A memorable episode of the old sitcom Frasier featured a scene from the dog Eddie’s perspective. The human conversation about him was unintelligible except when he heard his name or the few words in his vocabulary like “treat,” “walk,” “food,” and so on. A parallel scene from the father Martin’s perspective listening to his psychiatrist sons using psychological jargon revealed the same babble interspersed with words he understood.
This is the way I feel about 100 pages into Stephen Hawking’s (with Leonard Mladinow) The Grand Design. I experienced the same thing 95 pages into his book, A Brief History of Time, and I was reading the illustrated version! Suddenly everything gets more complicated as he connects QED with QCD and GUT (Grand Unified Theory), quarks and Feynman diagrams, baryons and mesons and asymptomatic freedom.
There are too many subatomic particles in the air! I can’t keep up!
I got a laugh when I mentioned in a workshop at a Unitarian Universalist Church that in Christian worship I hear traditional jargon, and say to myself, “Why did they say that? What does it mean?” My subtext is: How does it enhance the experience? Is it intelligible to an outsider?
Some like to mock Scientology’s terminology, but Christianity’s lingo is just as weird to the novice, yet because those in our culture have heard it so often, we take it in stride. I’d like to avoid specifics, because each example will offend someone for whom the phrase has taken on positive connotations. But at the risk of losing you, here goes one example…
What does it mean, for instance, to say, “In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost”? When I was baptized at the tender age of six and asked, just before my full body immersion, if I believed in this trio, I was stumped. I thought baptism meant I would belong to God and Jesus forever. I wasn’t certain who the Father and Son were, and I’m not sure I knew of the Holy Ghost.
I know some of you will now think, well, he was too young to be baptized, to give consent. Blessedly my pastor knew better, and told the congregation so before he dunked me. He knew I wanted Jesus in my heart and God in my life. More sophisticated theology would come later. And besides, I gave more consent than infants who are baptized.
But why do we need to do everything in the name of the Trinity? Why is it said so often, as if this incantation sacralizes everything? First, it excludes other possible manifestations or faces of God. Second, it’s an exclusively male grouping, unless you know that the Spirit is feminine in one testament and neuter in another. And why not include Mary, the mother of Jesus? Who gave God sole custody?
(I myself used to reduce the Trinity to their functionality: Creator, Reconciler, Sustainer, but that too seems unsatisfying, incomplete and much too impersonal.)
I know, I’m just being difficult, like a parishioner who puts an anonymous petty criticism in the church suggestion box.
Progressive religious intellectuals have a similar problem with holy gobbledygook. I was given an article by a scholar for publication in a magazine I edited. I could make out what was being said (I can read academese). But I thought it could have been said in a paragraph rather than the 20 pages I received, and I doubted my readers would appreciate the author’s complicated and convoluted reasoning with multi-syllabic words that sounded recently devised. So I published an intelligible excerpt!
Okay, so now I’ve offended everyone. Undoubtedly someone will say, take the beam out of your own eye before addressing the splinters in others. Mea culpa. But we need some kind of modern day Pentecost to proclaim a gospel that others can grasp. Come, Holy Spirit!
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