Monday, December 24, 2007

Words and Meaning

There exists today an ever-growing anthropological dimension to the crisis of faith. No longer do we simply ask: does God exist? We ask rather: what does it mean to be man? The typical response to this question is that we must individually create meaning for ourselves – and if we’re still not sure, look to Hollywood for answers! Many people live the example set by movie stars and live a life in search of lust, wealth, and power, never asking themselves why celebrities like Owen Wilson and Kurt Cobain attempt, or are successful in, suicide. When the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience become unfashionable, society slips into the decay of decadence.

But maybe it’s more than simply being unfashionable. Perhaps, once again, it comes back to meaning. If we could take a pause to remove our glasses of popular culture and secular media through which we see the world, we would discover that we tend to distract ourselves with many little things in order to keep ourselves from asking life’s big questions. People tend to fear asking such questions, afraid of finding no answers. Thus I quote Pope John Paul the Great: “Be not afraid!”

So, what does it mean to be man?

Meaning implies objective truth. For man, objective truth is expressed through words, structured into sentences, and formed into logical arguments. How boring it was for me to learn new words and definitions in school. Little did I know how important words were for discovering truth. Words today are being redefined by pop culture and the secular media. Some words when spoken lack almost all of their original meaning. Describing yourself as “gay” in modern society means something completely different than it did fifty years ago. At the same time, many ideas are being lumped together under one word. Love is a good example of this. To the Greeks, the concept of love was so important that they gave it four different words!

Now take the evangelical counsels for example. Poverty is taken to be simply the renunciation of worldly possessions. This is the new cultural simplification of poverty. We forget that poverty applies to the spirit as well as to the body. The first beatitude is: blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Poverty is the key to hope, which recognizes that God is the source of our happiness and it is only through His help that it can be acquired. Chastity today has been reduced to meaning abstinence. Just say no to sex – as if it were dirty! Chastity is the key to love because through chastity we see people as ends and not as a means to selfish gratification. Lastly, the new definition of obedience means “wussing out” and sacrificing individual freedom. Rather, obedience means recognizing you’re not number one. Obedience is the key to faith – as a matter of fact, the Catechism talks about the “obedience of faith” which refers to the acceptance of God’s self-revelation because He who reveals is truth itself (remember, it’s the truth that sets one free!). If God reveals it, who am I to disagree with it? That, however, is exactly what has happened. From gay marriage to abortion; from embryonic stem cell research to the ordination of priestesses. All these originate from the redefinition of words like poverty, chastity, and obedience.

But more importantly, society has redefined what it means to be man – and when we do so, we redefine morality. Once morality is redefined, beauty is lost. For example, if man is no longer made in the image and likeness of God but is simply an animal, he is not free to choose between being good or being bad – as a matter of fact, he is no longer good or bad. This reduction of man to beast leaves no hope of sanctity, for a saint is a saved sinner – and animals lack the freedom to sin. Beauty likewise is reduced to the body because a godless society believes in no individual, imperishable soul. And we thought we beat communism!

The truth of the matter is: when we reduce the meaning of words we lose whole thoughts and ideas. Chunks of reality disappear because the words which described them are no more. When we redefine man and the meaning of life, we become subhuman – and damned. The addict and failed-hobbit, Gollum, is not just a make-believe creature in The Lord of the Rings, hell is full of them.

What we need today is to look truth in the face, to see ourselves in light of it, conforming ourselves to truth instead of trying to conform truth to ourselves. We may be able to bend nature to our wills when it comes to using the scientific method, but in the world of the spirit it is we who shall bend – or else break! Conformity to truth, however, seems so impersonal and abstract. Perhaps this is something that philosophers like Socrates and Plato would enjoy, but it seems too difficult for modern man.

But what if I told you that truth was, in fact, personal – and that this personal truth became a human being like you and me? St. John calls this truth “the Word of God” (John 1:1). We’ve spoken about the importance of words and what it means to be man; here is the one eternal Word which contains all the truths we could speak with our many words, who became man in order to show us what it means to be man. The incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, is looking at you. Will you look into the eyes of truth, accept reality, and begin to find meaning to your life?

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