Dangerous Words

Dangerous Words October 21, 2007

I have just finished reading what I would go so far as to say is one of the most helpful books I’ve read in recent years: Dangerous Words: Talking About God in the Age of Fundamentalism by Gary Eberle. Perhaps the unique contribution it makes is due to the fact that it was written by an English professor rather than a scholar of religion, theology, philosophy, history or any of the other topics that authors of books on religion are usually specialized in.

Eberle’s book focuses on religious language, and what is problematic about the literalistic approaches of both fundamentalists and modernist skeptics. He helpfully presents the radical shift that was introduced by the invention of the printing press, before which the lack of widespread literacy meant that most people did not even have a concept of ‘word for word accuracy’, or if they did, it could not in practice mean anything like what it means today. Indeed, studies of primarily oral cultures show that oral storytellers may well say that they do indeed reproduce their stories ‘word for word’, but when they tell the story again, it doesn’t reflect what modern literate people mean by ‘word for word’.

Eberle also traces the shift of the meaning of the English word ‘truth’ in response to such changes. In earlier times the word, like ‘faith’, meant loyalty rather than having something to do with precise accuracy (p.54).

In discussing what myth can offer, Eberle suggests that whereas science tends to divide things up into disciplines for analysis, myth integrates. While science (the quantum world aside) tends to deal with ‘either/or’, myth deals with ‘both/and’. Where science enumerates, myth evaluates (see p.93).

As I read the book, one thought that occurred to me is how important it is to be able to not only test and analyse our beliefs, but also act quickly and intuitively in situations in which the time for such analysis does not exist. Seeking evidence is important and appropriate, but other types of language and thought may enable us to deal with those aspects of life in which we do not have all the evidence we might like (see p.107).

One example of the sorts of powerful, thought-provoking things said in the book is the following:

Conditioned by a hundred years or more of secularism, we distrust religious
language and the religious impulse. In becoming religious, we are asked to
exchange our modernist lens, which seems so reliable and sure, for something
that feels quite older and less reliable. Yet, in many ways, the religious way
of looking at the world has been better tested, over a longer period of time,
than any of the modern hard or social sciences in which we now place our faith.
That is, long before there were pills for depression, mythology and religion –
the narrative way of knowing our existence – were helping people pass through
the stages of life and all its travails. There is something deeply powerful in
this narrative way of knowing, which, at its best, helps us to understand our
lives, to function in the world, to accomplish works in the world that are
perceived as meaningful, to relate to others in the world, to make committments,
and to get through life’s vicissitudes, successfully leading what we call “a
good life”.

There are many other powerful and important sections – for instance, pp.141-150 have a very helpful treatment of the tradition of American civil religion, and the meaning of God-talk in public contexts, intended as a broad, vague, and all-encompassing expression – something that may not be possible or appropriate in our very different (and in particular much more pluralistic) context today.

Like Borges’ perfect map that is as extensive as that which it describes, and thus useless, modern approaches to religious language – both the fundamentalists and those who reject it – miss the purpose of myth, metaphor, and map. “Metaphor, like a stylized map, highlights only certain aspects of what we are trying to describe and, in doing that, it inevitably obscures others” (p.178). For this reason, “If our God-language is too sure, too particular, too confident, or too definitive, then we can be certain we have descended into superficiality and have made an idol of the divine” (p.181).

For those seeking to articulate the value of religious traditions in a way that has the power to combat the very appealing but ultimately idolatrous and dangerous language of fundamentalism, this book is a wonderful resource and potential source of inspiration. It not only informs about the history of how our language in the modern era has left behind earlier meanings and nuances, but it also presents an inspiring vision of what it means to speak of God today, as well as the need to appreciate silence.

An important contribution Eberle makes is to help individuals in this category to not feel guilty for not being fundamentalists. Because, despite its claims to the contrary, fundamentalism is not about faithfulness to the very words of Scripture, not even about fidelity to the literal wording of selectively-chosen verses. Fundamentalism takes language that is richly metaphorical and symbolic, and flattens it out. That is anything but faithfulness to Scripture, and in many cases effectively undermines its meaning, even while all the while claiming to do the very opposite.

Browse Our Archives