The Limits of Language

I was fascinated by an op ed piece in the New York Times of July 2 about a new law in Florida that requires the teaching of American history as “factual, not as constructed.” The law then goes on to construct the facts that it wants taught, including “inalienable rights of life, liberty, and property.” The unconstructed fact of the Declaration of Independence, of course, speaks of “unalienable rights” of “life liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But the basic problem is the assumption that history can be taught as facts and not as an interpretation of the facts.
The op ed writer, Mary Beth Norton, concludes her article with the observation that “The Florida law highlights a growing tendency in the United States to substitute easily grasped absolutes for messy and ambiguous realties.” A-men!
I pointed out to someone last week that the current divisions in the Episcopal Church arise from the effort to find security in language rather than worship. Other churches have had their Confessions of faith, Anglicans have had a Prayer Book. Even if we agree on a form of words, we cannot know what those words mean for others. When the Episcopal Church at its General Convention last month adopted a form of words it hoped would satisfy all, a conservative leader said, “Yes, but they won’t do it!”
Exactly the point. No Windsor Statement, no Anglican Covenant can tell me what someone else is really thinking. Elizabeth I said, “I will not make windows into men’s souls.” Nor can we. The best we can do is continue to come together in worship and trust that it will make us all who God wants us to be. But never walk away from the conversation.
Pogo, my favorite philosopher of many years ago, said, “A door closes on both sides; remember that.” Yes. We have to keep talking, keep putting into the best words we can find what the “facts” mean to us. To close the door is to lock ourselves away from the truth the other sees and to lock them away from the truth we see.
Do enough of us have the humility to keep the door open and really listen?

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