Magazines 2018 Mar - Apr Words matter. To life and to faith

Words matter. To life and to faith

21 March 2018 , 2018 Mar - Apr By Patricia Paddey

“When I use a word, it means what I choose it to mean. Neither more nor less.” – Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll. Language is and always has been an evolving thing. New words and phrases come into vogue, old ones change their meanings, or fall out of use altogether.

By Patricia Paddey

“When use a word, it means what I choose it to mean. Neither more nor less.” – Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll.

Language is and always has been an evolving thing. New words and phrases come into vogue, old ones change their meanings, or fall out of use altogether.

Adept at hastening the evolutionary process are contemporary politicians who speak in public forums “where language is so often hijacked, held hostage, and abused,” according to writer Marilyn McEntyre. Think of Justin Trudeau’s peoplekind kerfuffle, the Trump administration’s alternative facts, or the President’s own lexicon, which recently used treasonous to describe Democrats who didn’t clap for his State of the Union speech.

In a context of religious pluralism, changing and diluting the meanings of words seems to contribute to political correctness, relativism, and a growing cynicism of anything labelled as “truth.” This is a problem for Christian mission because the gospel is a true story about real events that happened at a definite point in human history, events that Christians believe give meaning to all of life.

Philosopher Charles Taliaferro notes that “When someone asks you for the meaning of some act or event, this seems to be a question about truth and significance,” but increasingly it is suggested today “that we should not be concerned with the meaning of life in which this ‘meaning’ is to be found in terms of some objective … or cosmic viewpoint.”

A sense of objective meaning to life isn’t the only thing being lost. People are also losing their faith. In a study published last year, sociologists Joel Thiessen and Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme state that one-quarter of Canadians today do not identify with any religion. These “religious nones” are growing in number and proportion of the population. Regarding Alberta alone—a province commonly linked with conservative thought and higher than average rates of church attendance—religious nones increased by 87 percent over the 28-year period from 1985 to 2012. Among the oldest (born 1905–1909) and youngest (1995–1997) cohorts measured, the average rate of religious nones rose by an astounding 245 percent.

Thiessen and Wilkins-Laflamme write that the factors leading to this state of affairs include “a specific social context … where one religion does not hold a monopoly on truth but rather multiple religions coexist.”

In another study, Thiessen explores marginal religious affiliation in this country, and the likelihood that people who attend church occasionally will become more fully engaged. He cites the trend among parents to give children a choice as to whether or not to be involved in the parents’ own religion as contributing to the rise of religious nones, and attributes the trend to “a relatively recent … and large shift in consciousness that favors diversity, pluralism, and relativism at the expense of exclusive and absolute values and beliefs.”

Words lose their meanings. Absolutes shift. Truth seems to falter. And the meaning of life itself becomes elusive.

“What do words have to do with Christianity?” asks Justin Taylor, editor of The Power of Words and the Wonder of God. “Almost everything.”

Patricia Paddey is a Faith Today senior writer.