Monday, February 5, 2007

The Moral Weight of Words: Is God Just "The Nice Guy Upstairs?"

Alice von Hildebrand, Columbia professor, philosopher, scholar, author, occasional guest on EWTN TV and widow of philosopher and theologian, Dietrich v.H., has an article in this month's New Oxford Review on language. This is not normally a riveting subject, but when she speaks, people listen.

The subject came up by following links from another blog where the regular complaints of blogger incivility to one another in the comments sections of various blogs was raised again. It is amazing how impolite and often quite cruel people can be to one another when communicating in print, saying things they would never say face to face.

One of the better bloggers in our area has pretty much ceased blogging because ofhis regular exposure to such crudity. I agree with him that it is very offensiveto encounter, even when it isn't directed at me or people I know, and even when it is directed at people whose opinions I don't even like or respect. It takes the fun and other value out of blogging.

As an aside, I must say that "Minnesota Nice" does seem to be contagious in the Catholic blogging community. Part of Stella Borealis' mission to is serve as sort of a clearing house for Catholic bloggers around here. So I probably am familiar with the area's bloggers more than anybody. And I tip my hat to you all in that neither the local bloggers, nor their readers are lacking in respect for the people with whom they communicate publicly. I virtually never see abuse on my or others'blogs.

Here is a portion of what Ms. von Hildebrand has to say:

Man's nobility and greatness are expressed by his capacity to use words that enable him to communicate with his neighbors. One of the problems we all face is that, when we discuss deep experiences, we feel that words prove to be pitifully inadequate. We often say, "Words fail me." Hard as we try, what we "feel" is much deeper than our vocabulary. That is why it is typical of linguists to shift from one language to another, because a foreign word can often better convey certain nuances than one's mother tongue. Those of us who love music feel that it can communicate best what is deepest in us. St. Augustine wrote: Cantare, amantis est. There must be music in Heaven.
Great writers have a special talent for gauging the quality of words and intuitively choose those which best express the particular quality they wish to convey. The language used by a well-educated person is widely different from the one used by those whose approach to life is, shall we say, primitive. To put refined and subtle words in the mouth of an uneducated person would sound artificial and ridiculous. On the other hand, we expect people who speak about sacred objects, or deep human experiences, to use words that have a certain perfume, a certain spirituality which is called for in such cases.

One of the most striking phenomena of the society in which we live is that many of us have lost the sense of the propriety -- and impropriety -- of words. There are priests who, while preaching, use words referring to God that are shockingly inappropriate. Not long ago, I heard a parish priest refer to God in his homily as "the nice guy upstairs." I felt nauseated. I am sure that he meant well, and wished to express his conviction that God is close to us, that we are His children. But this poor priest betrayed a lack of spirituality, a lack of reverence that he was probably not in the least aware of. He had forgotten that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. We know that the angels tremble from reverence in the Divine Presence and sing Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus. This is powerfully expressed in the Old Testament.

We live in a democratic age. Whatever the benefits and merits of democracy, it often results in a leveling down, a putting of all things on one and the same level. This is deadly in our religious life. Once reverence is eliminated, religious life is threatened at its very core. We should never forget who He is and who we are. The religious decadence, so sadly expressed in our churches, is a result of this lack of reverence. We need only look at the way some people dress when going to Mass on Sundays: A non-Catholic entering a church would rightly assume that it was housing a beach party.
I would defend the thesis that the abyss separating man from animals is made manifest in the domains they share: eating, drinking, and especially the intimate sphere. It is precisely in this sphere that the words we use reveal whether or not we approach it with reverence. Whereas the puritanical atmosphere rampant in the 19th century considered any reference to it as "shocking" (a word dear to Queen Victoria), today most of us do not even realize that what is intimate is not to be shouted about from the rooftops. Yet, this is part and parcel of today's "anything goes" attitude.
But there is another approach strongly recommended by Dom Chautard in his priceless book The Soul of the Apostolate, which, although written long ago, has, like all great things, kept its freshness and value. In this work, he relates how a priest -- far from handsome -- operated "miracles of grace" among the youth in Marseilles. He did not hesitate to appeal to what was best and deepest in them: their longing for God. With very mediocre means, working in very poor conditions, he had none of the modern "tools" that many people believe to be crucial to reach the youth. But he made them aware of their dignity as children of God -- a dignity, alas, covered up by sin and a faulty religious education. He awakened in them the sense of the supernatural implanted in them at Baptism. What he disposed of was simple and little, but his love for the souls of the young was so ardent that he touched their hearts and addressed himself to their true self, to the image of God in their souls. He led them back to God and the Sacraments, and several of his young subjects became disciples themselves.
The difference between man and animals -- far from being reduced to the fact that the former has intelligence and free will, can love, has the power of speech, etc. -- is particularly evident in the sphere we are referring to. It is a domain in which precisely the abyss separating man from animals is particularly apparent. Whereas for animals, this sphere is exclusively dictated by the powerful reproductive instinct (and for this reason the attraction of the male to the female is strictly limited to the days when she is in heat), for human beings the marital embrace should also be an expression of love, of tenderness, of mutual self-giving in the presence of God who grants the spouses the unfathomable privilege of collaborating with Him in creating a new life -- for the unitive and the procreative dimension essentially belong together. It seems to me that one of the most powerful arguments against artificial birth control is precisely the fact that human beings -- and not animals -- can procreate. Clearly as soon as the word "create" is used, there is a clear reference to God. To "take the pill" -- that is, to artificially prevent a possible conception of a new human being made in God's image and likeness -- is to choose to exclude God whose role is crucial in procreation, for He alone can create the soul. In such cases, man can no longer view the marital embrace as procreation. He copulates -- like animals.

What I am advocating is not a return to prudery, Jansenism, or Puritanism. It is the recognition that there are things that should make us blush. Woe to those who no longer know how to blush. Let us learn to chastise our vocabulary so that it produces heavenly music.
New Oxford Review
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