The Humpty Dumpty Syndrome
In recent discussion here—going back to my post about the problems I see in unlimited pluralism—some people have disagreed with my opinion, expressed in my previous post “On Taking Satanists Seriously,” that I/we should not take their speech acts, performative utterances, self-chosen labels, seriously insofar as they claim that we should not take them seriously.
Here I want to give some examples from my own life experiences of the dilemma and conundrum I have faced with regard to this issue.
What do these real stories illustrate? I have sometimes heard or read people saying things that make no sense given what else they say and given the generally accepted understanding of the words they are using. In fact, this seems to be increasing as a problem in academic and other circles.
I am reminded of Lewis Carroll’s “Humpty Dumpty” character who said “in a rather scornful tone”: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
Many years ago, at the height of the interest in Latin American Liberation Theology, I took a class to hear a leading liberation theologian speak. He began his address this way: “I am not a communist, but I am a Marxist and I am a Marxist because I am a Christian.” In my humble opinion, once someone says he is a Marxist no denial later makes any sense. “I am a Marxist” means something and he cannot change is meaning willy-nilly. Now, of course, someone is free to say “I agree with Marx on some things” and not be considered a “Marxist.” But a “Marxist” is someone who agrees with Marx’s philosophy which is inextricably linked with “communism.”
Perhaps the liberation theologian would say, if pressed, that he was just trying to get attention, but he should not have been surprised if listeners did not believe him about not being a communist.
Not very long ago I went to hear a very well-known and influential Christian theologian speak about German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher. In the middle of his talk he said “Schleiermacher was not a liberal theologian.” He didn’t explain why. He just threw that claim out there to a group of highly educated people and apparently expected us (mostly theologians and church historians) to take his statement seriously. I was one who could not. In fact, for me, anyway, it cast a shadow over everything else he said about Schleiermacher.
Every student of modern theology knows that Schleiermacher was the father of liberal Protestant theology.
I once went to hear a self-identified “Christian atheist” speak. He is a well-known theologian who became famous for promoting the “gospel” of Christian atheism. His first words at the podium were these “Jesus was an atheist and we should all become atheists with Jesus.” I think listeners would be perfectly justified in not taking anything else he said seriously.
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All of these exclamations and claims are examples of what I call the “Humpty Dumpty Syndrome.” It is extremely common in academic circles. The essence of it is to get attention (and sometimes mastery) by saying something nonsensical and possibly even offensive using words in such radically unusual ways that, for me, anyway, make it impossible to take the speaker (or writer) seriously. I’m sure it is not limited to academic circles.
Another example: Several years ago I had lunch with a leading “emerging church” pastor, author, and speaker. Over lunch he said to those of us eating and talking with him “Preaching is a violent act.” I almost laughed in his face; I had trouble controlling myself. I asked if he preached and he affirmed that, yes, in some sense he preached. In fact, I pointed out to him that he had just preached in the university’s chapel before lunch! His response? “Well, not all preaching is violent.” But I know that he was famous for saying “Preaching is a violent act.” How many of his listeners and readers had the opportunity to challenge him to explain? And how should/could I take anything seriously that he says about preaching that is inconsistent with the plain claim “Preaching is a violent act” when he was famous for saying it without qualification?
My point is that people who use words in radically unconventional ways should not expect listeners or readers to take them seriously. All the qualifying in the world will not undo “Hail Satan!” Satan is universally regarded as a symbol of evil (except perhaps by some Satanists) and the proclamation “Hail Satan!” combined with a denial of believing in and worshiping the Satan of everyone’s understanding (except a few Satanists) is disingenuous. Just as proclaiming “God loves everyone, even the reprobate predestined by God to hell” is disingenuous. It is using “love” in such an unconventional way that saying it of God in that theological context empties it of all meaning. It is obviously a coy ploy to try to get listeners and readers to think kindly of the Calvinist God.
If a person proclaims “Heil Hitler!” and then says “But I’m not a neo-Nazi” I am justified in not taking that denial seriously. Suppose he says, when challenged, “I’m only trying to get attention; I don’t really admire Hitler” or “I only said ‘Heil Hitler!’ because I think Hitler did some good things for Germany. I, for one, would not believe him. I would think he was being disingenuous. I would believe he is a neo-Nazi and ignore his disclaimer.
The same goes for some people I know who claim to be “Christians” but qualify “Christian” to death by not believing in anything historically-theologically connected with Christianity. Was Thomas Jefferson a Christian? Most definitely not—whatever he may have claimed to be. I admire that he finally said that he was a “sect of one.” There, that was truth.
I have to add one more example of the Humpty Dumpty Syndrome before I quit. Some years ago I had dinner at a professional society meeting with a theology professor of a Unitarian seminary. I knew him to be Unitarian. At one point in our conversation he said to me “I am an evangelical.” No amount of qualifying after that would make me take him seriously on that subject.
I simply don’t believe anyone here who would take seriously a person’s disclaimer that, in spite of being a white supremacist, she is not a racist. Calling yourself a white supremacist overrides any claim to not being a racist.
The Humpty Dumpty Syndrome is pernicious and very wide spread in today’s American culture (and elsewhere I assume). I see and hear it in advertising all the time. Now I see and hear it in many professional societies. It is pervasive in contemporary academic life. It ought to bother everyone as much as it bothers me.
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