The space between the words

The space between the words February 5, 2014

The Space Between
The bullets in our firefight
Is where I’ll be hiding, waiting for you
The Space Between
Our wicked lies
Is where we hope to keep safe from pain
The Space Between
What’s wrong and right
Is where you’ll find me hiding, waiting for you
The Space Between
Your heart and mine
Is the space we’ll fill with time

 — “The Space Between”, Dave Matthews Band


“The Space Between” by Thomas Huang, Wharariki Beach, New Zealand

Words and Meaning

“Words have meaning.”  

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard that statement from certain devotional polytheists in online arguments over the last couple of years.  The statement is most often intended to express the belief that I have used a word in a manner the speaker deems incorrect (and even offensive).  “Polytheistic” is only the latest example.  Before that it was “gods”.  And before that it was “Pagan”.  My perceived misuse of these words has been characterized as everything from mere sophistry to an attack on others’ religious identities to an attack on our very ability to communicate.

Recently though, I realized that the sentence above (“Words have meaning.”) was familiar for another reason.  It is familiar because I’ve said it myself before.  Long before I was Pagan, I said those very words to my wife when I was leaving the Mormon church.  The word in question at the time was “truth”.  I was hung up on the way that Mormons use the word “true”.  On the first Sunday every month, Mormons have a testimony meeting where members volunteer to come to the pulpit and deliver a short, spontaneous, “This I believe …” type statement of faith.  Almost all the testimonies offered will include some form of the statement, “I know the [Mormon] Church is true.”  Obviously, since I was leaving the LDS Church, I did not think the Church was “true”.  When we discussed it, my wife took the position though that the word “true” could be understood in a relativistic sense, as in “I know the [Mormon] Church is true for me.”  My response?  “Words have meaning.”

So there is a certain cosmic justice at work in the fact that I am hearing these same words being used in response to my own statements of faith today.

But, over the years since I made that statement to my wife, I have slowly come to embrace a different attitude toward questions of truth, meaning, and language.  I am working on becoming more comfortable with a greater degree of ambiguity in these matters.

Categorizing: Putting experiences in word boxes

I love categorizing things (as anyone knows who had read this blog).  My natural reaction to any new experience is to try to fit it in a box, a word box.  It is the way I structure my experience and make sense of my world.  It is how I make a cosmos out of chaos.  Not everyone needs categories to the same degree as I do, but I think everyone uses them to one degree or another.  I still love categorizing.  But more and more I am appreciating how real life bleeds across the boundaries of my categories.  Take for instance my categorization of Pagans into the four “centers” of Earth, Self, Deity, Community.  (I started out with three and later added a fourth.)  Some Pagans might fit into just one of these categories, but many (maybe most) Pagans fall into two or more categories.  But even if no one fit into just one category, I think these categories would still be useful for making sense of our differences and similarities.  These categories still have meaning, not as solid containers but as overlapping penumbras under the Pagan umbrellas.

Today, I am less and less inclined to try to force my experiences into any single category.  More and more I am embracing the possibility of both/and instead of either/or.  Words do have meaning.  Or more accurately, they do have meanings (plural).  And it’s a good thing, because there are not enough words in the English language (or ancient Greek or any other language) to contain human experience.  And nowhere is this more true than in the area of religious experience.

Am I a theist or an atheist?  For some devotional polytheists, those seem to be the only two options.  And to them, I clearly fall into the latter group.  But neither really describes me.  Is pan-theism theistic or a-atheistic?  And what about pan-en-thism?  Do I believe the gods are real?  Yes and no.  Is Jungian polytheism a religion or a psychology?  Both/and.  Are the gods in our heads or “out there” in the world?  Both/and.  Are the gods one or many?  Both/and.

“The Space Between” (version 2) by pincel3d

A Space Between

I started this blog as an effort to carve out a space where I could explore these ambiguities.  A space where I could exist between my twin desires for the messiness of incarnation and the purity of transcendence.  A space between a reductive materialism and an ungrounded supernaturalism  A space between the dangers of the psychologization of my religious experience on the one hand and the reification of that religious experience on the other.  Over time, many of you have joined me in this exploration.  And my journey has been greatly enriched by your company and your wisdom.  You have reminded me time and again of the porousness and fluidity of my categories.

And every time you do, I have to admit, I feel a certain measure of fear.  Fear of letting go of the rigidity of my categories.  Fear of considering unfamiliar categories for my experiences.  Fear of opening up to experiences that I do not yet have categories for.  Why fear?  Because those categories are the boundaries that keeps chaos at bay.  To a certain type of mind, such as my own, these arguments over the meaning of words can feel like life and death.  And that is why debates over the etymology of words can turn into a struggle for existential survival.  I felt this acutely when I was leaving the Mormon church.  At that time, I very much needed the word “true” to mean something, one thing and only one thing.  I believed the Mormon church was “false”, and for “false” to mean something, for my departure from the Mormon church to mean something, “true” had to mean something too.  To let go of that definition felt like letting go of who I was.  Today, I have grown more comfortable with the notion that people mean different things when they say “I know this church is true.”  Today, I don’t feel quite as much angst when I hear Mormons use that phrase.

But still I understand the tenacity with which some devotional polytheists hold to certain definitions.  I feel it too.  I felt it acutely when I first realized that there were people calling themselves “Pagan” who did not fit my narrow image of what Paganism was.  I still feel it sometimes.  I feel it when others describe experiences I don’t have a category for.  I feel it when you, my readers, call me to move out of my categories and return to my experience.  I fight against it almost every time I blog.  Sometimes I am more successful than others.  Sometimes (probably more often than I’d like to admit) I let the need for clear bright lines overwhelm me.  But sometimes I manage to stay open to the ambiguity, to the mystery, of human experience.  Sometimes my curiosity exceeds my fear.  Sometimes I manage to make the words serve me, rather than making me their servant.

Mandy Martin, “Wanderers in the desert of the real”

Words do have meanings.  And those meanings are important.  Without them, we could not communicate with one another.  Without them, we would drown in a flood of chaos.  But there are other ways to die than drowning.  We can die of thirst a “desert of the real” where a slavish worship of words has cut us off from the very experiences which give life to those words. “Where there is no water nothing lives; where there is too much of it everything drowns. It is the task of consciousness to select the right place where you are not too near and not too far from water; but water is indispensable.” (Jung)  Life happens in this space in-between, in the space between the words.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Kenneth Apple

    I can’t find the attribution to this quote, but it goes something like this: I handle the notes no better than many pianists, but the spaces between the notes–that is where the art resides.

  • Kenneth Apple

    Just went back and read Julia’s posts about you. I just don’t get the animosity and anger. It’s depressing.

    • I had the same reaction at first, but as it went on over three posts, it just became comical. It was like reading Sannion’s blog — too over-the-top to be taken seriously.

      • Alyxander M Folmer

        I really just don’t have any tolerance left for this. It’s RIDICULOUS. At best it’s an argument over semantics and at worst it’s an argument over Theology. In either case it is COMPLETELY POINTLESS for them to pick a fight over it. If they want to disagree, FINE, but attacking your opinion, just so they can insist that you accept their opinion, is madness.

        • I agree. I’m pretty burnt out by it and I’m just feeding the flames by responding. I think this will be my last post on the subject for a while.

          • Kenneth Apple

            I notice generally that the more personal your posts the less anger you collect, and the more ‘academic’, the more distance you have, the more you collect. Your posts on your personal gods, or on personal practices don’t get the same reaction, or am I missing something?

            • Courtney

              I believe certain people are less interested in him as a human and more as a strawman.

            • Alyxander M Folmer


            • Excellent point. Although, those posts about my personal gods actually didn’t generate very many responses at all, positive or negative. But you’re right in general that my more personal posts are less divisive.

  • Mmm beautiful post!

  • lilithdorsey

    The in-between is the starting entry point to magick and mystery. Words can help us expand and explore this space. That’s what I believe anyway, Thanks for a thought-provoking piece.

    • I like that. It’s interesting that some forms of magic seek to control with words, to limit the possible futures. But another kind of magic uses the words and the spaces in between to create new possibilities.

      • lilithdorsey

        I got into this discussion with some Catholic priests many years ago, before Vatican 2. I think there is much to be learned here from both positions.

  • Julian Betkowski

    I think that you need to be careful, though. While we do need to be aware of the ambiguity and fluidity of our language, we also need to be aware that the purpose of language is communication. We need to careful that we are, in fact, adding to the richness of our communication and not simply diluting the meaning of our words and inhibiting precision and clarity.

    When we are discussing community and community identity, it is important to remember that certain words become invested with a particular set of meanings and that it can be very problematic for an outsider (perceived or actual) to then claim ownership to those words and definitions.

    • Henry Buchy

      “We need to careful that we are, in fact, adding to the richness of our communication and not simply diluting the meaning of our words and inhibiting precision and clarity.”

      “When we are discussing community and community identity, it is important to remember that certain words become invested with a particular set of meanings and that it can be very problematic for an outsider (perceived or actual) to then claim ownership to those words and definitions.”

      yep, it’s the development of ‘jargon’- in the sense that particular senses of words become attached to those words within a specialized context. In ‘broken record’ fashion, I’ll point again to a usual convention. One defines ambiguous terms at the outset of a written paper in the sense they intend to use that term throughout. That doesn’t happen much, and so one then ends up writing twice as much in the way of clarification. Most words are already diluted in meaning. If one wants to ‘lay claim’ to a term use an adjective.

    • I agree with your point, but the “dilution” metaphor bothers me for some reason. It presumes that there is some kind of “undiluted” purity when it comes to language, and everything I have learned about the story of human language suggests otherwise.

    • Alyxander M Folmer

      But it doesn’t have to be. If I call myself a Polytheist, and John calls himself a polytheist, the only issue that creates is that both of us will have to learn to explain ourselves a little more thoroughly when somebody asks “Are you a Polytheist?”. I already have to explain myself when somebody asks “Are you a Pagan?” because I generally need to clarify that I’m not a Wiccan. This extra requirement doesn’t really strike me as any more complex than things already are.
      Explaining ourselves, rather than labeling ourselves, forces us to better articulate and understand our own possitions.

  • Lucas Pereira

    Great post!

    As someone whose concept of God has changed a lot (and it’s still changing), I’ve also had my opinions met with this “words have meaning” attitude… Fortunately, I’m learning how to better understand the conflicts over this subject thanks to my studies and experiences in two very different areas: mystical traditions (eastern and western), which taught me that Life is more than our concepts; and my academic background (Linguistics, Discourse Analysis and Cultural Studies), in which meaning is understood as something conventional, changing and – that’s the point – constantly battled over.

    I like the way you approach this subject in your post, especially what you say about your definition of “truth” after leaving the Mormon Church. You made me think about the importance of recognizing the ways in which we use words to set new boundaries, even when we’ve just crossed some of them and seek a more deep spirituality.

    This “space between words” can be a place of encounter, of communion with those who, despite their different views, are also open to the mistery of life which lies beyond attempts – legitimate as they may be – to protect identities and the illusion of an absolute power to define reality.

    • The space between can be a place of encounter. I like that!