In Talking of God, Our Words Don’t Always Mean What We Think They Mean

Clear thought demands clear definitions.

Lionello Spada, “Saint Jerome,” c. 1611
Lionello Spada, “Saint Jerome,” c. 1611 (photo: Public Domain)

One day, my 4-year-old daughter found a school headshot of the biological half-sister of two of our adopted children. She asked who it was. I told her the girl’s name and said that she was the half-sister of our two boys.

Then, in a moment I will never forget, she cocked her head to the side, furrowed her brow, and in her totally innocent, totally confused, totally curious, totally 4-year-old way, said, “Wait, she doesn’t have any legs?”

When I recovered from my laughing, laughing into which she joined as well, though she didn’t know why, I explained what it meant for someone to be a half-brother or half-sister. I was reminded, once again, of the importance of defining terms.

It was this recognition that led, in part, to my return to the Catholic faith. It is ignorance of this point that keeps many people confused and in the dark on many important issues. Words are means of communication, and when words mean different things to different people, then real communication, the sharing and discussion of ideas, is not possible. But the defining of words is a place where any conversation can begin because it is the basis of forming a common ground. If common definitions are not in place, there can’t be any conversation at all. 

When I was in my “anti-Catholicism” phase of life, I was convinced that Catholicism was a heresy. Much of my misunderstanding was based on fuzzy or narrow understandings of the words faith and salvation, and I simply couldn’t see that those words might have different nuances in different contexts. While having dinner with Peter Kreeft and my family, I confronted Kreeft about his Catholicism (much to the consternation of my family, I am sure), and he simply explained the various meanings of those terms and how Catholics and Protestants usually use those words in different senses. It was enough to convince me, at the time, that Catholics might not be heretics after all.

It was the bridging of this language gap that allowed me to learn more about Catholicism and actually come to understand it. Clarity of language leads to clarity of thought. Our thoughts cannot be any clearer than our definitions.

After hearing a story about how a couple of college students left the faith after reading The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins, I decided to create a series of videos critiquing the book in an effort to help people realize the poverty of his arguments. It was a tedious effort to make it through the whole book, and one of the reasons was simply the way he understood God. I agree with Dawkins that the God he (and other militant atheists, by the way) describes does not exist. As far as I could tell, Dawkins is unaware of the “definition” (in quotes because God cannot be defined) of God according to rigorous theology and Christian philosophy. God is not a powerful magician who lives in the sky, but it is impossible to have a rational discussion about God if our understanding of Him does not go beyond these cartoon images. It is an instance of the strawman fallacy to use a caricature of a man-made God to tear down belief in God in general.

This abuse of language, as well as the neglect of it, is one of the most dangerous trends threatening society today. The onslaught of words, more and more confused and meaningless, that barrage us every day never come with an appended glossary. The feed and stream of social media would not allow anyone time to carefully consult those definitions and think critically about what they read. 

Words come to be little more than emotional buttons, stimuli that evoke a physical reaction like food held out to a dog who begins to salivate. Man is a rational animal, but when words, the evidence and tool of rationality, become mere sounds, we have become something less than human. The ability to understand is the first act of the mind, and that act of the mind is inextricably bound up with language. A mind without its first act can never make it to the other acts of judgment and argument. If words fail, so does truth. If truth fails, so does reason. Without reason, an animal is not a human. The inability to think about words is followed by the inability to think.