurance of things hoped for,” is that not an outright admission of Christianity as wish-fulfillment? (“Gotcha!” says the atheist). Furthermore, “the conviction of things not seen” suggests blind faith, because in our culture today – deeply materialistic and naturalistic as it is – ‘unseen’ is for all practical purposes a synonym for ‘unreal.’ In this view, if something is unseen it cannot be measured, and if it cannot be measured, it doesn’t really exist; thus, “the conviction of things unseen” could apply to the existence of fairies and leprechauns just as much as to the existence of God. (“Proof positive that faith is irrational!” says the skeptic.) And so the very definition of faith from Scripture itself seems, to the skeptic, to be a frank admission that faith is unreal: that we are making it all up. It’s an empty term, not even worth discussing. (“You poor self-deluded thing,” says the atheist.)

Nor is ‘God’ a more straightforward term. Even if the atheist can get past difficulties with the idea of ‘faith,’ his concept of ‘God’ may well be a ‘cosmic sky-daddy’: the idea of an old man in the sky, meeting out rewards and punishments. This is (rightly) unbelievable; given this idea of ‘God,’ it is entirely reasonable to assume that ‘faith in God’ is a cultural construct, a story used to threaten or bribe people into submission, or something that uneducated people believed in before there was Science. Or, for someone who is ‘spiritual but not religious,’ the word ‘God’ might be an abstract term for universal goodness. For that person, talking about what God has done in history or how he offers mercy is a non sequitur, along the lines of suggesting that the number three has a wonderful plan for your life.

So we can see that language about ‘faith in God’ is, in many cases, as meaningless to the skeptic as talking about ‘confidence in snarks and boojums.’ At best, the skeptic attempts to be polite about it, the way one might be polite about an adult who seriously claims a belief in leprechauns in the garden, or alleges to have met Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet. There’s absolutely no question of genuinely investigating claims of tiny footprints or asking to be invited to dinner with the Dane. The discussion between the atheist and the apologist becomes nothing more than rhetorical maneuvering to trap one or the other into admission of irrationality.

Consider this: if I play a game of Monopoly with a friend, and I land on ‘Go to Jail,’ I don’t have to actually go to jail. If we are playing a war-themed video game and I get shot, nobody has to take me to the emergency room. The games use words that point to real-life experiences, but without the substance of them; the players try to win, and may indeed get very emotional in the process, but fundamentally they know it’s a game. If ‘God’ and ‘faith’ and all the other concepts that we want to talk about with skeptics are just words to them, such that our argument is just an intellectual game – well, then we will get exactly nowhere, and we will waste a lot of time talking past each other.

The dangers of using religious language without attention to meaning for the listener are not limited to interactions with skeptics; a disjunction of meaning can (and often does) occur in preaching and catechesis within the Church as well. For instance, a young person raised in the Church may have a fuzzy idea of sin as meaning ‘hurting other people,’ rather than as something objectively wrong in itself that harms one’s relationship with God and injures one’s soul. This young person is thus no hypocrite in agreeing with his parents that sin is wrong, while sleeping with his girlfriend. After all, they’re consenting adults, so nobody is getting hurt…and if nobody is getting hurt, there’s no sin! Against this backdrop, arguments about the immorality of his behavior are likely to be met with incomprehension, or result in a conviction that the Church’s teachings are arbitrary and can safely be ignored. The disagreement about meaning can hide beneath the surface, distorting the conversations without the participants realizing it.

Pastors, ministry leaders, and teachers may simply assume that terms such as ‘faith,’ ‘salvation,’ ‘sin,’ ‘prayer,’ and ‘resurrection’ have shared, real meaning for all those who have professed faith in Christ, when in fact this may not be the case. A persistent failure to attend to meaning within the Church is a real danger to believers on a number of counts. It can lead to pervasive sense of hypocrisy, if Christians begin to wonder whether anyone really means the words used in worship services or in the creeds; to destructive doubts, if Christians conclude that these words do not have real meaning; or to movement away from orthodoxy and toward various heresies, as a persistent absence of meaning for words like ‘resurrection’ can lead to a distancing from or even rejection of the historical particularity of Christianity.

What can we do about it?”

– Holly Ordway, Apologetics and the Christian Imagination – 


– Lucas G. Westman

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