The descriptive nature of language, proper usage, and faith

As a language major (presuming, of course, that English counts as such), an issue that I am fairly passionate about as far as general understanding is how language comes to be, mostly specifically how we attach meaning to words in specific contexts. This is a problem that I think most everyone recognizes with some level of awareness (although I doubt many people give it much thought), but I still persistently see some improper trends popping up in the usage of certain words. This is the cause of much miscommunication on the part of individuals who seem to be delivering a widespread message, and I want to shed some light on this impropriety of language.

First, a preliminary note: I subscribe, as suggested in the title of this entry, to the descriptive view of language – that is, that language is built bottom-up rather than created uniformly top-down. Of course, I doubt anyone thinks of language as something literally handed down from the gods; even the staunchest Biblical literalist should be able to recognize that language has come a long way since Babel, as evident in the linguistic differences between the 1611 KJV and any translation from the last century, even the NKJV. What I mean by this is that the meaning of words is dictated by its use rather than some prescribed standard. Noah Webster didn’t unanimously decide which words meant what; he merely codified the standards that were already in existence. (Much like the Council of Nicaea – but that’s a topic for another discussion.)

When one looks in a dictionary, it should be perfectly clear upon a moment’s reflection that this is the case, for we see a great variety in definitions for individual words. For instance, the monosyllabic word cold has 14 specific definitions (usages) under 5 distinct categories, plus one idiomatic usage (“in cold blood”). One can often see an underlying thread of similarity that suggests, like biological evolution, a common ancestor that the different usages are derived from, but they are largely contextualized and specified. If this is not enough to secure the idea of linguistic speciation, so to speak, one need only look at the different usages of the words “insecure” and “unsecure” – both meaning literally “not secure” from their prefices – to see how contextualized language can become.

Now that I have prefaced the idea sufficiently, on with the point: This past Saturday night, I filled in for our church’s pastor (who was taking a much-deserved vacation) for our fledgling “seeker” service and spoke to fairly limited numbers about the concept of faith, one of my points being that faith gets a unfair rap. Part of my own realization in preparing for the message is that one of reasons for this is the conflation of one contextual definition for all usages – that is, people argue against only one usage of ‘faith’ whenever they hear faith in any context. So when Sam Harris says, “Faith is what credulity becomes when it finally achieves escape velocity from the constraints of terrestrial discourse–constraints like reasonableness, internal coherence, civility, and candor” (The End of Faith, p.65), he is talking about something very much different from William James’ assertion that Faith means belief in something concerning which doubt is theoretically possible” or Oswald Chambers’ definition of faith as deliberate confidence in the character of God whose ways you may not understand at the time.” It is clear that there is a common bond, but certainly Harris’ usage does not apply to James’ or Chambers’ statements.

But Harris’ whole book is dedicated to the idea that faith is inherently irrational, resistance to logic, incoherent, and just plain unreasonable, and his argument is about all religious people, not just religious people who are irrational. In the end, Harris implicates what amounts to millions of people who do not fit his definition of faith. The reason? Because religion is associated with faith, and faith for Harris (and many others) means simply “firm belief in something for which there is no proof.” But certainly that is not what religious people mean by faith in quite a number of contexts, and words like “confidence” (lit., “with faith”) betray a deeper meaning visible in the etymology of the word – it really has to do with trust, in some cases cognitive (trust in one’s noetic devices or in the providence of a deity) and in others relational (as in marital fidelity or the faith of duty in the Marines’ motto, Semper Fidelis), among others. What Harris has is largely a disconnect from how people normatively use the word ‘faith’ to describe something that actually applies to them, and as a result, Harris ends up abusing language by taking all usages of the word to mean what he thinks faith means. Forgive me for being a little bit over-the-top, but I would call this linguistic tyranny.

I don’t think Harris is alone in this particular abuse, and certainly he shares this with people who try to force the flexible structure into a box that suits them, but it is not reasonable as such. All that ends up happening is a lack of proper communication and an abuse of linguistic power, and with as far as we’ve come, you think we’d know better by now.

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