The Uniter of Word and World
Ever since I started the discipline of reading the weekly required text for the doctoral program I’m (and my cohort) in, I’ve made it a point to recommend some of the titles to my pastors. I feel comfortable doing that because my local church leaders know what my ministry passions are. It’s also my way of keeping them abreast of goings on in the culture.
A few months ago I encouraged him to read Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion. A couple of weeks later he texts me: “About halfway through Bad Religion. Wow! Very depressing! Are there any uplifting trends ahead?” I reluctantly said “yes,” but in my mind I said “wait until I recommend Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind.” I don’t share Douthat’s pessimism,1 although I’m convinced he is more optimistic than he’s letting on. Haidt, however takes it to the next level — the level that unfolds when bad ideas are acted upon. It is interesting to note the year Douthat’s book got published. It was in 2013, the same year Haidt started observing a cultural shift in attitudes and behaviors among college freshmen. It’s as if both authors decided to run a cultural marathon; Douthat running the first leg and then passed the jeremiad baton to Haidt to finish it.
I found myself writing unusually copious notes on this reading. There is a lot of material here to unpack and as much as I’d like to devote the time and space to write, it simply is not doable for the purposes of this blog. It will be a challenge and I risk committing an injustice by not covering nearly enough of the important issues the authors raise in the book. Be that as it may, I wish to point out one specific problem the iGen must address if they expect a path toward human flourishing.
Haidt and Lukianoff keenly observed that a significant change took place in the personalities of youth entering college in 2013 that weren’t present a year prior. This marked change manifested in a myriad of ways, resulting in a dramatic rise in depression, high levels of anxiety, feelings of unsafeness (Safetyism), and a host of other similar behavior challenges arising within a very short period of time beginning in the early 2010s. Moreover, these “terrible ideas”2 have contributed to the hostility we now observe as a common occurrence in the U.S. colleges and universities.
Protest, demands and violence are all ways to enact change in the minds of college students these days. According to Georgetown University linguistics professor Deborah Tannen, we are living in an “argument culture”3 or a “call-out culture,”4 in which students gloatingly expose exaggerated offenses from individuals or groups outside their circle of influence. College is a time when young adults learn new ideas, develop a worldview around which to base their lives. Even if new ideas clash with existing ones, a mature adult learns to tolerate them. What has happened to our youth?
One of the causes can be attributed to the loss of meaning in words. The authors were not explicit in this but one can surmise just judging by the numerous examples all throughout the book. For example, asking for peaceful dialog is considered violent5; “hate speech” is anything that is interpreted as having a negative impact by the receiver regardless of intent6; “safety” now includes “emotional safety,7” and so on. Words no longer have meaning or its meaning can be changed at will.
Confucius (c. 500 BC) lived through periods of political unrest. When he was asked how society can be restored he said that words need to be accorded its proper meaning. He said “If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success”8 This sounds very much like the correspondence theory of truth9 which states that a proposition is true just in case it corresponds to reality, when what it asserts to be the case is the case.
It would seem preposterous to say we can fix this complex problem quickly. However, it would be equally irresponsible not to offer a way forward when we understand what ails our young people. Scripture can be a valuable source of help here. Our help comes in the person of Jesus, the Word (logic) made flesh, Immanuel, God with us. It is rather timely that this idea of Jesus being the living Word of God, turns out to be the savior who restores the broken link between word and meaning. James Hunter is emphatic as he offers a solution in his concept of Faithful Presence Within:
It can be summarized in two essential lessons for our time. The first is that incarnation
is the only adequate reply to the challenges of dissolution; the erosion of trust between word and world and the problems that attend it. From this follows the second: it is the way the Word became incarnate in Jesus Christ and the purposes to which the incarnation was directed that are the only adequate reply to challenge of difference.10
As Christian leaders we must introduce the young generation to the one who unites word and world, and has come to show us the way, truth and the life.
1 Ross Gregory Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (New York: Free Press, 2013), 278.
2 Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure (New York: Penguin Press, 2018).1.
3 Deborah Tannen, The Argument Culture: Moving from Debate to Dialogue (New York: Ballantine Books, 1998), 3.
4 Lukianoff and Haidt., 71
5 Ibid., 84.
6 Ibid., 85
7 Ibid., 24
8 Confucius, The Analects – 13, US, December 13, 1901, , accessed May 17, 2019, https://china.usc.edu/confucius-analects-13.
9 Marian David, The Correspondence Theory of Truth, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, May 28, 2015, , accessed May 17, 2019, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/truth-correspondence/.
10 James Davison. Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity Today (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 241.
8 responses to “The Uniter of Word and World”
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Glad you can recommend our books to your pastor!
It has been interesting to watch the protest movements of the last 20 years go from haphazard, a virtual potpourri of causes and supporters, to the highly organized events we see in the news. Social media has had a role to play in that for sure. Do you think some of these methods are gaining the results the protesters desire?
Good question Jacob. I think this young generation, steeped in group think, is working unwitting in ways that are not contributing to human flourishing. Haidt pointed out that these young college protestors in Evergreen are just doing what they’ve been taught. Ideas have consequences.
I’d say it’s working, but I don’t think it’ll last—at least in its current form. In many ways, what’s happening today is reminiscent of the 1960s. Can’t predict the future but something will need to happen for things to change. Perhaps we might need something super momentous to distract us, such as the moon landing. Maybe that’s what we need today to shift our focus on more important things.
I appreciate your pointing us to the role of increased flexibility in the interpretation of language. While English is a living language and thus constantly evolving, I wonder if social media and has contributed to accelerating that evolution. I’m also conscious that words are interpreted first by our ‘elephants’ and so if few come looking to be offended we will find offense. There will always be a gap between signifier (words) and signified (what they represent), the question then might be asked how we diminish that gap sufficiently to have civil dialogue? Perhaps this is where we might start in mentoring iGen. As Newport observed, conversational skills are being lost, including the capacity to read body language and intonation. Maybe the compulsive busyness of older generations has crippled our influence? We send emails communicating information instead of using them to book face to face conversations. I remember fondly the value of university faculty making time to go for a beer or a coffee with some students (let’s not run the risk of inappropriate one on ones), or lingering after class to talk to a few of us. Words then came with relationship and context and mutuality rather than being vulnerable to misappropriation. It is also why I deeply value you pointing to Jesus as the word. We can quibble over scriptural interpretations, but we must agree that all of scripture is but a signifier gesturing to the ultimate signified, that is Christ. Let’s increase face to face conversations that explore this.
Hi Jenn. Thanks for your insightful comment. I agree that there is a gap, as you say, between signified and signifier. We’re human and we’re fallible. However, that gap infinitesimally gets smaller once you consult the author—the person who attached meaning to words.
We will always have nuanced understanding of words and concepts, but the author never means anything other than his/her original intended message. If I say “I’m going to the market,” in 100 years, that’ll still mean “I’m going to the market.” Now people from the future might say, “Harry meant he was trading in the stock market.” That may be so, but then these inquisitors find my other writings of mine which indicate I was checking off my grocery list at Trader Joe’s at the time, then there would be no mistake exactly what I meant when I said, “I’m going to the market.”
So the key to avoiding this is to seek clarity, education, learning, research, etc. The best way of course is asking the author “what did you mean by that?” I know we don’t always have that opportunity, but that doesn’t give us license to change words’ meanings.
Good stuff Jenn.
Very well articulated post! I would think your work and focus on apologetics focuses much on the nuances of language. Thanks so much for reminding us of the inherent limitations of language and why we must return to the person of our salvation, Jesus. It always comes down to or returns to a relationship with a person doesn’t it? Thanks so much for this vital reminder to invite others to know the person rather than the language about.
Thanks German Harry. Yes, it’s so true. Without Jesus, the God-Man, we would be lost. God could’ve just sent us signs, wonders, text, but if that’s all there was, we’d still be lost.
That’s why Jesus is so crucial and vital to our understanding and devotion to God. It takes a person to show us the way. Jesus being the “way, truth and the life” is not just a nice aphorism. No, Jesus is literally the Way, the Truth, the Life. Those three things are what we need.
Harry, I agree with you whole-heartily that the answer is in the Word of God. If the Word is hidden in our heart, so much of these un-truths will disappear. I can think of no other solution than what you have said.
Hi Mary. Thanks for the encouraging comments. It’s important, and great remainder to me, that even my word and world are linked in ways that inform me that my current experience is right, whole, life-affirming, content and happy in a transcendent God. And that God is Jesus, the God-Man who restores everything according to his good pleasure.