Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Words are Deeds

Image from Jemima's Journal

"Words are deeds." This quote from Wittgenstein adorns the door of David Kaplan's office in the UCLA Philosophy department. But what does it mean?

Words are deeds because words change the world. They are not simply resounding sounds, nor are they merely matters of intention. When I ask you to pass me a pencil and you do, my words have altered the world. When I say words that call certain thoughts to your mind, my words have altered you. Of course, this also means your words can alter me. Indeed, over time words can transform us.

This is because we are, in the words of my friend Josh Charles, "captivated by language." It's not simply that we speak and listen, words are our world. Indeed, I believe that, at least on a conscious level, we even sense and emote through our words. My visual field is filled with a wealth of sensory information, but I hone in on part of it, and this happens in a large part by how I identify it. That is a person, that is a chair. These categories are linguistic. When I feel an emotion, say fear (at least if it is rational fear), it is not mere affect, but has semantic content. There is something which presents danger to me. Once again, categories. Language.

A further truth is that these words often shape us in ways we don't even realize. Words, in their fullest capacity, are not private entities. Neither you nor I, through our intentions, decide the meanings of our words, if that were the case we could not communicate. Instead, words are born out of community, out of interaction, and they therefore, in some sense, have a life of their own. This is why, if I say something insulting, it doesn't necessarily make it not hurt that I didn't intend it to be insulting. Words have their own power.

I've believed this for some time, but something has recently called to my attention just how true this is. My friends Judie and Josh1 began to criticize me for calling my female peers "girls." I'd talk about hanging out with a girl, being interested in a girl, etc.

"You mean a woman," they would say. So, out of respect for them, I started to work on calling my female peers women. I didn't really think much of it, after all, it was just a word. I didn't intend by "girl" to mean that they weren't mature, it's just how modern Americans talk. But a funny thing happened, as I made this change, and it took some effort, as overcoming any habit will, I found my psychology starting to change. The way I looked at my peers genuinely altered. They are adults, not children. What is more, it helped me to recognize that I am an adult. They are women. I am a man.

Again, there was no conscious attachment of "child' to my calling them "girls," but on some level my very use of that word shaped my world. The transition to calling them "women" had a similarly powerful effect.

So when you use words, think about them. They are far more potent than you realize. Words are your world. Words are deeds.
1. I would very much like to thank Judie and Josh for getting on my case about my choice of words.

Friday, June 24, 2011


From the Patt Morrison page

Warning: The subject of this post is somewhat macabre. If you're squeamish, you might want to skip this one.

From ossuaries to urns, one thing is certain, humans care for our dead. Egyptians mummified their Pharaohs because they believed they needed their bodies preserved for the after-life. That doesn't seem to be the case in most cultures, however. Most people seem to think that whatever preserves the person after death, if anything does, is gone from the body with death. Yet, in spite of that, we seem to recognize that the now dead body is an important part of who they were, and we honor that. Some of us bury them in graveyards facing east, others scatter their ashes in the sea. But, in some way, we honor them.

It wasn't surprising to me, then, that when Patt Morrison discussed a new funeral process on her show, reactions were mixed. The new process,called Alkaline Hydrolysis, liquefies the bodily tissues of a body, leaving behind only bones. It is, reportedly, a much more "green" process, than cremation. 

Some callers metaphorically shrugged their shoulders - "if its better for the environment, then why not do it, I'm gone from the vessel anyway." One caller in particular, however, a Jewish woman, was incensed, saying it was one of the most disgusting things she could imagine. The body is sacred, created by God, and should be treated as such.

She isn't alone in this reaction, as the Patt Morrison page reports "Catholics across the nation have raised ethical concerns" regarding this new process.

So, what do we do with this? I have to admit I'm not entirely certain. As a Christian,  I believe not only that God created all things, but that He became incarnate. The very creation of man by God gives the body a certain dignity, but the fact that God Himself shared in it elevates that dignity immeasurably.  What is more, I believe in the Resurrection of the dead. This means I believe that one day my body shall be raised to live in restored Creation with God. This means I am intimately tied to my body.

Of course, I recognize that bodies decay. In many ways, Alkaline Hydrolysis is simply sped up decay. The body I am in the Resurrection will not be of the selfsame matter that my body now is. Heck, my body in ten years won't even be the selfsame matter as it is now. So, I'm not an ancient Egyptian, I don't believe my body as such has to be preserved. Cremation and urns seem fine to me, as do many other funeral processes.

Yet, I worry that we are already far too inclined to view our bodies as things external to ourselves. Far too often we draw a line between our identity and our flesh - seeing the latter as merely a vessel we happen to inhabit. This line of thought is wrong, and part of me things this process carries something symbolic with it that reinforces this view.

In the end, I'm inclined to think that this process is fine so long as we find a way to imbue it with dignity. If we liquefy the bodies, dump the refuse down the drain and throw the bones in the trash, that seems wrong to me. We have to recognize the importance of our bodies. But maybe we can restore the practice of using ossuaries? Or find some new an inventive ritual to show that we recognize we are dealing with one of the most fundamental elements of a human being. But I'm not sure.

What do you think?

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The God that Walked the Earth

From Wikipedia
One of the inevitable effects of a liberal arts education is that one ends up leaving behind quite a few half-read books. Summer time, for me, is clean up time when I can finish up some of these wayside casualties. At the moment, I'm finishing up Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It's a book about the commonalities of our myths, particularly in the journey of the hero.

Today, as I was reading, something stood out to me. It's no secret to any of my friends or readers of this blog that I'm rather obsessed with the incarnation, the resurrection, and what these things say about our bodies and this material world we walk in. In Chapter 4 of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell relates how the heroes return from the divine realm separates him from those around him. He tells, for example, the story of the Irish hero Oisin, who after a time in the Land of Youth returns home. However, he can only do this riding on a magical horse than insulates him from the earth. If he touches the ground the horse will immediately return to the Land of Youth and Oisin will be left behind a blind old man.

Campbell goes on to say, "The idea of the insulating horse, to keep the hero out of immediate touch with the earth and yet permit him to promenade among the peoples of the world, is a vivid example of the basic precaution taken generally by the carriers of supernormal power... over the whole earth the divine personage may not touch the ground with his foot" (Campbell 193).

How powerfully this reinforces the distance of the divine, the unchanging spiritual realm that cannot be corrupted by the lowly degenerate flux of this dirty, earthy mess of a world. This spiritual state is what the Platonists called Being - the ultimate whole self-encompassing and never changing entity.

Yet the Christian story tells us something suprising. Being became. The God of the Universe did not despise the material world, but became one with it. This is not merely the sending of an Avatar, or the wearing of some special skin to insulate His divine self from the carnal world. Instead, the Word which was with God from the beginning, and through Whom all the universe was made, "became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14). He was born of a woman in a dirty stable. He walked the dusty roads of backwater Nazareth, he worked as a carpenter, ate fish and bread, drank wine and suffered the worst death imaginable. And in the end, He ascended into Heaven, still embodied, to dwell forever as fully man and fully God (for more on the Ascension and what it says about the earth, see the blog of Peter David Gross).

In so doing, God said something powerful about our bodies and about this material creation. It is good, so good that He saw fit to join Himself to it, to redeem it from its fallen state. The vast expanse between heaven and earth, Being and Becomming, collapsed to the space of a baptismal font.


Well, it's official. I am now a graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles with a Bachelor of the Arts in Philosophy. It's been a long, interesting and rewarding road. Of course, this isn't really an end, soon enough I'll be on my way to England to study a year of theology at Trinity College in Bristol. Nevertheless, it is certainly a milestone.

Over these years I've grown and changed, built friendships and learned to see the world in ways I never imagined. I've gained new friends, grown in some old friendships, and parted ways with others. I've seen one sister move away to Napa, another to Mexico where she fell in love and married. It was also during my college years that I finally found my church home as an Anglican.

Through all this time my family has been by my side, and God has been my guide. Life has been good, and I look forward to the road that lies ahead.

To all my friends and family - I love you and I look forward to exploring the coming years with you, Lord willing.