Current Religious Thought

The sincere Christian, desirous of speaking the truth, and of understanding and being understood, faces increasing problems in a time of mass-produced communications. It is far from clear that either the religious or the secular press is fulfilling the task of producing intelligibility between either individuals or groups in our decade. It is proposed in this article to note some of the ways in which words can serve either to illuminate or to confuse.

It is not asking too much, we think, to expect that the religious press should self-consciously be more incisive and more accurate than its secular counterpart. The men and women who have the ear of the sector of the public concerned with spiritual matters ought by every standard to regard their position as one of sacred stewardship. If anywhere, in their printed organs should be found the clear and responsible word—the word spoken out of a fearless search for precise meanings and out of a burning love for truth.

It is frequently fateful that words are not only ambiguous in meaning but also multiple in function. That is to say, a given word may not only convey differing and often diverse impressions but also serve either to clarify an objective or to obscure and confuse the person employing it. It is likewise a commonplace that the very familiarity which we feel with words causes us to employ them uncritically, and to suppose in the process that we do understand their dynamics.

The development of mass communication and the emergence of sophisticated “in-groups” tend to complicate our problems with words. One gains the impression that we are today at a point in history at which the mystique of words frequently plays a more important role in communication than their actual denotation.

On all hands, groups appeal to the charismatic quality of their characteristic and frequently ad hoc terminology. Like Plato’s prisoners in the grotto, these groups do not universally welcome the critical examination of their stock expressions and pat phrases. The exercise of what Max Weber calls “charismatic domination” very frequently depends upon an exploitation of the power of unexamined but emotionally tinged forms of expression. The ability of a term to conjure forth a numinous or emotionally charged response frequently guarantees it a vogue. And the temptation to utilize such types of expressions is at least as great to the religious writer as to the secular one.

All are familiar, of course, with the manner in which such terms as “Communist” and “Fascist” can produce a reaction of horror, even when the person to whom they are addressed has had little or no actual contact with either and could not, if his life depended upon it, give any incisive definition of one or the other. Or, to be more contemporary, the terms “left” and “right” have a similar power of mystique, especially when they are accompanied by the proper modifiers. (Incidentally, such terms have an uncanny ability to gather to themselves modifying terms.) The conservative tends to shudder at the mention of the “new left,” while his opposite number finds any combination of words including the word “right” to be neuralgic.

It should be said that the frightful toll of unnatural deaths in France during the Revolution and in the U. S. S. R. and China in our century is sufficient to frighten any thoughtful and sensitive person as he contemplates the emergence of movements that are so frequently more articulate about what they aim to pull down than about what they propose to put up in its place. Thus, while there is a realistic rationale to the conservative semantic reaction to any mention of the “left,” it must be said that the response is not always rational or well considered.

By the same token, the liberal (whether or not of a religious orientation) seems to respond to such a term as “radical right” in much the same manner as would the medieval man who heard that a new group of spooks had been sighted near a neighboring manor. The emotional overtones of the term “right” seem to compel him to regard every expression of conservatism as radical or dangerous. The religious press is by no means exempt from this tendency. It is instructive, for example, to note the editorial expressions in (say) the past year’s copies of a representative liberal religious periodical. While there are a dozen editorials directly critical of conservative movements, there is not one that expresses any concern, for example, at the emergence of such a Stalinist-Maoist group as the PL, with its avowed tendencies toward violent revolutionary action.

Words are in danger not only of being misused by their mystique but also of being debased by false identification and by deliberate misappropriation. There is a “Gresham’s Law of words” by which the false usages of a term drive the proper usage out of circulation. For an example of this tendency in current religious usage, one would cite the manner in which churchmen of avowed liberal theological leanings attempt to appropriate to themselves the title of “evangelical.” For a detailing of this, the reader is directed to Harold Lindsell’s article in this periodical, issue of June 18, 1965”). One needs to add little to Dr. Lindsell’s plea for plain honesty at this point.

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When one contemplates the power resident in words and in language, he cannot fail to be impressed by the need for the most fearless candor upon the part of the one who bears the stewardship of the printed word, and far more upon the part of the writer in the religious press. It does seem that it is time for those responsible for preparing our religious organs of communication to resist the use of charismatic clichés, and to avoid, in common honesty, the misappropriation of terms, particularly when that usage would serve to confuse identity and conceal objectives. It is a day for editorial and semantic integrity!


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