Saturday, September 10, 2005

Meaningless Words

I was raised as a Mormon, and to this day I'm still looking for a testimony of the church.

I have often felt confused about the meaning of certain words and phrases used in religion--words like "holy", "sacred", and "atonement". Recently I decided that my lack of understanding was no fault of my own, but had a logical explanation.

What does "abject" mean? Until today, I had seen this word used in only one context: "abject poverty". Somehow I feel that "abject poverty" means either "extreme poverty" or "undeniable poverty", but how can I be sure? It's logical that I cannot. We learn the meaning words by seeing them in a variety of contexts. We naturally develop ideas about what words mean, like I have done with "abject"; but we need to see words in multiple contexts, and see them compared and contrasted to other words, in order to build a clear picture of their meaning. Therefore, I cannot have a clear idea about the meaning of "abject" if its only incarnation is "abject poverty", or "sill" if its only incarnation is "windowsill".

It is the same with religious words. The words "sacred" and "holy" are associated with other words, like "spiritual" and "divine" (try Google Sets for more examples), and I know some examples of "sacred" and "holy" things: baptism, the Holy Bible, holy lands, sacred oil, a sacred building, a sacred ordinance. Clearly, "holy" and "sacred" have something do with religion and God. But what, exactly? Do these words mean nothing more than "God related"? If you look in the dictionary, there are so many definitions that "God related" sums it up pretty well. Yet this definition is unsatisfying to me, because in my church I have seen sacredness or holyness used as a justification for action or inaction. Why is it good to go to a temple? Among other reasons, because it is a "sacred place". Why should we not engage in masturbation? or tatooing? Because "our bodies are sacred". But with the meaning of these words being so vague, I find them unconvincing as a justification for anything. Should the Jews have invaded Palestine because it was a "holy land"? Should terrorists kill people because there is supposedly a "holy war" going on?

And what is the difference between "holy" and "sacred"? Why are some things sacred and others holy? If someone declared "this object is holy because blank, but it is not sacred because blank", I could begin to see the difference. But since no one ever contrasts them, I cannot see the difference. And indeed, if no one knows the difference, then effectively there is no difference. But if a difference was known when the scriptures were written, then we have lost a source of understanding for the scriptures. I often wonder how much knowledge we have lost. Incidentally, Esperanto uses one word, "sankta", for both "sacred" and "holy". I guess the designer didn't know the difference either.

The atonement is the sacrifice Jesus made, and may include both what happened in the garden of Gethsemanie and upon the cross. So what do "atone" and "atonement" mean? Since these words are defined by one act in all of history, I question whether they have any meaning beyond merely that of a name, like "Wall Street" or "Henry" or "Jesus". Yet that would make ideas like an "infinite atonement" just as meaningless as "infinite Henry". How can one understand words so ill-defined as this?


Crypticity said...

Just some musing on your discussion:

I think the key to this is to understand the fabric of language.

In a linguistic sense, words are given their meaning by their usage. When we learn words, it is purely from existing usage. And it is that usage that goes into dictionaries. And dictionaries shape our usage. It's a two-way street.

In language, there are 'collocations'. That is, words that go together. Simply put, we say 'take a pill' not 'eat a pill' (like they do in Chinese). That is the same thing as "abject" in abject poverty. "Abject" purely from a usage perspective, goes with "poverty". Abject also colours the second word because of what it usually is matched with. It carries a sense that is: atrocious, hopeless, shocking, submissive, low, depraved, rejected" sense. It brings a very negative dark tone.
Other words that go with abject: failure, despair, liar, apology, surrender etc.

You also mention similar words such as 'holy' and 'sacred'. In language there CAN be words that are perfectly synonymous. But also improper usage can cause two different words to merge in terms of meaning. That is where research is required. But what you need to realise is that there may not be an absolute answer. And if you research the past meaning distinction, perhaps it is completely irrelevant now - the words may have merged. Unless you want to be an activist linguist, trying to make people aware of the difference.

One of the problems is that in the past, in written language, words were very specific - and with a minority of educated people writing books etc. But now we are inundated with written and 'educated' spoken language and not all those people are really aware of the significance of their misuse of similar terms. The misuse, i.e. using 'sacred' instead of 'holy' and vice versa.

For me, there is a small but significant difference. Sacred means 'so special as to be set apart and highly restricted in use' (the focus is on use). Holy, however, is regarding God, worship etc - the focus is from its connection with God. That is just my definition, but may also be how other people use it. I am non-religious so you can discount them to a certain degree. You can bestow more power and meaning to such religious terms if you like too. In your examples, your body is sacred because it is not to be misused - saying your body is holy sounds strange - maybe the clothes of a priest are holy. Holy wars are wars relating to God (not about 'use'). A sacred war sounds odd because it is not about proper use or restriction - a sacred weapon is possible.

Some of this may be just due to collocation - we only match those words together.

Atonement, as you say, can be linked to a particular event. This is the strongest form of definition. Rejoice that there is something so clear and definite! Wall Street is concrete. It is not Queen St. Likewise, atonement is not forgiveness. Be thankful that you have a solid immovable reference for the term.

You also might have to consider that the elders in your church who say things such as 'your body is sacred' may also not make a strong distinction, so getting perplexed by them may not be worth it. You might just need to talk with the people you think know.

Words have always been just arbitrary sounds. They have evolved with us and continue to evolve. They are flawed as people, so in the same way might be as poor in its representation of truth - so focussing on the words rather than what they point to.

Just some thoughts, tell me your thoughts.

Qwertie said...

Well, You might be right about holy versus sacred, but to me, the difference still doesn't seem meaningful. The two words might be just as well off merged, as in Esperanto. My main concern is that if the particular choice of "holy" or "sacred" conveyed useful information at one time, then that information is lost when we read scriptures today.

about "abject", I did detect that it had a "negative" connotation, but without seeing the word in any other context, it was hard to figure out anything more.

I'm not sure why you like "atonement" so much. In my church, atonement does not merely refer to the event; it carries with it additional meaning which is difficult to detect and define. Much like how "Wall Street" is not JUST the name of a street, but carries with it connotations of what? I dunno, something stock market related for sure.

Crypticity said...

If the words have lost the meaning, and it is important to know, then it is up to you to re-define them for yourself in a way that is correct with the original source. Especially if it is in scripture.

Regardless of whether Esperanto has merged them, there might be a difference which is necessary to know in the Bible. To do this however, as you probably know, many Bibles are thrice translated. If you want to know the difference in particular scriptual references you need to go to Hebrew and Greek.

When I helped a friend learn Biblical Hebrew, we found there were three words for love, all meaning different things that in English versions were all just translated as 'love'...

If you are wanting to know the difference, it is incumbant on you to do that work, or find someone who knows.

As for 'atonement', you might just need to go the the most knowledgeable person at your church. My reason for liking it (in a religious sense) is that it is linked to something that gives it meaning. 'Holy' is an evolved Old English word, probably originating in a pagan context and adapted (I don't know for sure).

Just out of curiosity, what other senses is atonement used in?

Qwertie said...

>Just out of curiosity, what other senses is atonement used in?

The word shows up in quite a few scriptures. Here are some example contexts:

Exodus 29:36: And thou shalt offer every day a bullock for a sin offering for atonement: and thou shalt cleanse the altar, when thou hast made an atonement for it, and thou shalt anoint it, to sanctify it.

2 Chr. 29:24: And the priests killed them, and they made reconciliation with their blood upon the altar, to make an atonement for all Israel: for the king commanded that the burnt offering and the sin offering should be made for all Israel.

Romans 5:11: And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement.

2 Nephi 9:25: Wherefore, he has given a law; and where there is no law given there is no punishment; and where there is no punishment there is no condemnation; and where there is no condemnation the mercies of the Holy One of Israel have claim upon them, because of the atonement; for they are delivered by the power of him.

Mosiah 3:11: For behold, and also his blood atoneth for the sins of those who have fallen by the transgression of Adam, who have died not knowing the will of God concerning them, or who have ignorantly sinned.

Crypticity said...

Well, there are numerous things that you can research to get clarity on that.

First of all, the Toranic references to atonement are in Hebrew (and of course earlier than Christ, so not referring to his sacrifice) - if you research that word, you can probably get the most accurate old meaning. I had a little fiddle using:

esp. 3722 and 3725

... which says the Exodus word is kippur (3725) and the Chronicles reference is kaphar (3722) - both having some meaning of atonement but perhaps differing too. You can make of that what you will - it may mean the same thing to you. You can get a rough feeling for the sense of those words at the time they were used.

The Romans reference is undoubtedly the Atonement you referred to previous (Christ's sacrifice). I assume that would be written in Greek. As I said, in this context, the event of reconciliation through the crucifixion of Christ defines the word Atonement.

Interesting discussion about meaning at the bottom of this page, although you might be familiar with it already:

As for the Mormon Bible references, I am not sure.

I am still not sure of the nuances of the term atonement that you mean.

Qwertie said...

>If you want to know the difference in particular scriptual references you need to go to Hebrew and Greek.

I have a strong resistance to doing that kind of digging, because I find it unbelievable that it should be necessary for any layman. I am not a biblical scholar, nor to I intend to become one. If they are relevant, then why the hell (oops, is my frustration showing) can't I just buy a bible that has these nuances in the footnotes? Surely God doesn't expect everyone to learn ancient Greek and Hebrew.

>I am still not sure of the nuances of the term atonement that you mean.

Well, neither do I, I guess. That's kinda the point. You should at least see from the scriptures that the atonement has important implicitions and that it can be used as a verb ("atone").

Crypticity said...
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Crypticity said...

Should one understand the original language?

Well, I have many probably irrelevant opinions on the subject.

Which is the strongest source of your faith: the Bible or your relationship with God?

Logically speaking, if you derive most of your understanding from your relationship with God (i.e. you prayer and inspiration), then precise biblical understanding should indeed not be a high priority.

But if you have your Bible as your first and foremost source of guidance and belief, wouldn't you say that it would be necessary to find out what it actually says (especially on the crucial points)? A thrice translated version (from Hebrew, to Latin, to English or from Greek to Latin to English etc.) will lose the sharpness of the original (as any linguist will confirm).

Of course, the gist of most of it is clear. Moses went there, Jesus said this etc. But there are also important controversial moments that can be clouded by the translation.

For example, atone is a natural english word (comes from at + one). Have a look:

But it has many meanings none of them necessarily biblical i.e. in the modern sense 'to expiate' (do something to make up for an error). But when reading a translation (perhaps in an older bible) you might have the archaic meaning - to agree, to reconcile, to harmonize.

For Atonement in the New Testament, it is not about expiation:

Atonement is about reconciliation, regaining the relationship with God, at-one-ment. The original word that is translated to Atonement in Romans (which the Watchtower Bible may use in the same sense in Nephi and Mosiah), is the Greek term 'katallage' - which has no meaning of expiation (and is also definitely not what the Old Testament references refer to when it says 'atone', as you know are kippur, kaphar = expiate).

So Infinite Atonement would be the complete and eternal reconciliation, at-one-ment with God. The death of Jesus on the cross was the sealing of this at-one-ment. How does that sound?

I understand these parts without knowing the any greek (apart from the alphabet) and having very minimal Hebrew. Just the Internet.

You don't need to learn the whole thing. There are important points that you can microlearn and most of it has been done for you already (on the Internet and books) because points like Atonement aren't just complicated for you but for all of Christianity, I imagine. And it gives you confidence in your interpretation.

So, you don't have to learn the language but may want to investigate specific points.

And maybe the biggest other point I wanted to raise is:

Do you not have elders in your church who might be knowledgeable on this? And furthermore, does anyone know the original languages to help you further? I ask because my friend at Baptist Priest School (or whatever its called) is not required to do any study of Hebrew although it is recommended.

If there aren't any other people, then you can find the answers. But having a knowledgeable other to help you (perhaps in conjunction with your own investigation) is the strongest way.

Should one learn those extinct languages?

Well, you don't need to learn the entire thing, but there are seminal moments in the Bible, that I am sure it would be nice to be able to understand crisply and easily.

Of course, God most likely does not make it a requirement to know Hebew. But you are a linguist, and may have the God-given skill of learning a language. If the Bible means a lot to you, then I suggest you give it a try if you have some leisure and the motivation.

Learning a language can be quite an undertaking. But there are some profound things that can be learnt.

If perchance you do want to have a sampling:

(you can do other searches yourself - I found a great book from the library)

Qwertie said...

Thanks for the information.

>Logically speaking, if you derive most of your understanding from your relationship with God (i.e. you prayer and inspiration)

I wish it were so. But I get no inspiration.

I'm not interested in learning a dead language. In fact, I know that learning languages is a very time-consuming endeavor, and I really don't want to learn more than the easiest languages.

I think it's dumb to study ancient languages because I know that thousands of people have already done so. I think there ought to be a Bible on the Internet that somehow links an English translation tightly to the ancient words, so that if you want to know more clearly the meaning of a word, you can click on the English word and get the ancient word it came from, along with a comprehensive discussion of the meaning thereof. Maybe it sounds like I'm asking a lot, but I'm sure the research has been done many times over. The Bible isn't just the most-sold book, but also the most studied. Why should I duplicate the effort? I've got a life outside religion, although one wonders whether God would prefer otherwise.

Anyway, I should point out a couple of details you got wrong.

My church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day saints, is not associated with the Jehovah's Witnesses (whose leadership runs the "Watchtower"). I don't think the Jehovah's Witnesses have a sacred book other than the Bible, so there's no "Watchtower Bible". Nephi and Mosiah are in the Book of Mormon.

I'm not a linguist, although I have some interest in linguistics.

Have a nice day!

Crypticity said...

Forgive my ignorance on the name of the books. That is a point that I should have had right and is rather a stupid slip.