Words matter. Truth counts. Or do they in the postmodern age in which we live?
Recently The Washington Post reported a story about Obama advisor, Zeke Emmanuel, brother of Rahm Emmanuel. Dr. Emmanuel, a bioethicist and devoted “foodie”, is an atheist who catches a lot of grief from his friends because of his devotion to the dietary laws set forth in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Emannuel responds that Judaism and atheism are completely compatible.
Really? I thought Judaism taught that Yaweh, the God of Israel, was central to the Jewish religion and that He was the one who promulgated the dietary laws that Dr. Emmanuel seeks to follow so assiduously? How did the good doctor manage to skip over Genesis, Exodous, Numbers, and the rest of Leviticus and Deuteronomy only to focus on the content of the laws that shape his culinary customs?
Do words no longer matter? Can one fairly call a pie a “cherry pie” if it doesn’t have any cherries in it? Does truth no longer count?
Abraham Lincoln thought that words mattered and that truth counted for something. Responding to a disputant in an argument, he is reported to have asked his opponent, “ How many legs would a dog have, if you call a tail a leg?” Answering his own riddle, he stated that the answer was four, “…because calling a leg a tail doesn’t make it a leg.”
Any pollster will tell you that the answer to a question depends on how you frame the question and how you define its terms. That explains, in large part, why we are having such difficulty in public discourse in our society today—we have widely diverging views of what is true, so we can’t agree on which words to use in describing the truth or even the meaning of the words that are used. A fetus is a “person” and it is, therefore, wrong to kill it—or it is merely a “collection of cells,” and it is perfectly okay to abort it. Protagonists in the abortion debate are talking about the same thing—an unborn baby—but they are using very different words to describe it. Even though the labels applied to her don’t alter her essential nature, the words used to describe the child result in diametrically different views of how she can be treated.
The same thing goes for the word “marriage.” Does that word have objective propositional meaning? Does it mean the “union of one man and one woman” or can we use it to also describe “the union of any two people who love each other?” The definition we use for “marriage” affects our view of the types of union the state should recognize.
These same problems with words and truth crop up in the fields of law and theology. Do the words of the Constitution have objective meaning which should be applied in accordance with the original intent of the drafters, or can judges treat the words as wax, molding them in any fashion they choose in order to reach the outcome the judge desires in the case before him? Can theologians define “hell” to mean mere separation from God, or is it a place of suffering where sinners who reject God are sent after they die? The answer affects our view of the need for a savior and the role of repentance in our salvation.
Is it fair to approach words subjectively as Humpty did in his colloquy with Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass?
“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock—down argument,’” Alice objected.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
Christian apologist, Kirby Anderson identifies the problem we face as a culture in this way:
The worldview of the twenty-first century is postmodernism, and the dominant ethical system of the last two centuries has been relativism.
To understand this changed view of truth, we need to consider the story of three baseball umpires. One said, “There’s balls and there’s strikes, and I call ‘em the way they are.” Another said, “There’s balls and there’s strikes, and I call ‘em the way I see ‘em.” And the third umpire said, “There’s balls and there’s strikes, and they ain’t nothing until I call them.”
Their three different views of balls and strikes correspond with three different views of truth. The first is what we might call premodernism. This is a God-centered view of the universe that believes in divine revelation. Most of the ancient world had this view of true and believed that truth is absolute (“I call ‘em the way they are”). By the time of the Enlightenment, Western culture was moving into a time ofmodernism. This view was influenced by the scientific revolution, and began to reject a belief in God. In this period, truth is relative (“I call ‘em the way I see ‘em”). Today we live in what many callpostmodernism. In this view, there is a complete loss of hope for truth. Truth is not discovered; truth is created (“they ain’t nothing until I call them”).
American culture is profoundly polarized in the 21st century. The political arena, which is characterized by extreme hyper-partisanship, is only a microcosm of the larger cultural divide. The electorate continues to hope that there is a candidate who will be able to wave a magic wand and bring us all back together. But, there is little hope that we will be able to refashion a political or cultural consensus until we can agree on what is true and how to define it.