Separation or Connection?

Respond to Whose Love? part 3

Where there are no tribal loyalties at play, we humans are generally pretty flexible about adjusting our understandings of words.

For example, one of my former in-laws referred to her refrigerator as "the Frigidaire." She would say, for example, “There’s cake in the Frigidaire.” A glance at the manufacturer’s label revealed that her refrigerator was actually made by Amana. But even at my most churlish, teen-aged self, I was not inclined to say, “No, it’s not in the Frigidaire, it’s in the refrigerator, which happens to be an Amana.” Would you say that? Me neither. We simply adjust to different ways of using words.

Longfellow's famous poem begins, “By the shores of Gitche Gumee.” A footnote, or a teacher, informs us that 'Gitche Gumee' is a name for Lake Superior. Most of us can go with that, without the annoyed feeling, "If he meant Lake Superior he should have said 'Lake Superior.'"

Or consider Lewis Carroll's poem, “Jabberwocky.”
"‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves
did gyre and gimble in the wabe,
all mimsy were the borogoves,
and ye mome raths outgrabe.”
Many of the words are made-up. You can call the poem “nonsense,” but it isn't meaningless. The sound and rhythm and context they create for each other invite us into a world of imagination, and most of us can go with that.

Tribalism, however, makes it difficult to extend the same flexibility and charity to language about God.

To see how this works, consider the ways that some of us find our genial adaptability beginning to stiffen dogmatically when it comes to grammar. Attitudes about grammar illustrate how attitudes about "God" work. I, for example, occasionally find myself wrestling with my own grammar dogmatism. I am sensitive to the differences between “lie” and “lay” and between "disinterested" and "uninterested," and I am capable of wishing that other people were, too.

I have my pet list of words not to be used as verbs. "Loan" is not a verb, I say. Nor are "impact," "mandate," or "critique." These words are nouns! The perfectly good verbs are lend, affect, require, and criticize. Even more hideous: "transition. “Transition" is not a verb!
We Grammar Nazis like to make protestations about preserving the language, facilitating clarity of thought, and guarding against language so decaying that it becomes an impediment to understanding. Speaking as one who has Grammar Nazi tendencies, I have to confess, those protestations are hollow. What it's really about is loyalty: tribal -- and class -- loyalty. It would seem a betrayal of our grandmothers or parents or beloved English teachers if we were to allow ourselves to relax the guard against the barbarians at the gate saying “got” when they should say “have,” or "infer" when they mean "imply."

Those adults we admire were the upholders of our class identity. The adults who sought to instill in me good grammar were teaching me to be faithful to my socio-economic class. The hidden message of prescriptive grammar instruction is: Don’t sound like those people – the lower classes.

Grammar will be emotionally important to me precisely to the degree that my class identification is emotionally important to me – the degree that I desire to preserve privilege and separation between the other and me.

So there’s the question: Do you want to go for separation, or for connection?

We face linguistic choices – whether to say “ain’t,” or to call a rising balloon “levity,” or use the word “God.” As you make those choices, do you want to go for separation, or for connection?

For me, I decided that I don’t want to be a Grammar Nazi. Connection is more important than separation. If it will help me connect with others, then I will (gulp) transition to the next phase. Any noun you might could verb (whew!) go ahead. And if I don’t know what you mean, I’ll ask. It’s not like speakers of upper-class English are really, on average, any clearer.

Neither am I going to be a Nazi about the word “God.” If that word allows for connecting with other people around the shared meanings of community-forming power; love; the greatest source of beauty, mystery, or creativity; the widest or deepest inspiration to gratitude, humility, wonder, and awe; origin; any ultimate context and basis for meaning, value, ethics, or commitment; the widest reality to which our loyalty is owed; the cosmos -- then I’ve decided that connecting with others is more important than separating from them based on the fact that I conceive of God’s knowing or desiring more metaphorically than they do.

Connecting is more important than separating.

* * *
This is part 3 of 4 of "Respond to Whose Love?"
See also
Part 1: The Force of Levity
Part 2: The Ontological, The Semantic, The Tribal
Part 4: Respond to God's Love

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