In this four-part series, I aim to think about one particular aspect of language: naming. In the introduction, I preliminarily addressed the root of the problem, the Fall. In the second post, I argued the “knowledge of good and evil” we gained at the Fall became the way we separate ourselves from God. We never gained this knowledge as if it was information about good and evil. We instead changed our relationship with naming.
Here I want to begin to think through a general response. In the fourth, we will tackle particular academic responses.
What I hinted at in the previous post was we have overnamed good and evil and called this a moral knowledge. I will repeat that I am not suggesting we can do without moral categories or moral judgments. Clearly those were part of the world before the Fall. But they remain now deformed not merely by our pride, but by our naming.
How then do we live? How then do we name?
I will suggest that we look at the “knowledge of good and evil” from a different frame than morality. The knowledge of good and evil as a moral concept urges us to purify our words. But as an ethical knowledge, the knowledge of good and evil offers a different emphasis, a problem of always, already speaking evil, not whether to speak it.
Words are not moral, but ethical. When we see them as the former, we become judges. When they are seen as the latter, we risk more. We risk being right, but not necessarily the concept of truth. We risk ourselves as judge, but not necessarily the concept of identity. And we risk language as control, but not necessarily language itself.
This is why philosopher Giorgio Agamben called language a sacrament. He writes in his book “The Sacrament of Language” that “it is perhaps time to call into question the prestige that language has enjoyed and continues to enjoy in our culture, as a tool of incomparable potency, efficacy, and beauty” (71). The “decisive element” and “peculiar virtue” of human language is not its “tool-like” essence but “in the place it leaves to the speaker…. the ethical relation that is established between the speaker and his language” (71). This relation: the human must, in order to speak, must say ‘I’, “must ‘take the word,’ assume it and make it his own” (71).
This is both an act of arrogance and humility, but we often forget the latter. In calling language a sacrament, what I think Agamben is getting at is the lack of possession of language, the lack of, for lack of a better word, ownership of it. When one speaks unethically, one speaks in the divine model—mandating words and names and definitions, and especially, accuracy. We want—even crave—this accuracy when we judge morally.
But when one relinquishes possession of language, when one risks the very identity that possession defines, one is not only risking understanding by the other, but also more importantly, risking the accuracy that comes with possession.
Is this not what happens when we take the holy sacrament on any given Sunday?
We are called to assess ourselves before taking it. We are called to search our heart so that we will not take the bread and wine in an undignified manner. This has been understood as a moral judgment. Search for sin and confess before you go to the table. But again, what might it be as an ethical act? Risk the identity we come to the table with. Risk that we understand, that we know, that we love God. That we have accurately named love. Risking here does not mean ‘toss aside’ but put aside for a moment. Operate on an “as if” basis, as if we didn’t go through this event weekly or monthly (or whenever). Operate “as if” our words are not merely clumsy but infused with malediction.
The obligation we face at the holy sacrament is not merely an obligation to self—that judgment. We owe a duty, we promise an oath to language. We owe it to words to see them as they are. In need of redemption as much as us.
The holy sacrament is a mystery of the church. If you have it ‘figured out,’ maybe you have overnamed it.
To paraphrase Paul, I am not merely talking about the bread and the wine, but language.
If language as a sacrament is supposed to signify God’s grace, how can grace become not merely the opposite of judgment (neutral, moral relative, etc.) but an ethical term?
Ethical terms are complex terms. And all words are complex because they are always already benedictions and maledictions together. To speak ethically then requires we temper the moral knowledge we claim—or we that we overname. We aim in ethical speaking to restrain malediction as much as we can.
This is not moral relativism. It condemns all overnaming as a power grab and renounces all such grabs as arrogance. It risks a lot. But in the end, risking is the attitude asked of us as we put ourselves before the sacrament.
In the last post I will explore what all this might mean in the academy.
Image courtesy of Fotocitizen at Pixabay.com
Matthew Boedy is an assistant professor of rhetoric and composition at the University of North Georgia. He has degrees from the University of Florida (BS) and the University of South Carolina (MFA and PhD). He enjoys books by Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, and Frederick Buechner. His research interests include the rhetoric of evil, ethics, and professional writing.