Thursday, September 13, 2012

Four Ways of Speaking

Philosophy and theology deal with thick, heavy, dense subjects. It’s hard enough half the time to understand the question being asked, let alone the answer you get: “What is being? What is nature? What is the nature of being? What is essence of nature? What is the essence of God’s nature? Is existence itself God’s nature?” I’m guessing some of you went cross-eyed and passed out briefly mid-way through that series of questions. Hope you didn’t hit your head on anything. Point is: this stuff is hard.

Some people have a talent for engaging these topics in an easy and sensible way… and some do not. In reading different thinkers over the years, I’ve developed a theory:

There are four ways of communicating:

1. Speaking simply on simple matters. This is what most of our speech is like most of the time. Simple declarative statements: “She pushed me,” “God is good,” “That’s my coat,” or “Daniel Tosh isn’t funny.” No brain-busting concepts or unintelligible jargon.

2. Speaking complexly on simple matters. Here, though, we move to a level where we’re still not dealing with brain-busting concepts, but people for some reason feel the need to gussy it up; it’s the linguistic equivalent of wearing a tuxedo to a tailgate party. You’d find this exemplified by college sophomores:

Student: “Professor, can you elucidate for those of us currently present what precisely was the major precipitating factor for the conflict in question?”
Professor: “Do you mean, ‘How did the war start?’”

A more amusing example is found in this video, where Stephen Fry plays a bombastic barber.

3. Speaking complexly on complex matters. Now we reach the level I was initially talking about. We’re dealing with brain-busting concepts, and for many it takes a boatload of special terms, words borrowed from other languages, and circumlocutions (i.e. “my father’s parents’ other son” instead of “my uncle”) to try to get the point across. For example:

“For the very early ancient Israelites, their Weltanschauung entailed a monolatric cosmology in which other deities were recognized while only one was honored with cultic worship.”

Now, there are simpler ways to say this (“The Israelites at first believed in a world where many gods existed, but they worshipped only one”), but they wouldn’t quite capture the content in the same way. It’s no crime to write or speak this way; most of us don’t have the ability to go beyond it. But some do….

4. Speaking simply on complex matters. This level is reserved for those true geniuses who are able to speak about difficult topics in a way that’s easy to understand without leaving out anything essential. Here are some of my favorite examples:
“Our hearts were made for you, O Lord, and they are restless until they rest in thee.” St. Augustine captures the essence of human desire and God as the fulfillment of that desire in one simple and beautiful sentence.

“We all want progress, but if you're on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.” C.S. Lewis here deftly points to a truth our politicians would do well to consider.

(I can’t leave out this example from Lewis, since it’s apropos to our subject: “Don't use words too big for the subject. Don't say "infinitely" when you mean "very"; otherwise you'll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.”)

"When a man ceases to believe in God, he doesn't believe in nothing. He believes in anything." There are about 10 billion G.K. Chesterton quotes I could have chosen… so, yeah, I think we need a few more:

“To say that everybody is responsible means that nobody is responsible.”

“To have a right to do a thing is not at all the same as to be right in doing it.”

"Why be something to everybody when you can be everything to somebody?" (on motherhood)

Anyway, you get the point, I hope. Be thankful when you come across those gifted people who are able to be so clear. They sure can make life easier.

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