Friday, July 9, 2010


What we call something, or someone, is very important. This has been known since the dawn of mankind, everywhere, by every people. Hence, the sacredness of one’s personal name. Hence, the prohibition of the taking the Name in vain. Yes, this applies to the Name of G’d as expressed in the third of the Ten Words (Exodus 20:7), but as we have been created in the Image of Him who is, everyone knows this has something to do with our own personal names. We are patterned on Him. We are His being uttered in a different key, as we might say ‘on a smaller scale’ bringing our perceptions into it.

This is not about personal names, but about the names we give things and ideas. We little suspect how much the language we speak and the names we give things affects what we believe or think we know about them. Terminology is not a trivial science, but a pivotal one in defining and setting up our world. This is why it was an unheard of privilege for Adam the First-created to be given the task of naming—first, naming the animals and, by extension, all things that weren’t himself, and finally, even naming his helpmate, “This is to be called Woman (ishsháh), for this was taken from Man (ish)” (Genesis 2:23).

Every word that is the name of something is a loaded entity. As soon as we hear it, we usually find that our minds have already been made up. Why is this? Well, firstly because we have learned the dictionary meaning of the term. Secondly, from seeing how the word is applied in our culture and day to day lives, we also have a fluent understanding of many of its undocumented meanings. Finally, often the word has very personal meaning to ourselves: we have defined it in relation to our own being.

A good example of what I mean can be drawn from Christian terminology. Many of the words that are used in the Western world to describe things and ideas pertaining to life in the Church (for that is what being a Christian seems to mean) are drawn from Latin, and they have an immediate mental impact on those who use them. “Sacrament” is one of these. This word has a strict dictionary definition, and if it stayed there it might be a fitting word to use. Instead, it has accrued to itself meanings and connotations which have contributed to the religious sickness of Western society, both feeding into it and drawing from it, divorcing itself from its scriptural meaning. For that reason, it is best to return to the Greek term mystírion or mystery. True, “mystery” has its own set of suppositions and meanings, but it has existed in its original, scriptural meaning for two thousand years, hidden from the eyes of most Christians in the West, and as such, it can now resurface into the culture with its ancient meaning intact. It removes the idea of what it represents from the devolution that the word “sacrament” has experienced for fifteen hundred years. It returns us to the gospel, not to a religious category. And the gospel, evangélion, is not “religion,” it is “the good news.”

In a different frame of reference, one more secular but which may illustrate my point better, are the words we use to define sexuality. These are very loaded words. “Gay” versus “straight” is the common parlance of the day, with the first term infiltrating languages other than English. As soon as we hear these words, we know what they mean, and we have decided already what we think about them. They provoke no questions in us to search for truth. They simply tell us what’s what, and then proceed to categorize us to ourselves. If we hear the words, “homosexual” and “heterosexual” some of us feel like we’re on more solid ground, we feel somewhat scientific. We think we know what these words mean, what they tell us about other people and what they do, but do they really allow us a little freedom and incentive to ask questions, to try to arrive at truth? I don’t think so, for they still assume things about people that may not in fact be true. They insist that given a set of facts, another well-defined set of acts will result. Again, a false assumption. Finally, a phrase like “same sex attraction,” which seems on the surface to mean “homosexual” but actually doesn’t. This phrase doesn’t have an opposite partner in everyday speech, apparently because none is needed. This phrase is not loaded like the previous terms that seem to be its equivalents. You can use this phrase and give it the meaning of the other two, but you don’t have to. Instead, you can let it provoke questions in you, to launch your mind on a quest, for the truth. What does it mean? What does it imply? What are its conditions? What are its results? Instead of being told, as you are with the other terms, that if you “suffer” from this, you will do this, and be that, it lets you discover for yourself, apart from the dominant “culture,” what it really means. And that might be quite different. And in fact, it is.

We must be very careful in naming ourselves and others, as well as naming our conditions, objectives, principles and so on. You can call yourself a Catholic, a Protestant, or an Orthodox, but what does this mean? Is there anything you can depend on in a person who is identified as one of these? Very little, I think. Very little that really matters, anyway. We can look up the words in a dictionary, and go from there, but until we actually meet one of these self-named creatures, we won’t have a real understanding of what these words mean. Even when we do meet them, we will be utterly confused. Why? Because these are mere labels thrown over what cannot be defined that way. Isn’t this nothing more than saying the obvious, that you can’t categorize and judge people? Bingo!

Still, names are important, otherwise Adam would not have been told to start the process of naming that continues down to the present day. It’s too bad that very few names can hold on to their original meanings as well as “pick” and “shovel.” Wait a minute! pick! What did you mean by that?

Do the words we use to name people, things and ideas cause our minds to fall into a groove of thoughtless conformity and our day to day lives into equally mindless actions? Or do we use words that provoke thought, questioning, and questing for what really is true about people, things and ideas? The world that results from the first is the broken world we see around us. The world that arises from the second, well, what can I say better about it than what Aslan said to Mr. Beaver in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,

“All names will soon be restored to their proper owners. In the meantime we will not dispute about noises.”

1 comment:

Orthodox Christian Resources said...


You have once again read my mind.

To classify something scientifically, i.e. give it a name, reassures us that we understand it and we have conquered it. That is the insecurity of people.

Something that I thought about yesterday is also connected. Most have actually lost their names, lost their personality, and they deeply long for an identity. That explains the new phenomenon of the 'i' in front of gadgets: ipod, i-phone, i-pad, myspace etc and at my university there is myunsw.

Thanks for the thoughts...