Language and Theology

Language and Theology November 19, 2010

I’ve been on a bit of a John Durham Peters kick lately. It probably has something to do with the podcast interview I recently put together with him (yes, this post contains a bit of self-promotion, but it’s for your own good!). In case the name doesn’t ring a bell, he’s a communication studies professor at the University of Iowa and the author of my favorite book, Speaking Into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication. I was putting together a Mormon-themed bibliography of his work and discovered an old Sunstone article on “perfection” in Mormonism. There is plenty of meat there to chew on, but I wanted to get some discussion going on word usage and Mormon theology generally. Peters asks what Mormons mean by “perfection.”

He notes that the answer isn’t merely theological but also linguistic. He cites two major shifts in the meaning of the word that occurred since the KJV translation gave us the command: “Be ye therefore perfect even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48; cf. 3 Nephi 12:48). Paraphrasing/quoting Peters:

First shift: Brought about by mass production. Perfection is not seen in terms of excellence, but as the absence of flaw, imperfections not exceeding a predetermined level. Flawlessness and finality took over the term, Peters notes.

Second shift:  Social Darwinism, which shifted the homeland of perfection from social groups to select individuals. Rather than perfection being perceived as coming about in society, the perfectible individual takes a more narcissistic center stage.

This perfection stuff is a topic all its own, but I want to draw specific attention to how Peters succinctly describes the direction of his investigation:

Since most Mormons [in 1987] belong to the English-speaking community, their words are subject to the broader shifts of meaning found in larger society; nevertheless, if we are not sensitive to what is happening to the words we prize, we may find our religious life and discourse infiltrated by meanings foreign to it. (John Durham Peters, “Perfection: A Social Criticism and A Theological Alternative.” Sunstone 11.3 [1987]: 20.

Peters spends the rest of his pages talking about the implications of shifting meanings of “perfection” in Mormon discourse and critiques the word in terms of Mormon experience and vision. I can think of a few dozen words off the top of my head that would provide a lot of room for this sort of really cool exploration. For instance, how has the word “apostasy” been defined and re-defined in Mormonism, and under what potentially fruitful or fruitless cultural influences?

Specifically in this post I’m wondering what sorts of words you’d like to see subjected to more scrutiny, and what sort of results you might anticipate from the venture.

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