“You say potato, i say potato. Tomato, tomato, potato, potato. Let’s call the whole thing off….”
This Gershwin song loses its lilt right at the end. Sometimes, wrangling over the meaning of words isn’t small potatoes—it can be illustrative of what Philip Rieff called a “deathworks.” As go words, so go civilizations.
The meaning of words matters, but today’s wrangling over them takes a unique twist. It is the result of two present day realities according to James Davison Hunter in To Change the World: dissolution and difference.
The first reality is dissolution, a weakening of our collective grasp of reality. “By dissolution, I refer to the deconstruction of the most basic assumptions about reality,” writes Hunter. Dissolution deconstructs any meaningful connection between language and reality. Words are just that, words. They are self-referential and no longer point to a fixed reality. Grammar, as a consequence, is up for grabs. Why get overwrought over words that are essentially meaningless? It’s a “whatever” world at the most basic building block of culture. It’s Babel all over again. “You say potato, i say potato.”
There can be no grammar without God. “Any coherent understanding of what language is and how language performs, that any coherent account of the capacity of human speech to communicate meaning and feeling is, in the final analysis, underwritten by the assumption of God’s presence,” writes Cambridge scholar George Steiner.1 Likewise in reverse Nietzsche argued, “We are not finished with God until we are finished with grammar.” We live in a culture where this disconnect is accepted. No one can lay claim to grasping reality. “If it’s true for me, it’s true.” Words can mean anything, they only mean what we say they mean. “You say tomato, i say tomato”… whatever.
The second reality stiff-arms people when they try to suggest we can’t live this way. Hunter calls it difference, meaning any differentiation in describing reality is a matter of style, not substance. It’s merely accent, nothing actual. If everything is dissolved, there are no essential differences. Everything is undifferentiated. We’re talking potatoes, for God’s sake. Tomato, tomato, potato, potato… everyone’s entitled to their own take on reality, especially when it comes to religion. If you suggest that the meaning of words describing reality isn’t small potatoes, you get stiff-armed: “Who are you to judge?”
Dissolution =/ Reality
Difference =/ Plausibility
These are two sides of the same coin. While dissolution weakens our collective grasp of reality, difference weakens our collective grasp of plausibility structures. The credibility of beliefs depends upon certain social conditions—culture—that reinforce those beliefs. These social conditions comprise what Peter Berger calls, “plausibility structures.” For Berger, “there is a direct relation between the cohesion of institutions and the subjective cohesiveness of beliefs, values and worldviews.”2
Put simply, if 99 percent of trusted associates in my immediate surrounding do not believe that God exists, this fact says nothing about whether God exists, but it inevitably makes the experience of believing in God’s existence less plausible. Context matters to the confidence of beliefs.
If you want to see how difference and dissolution are working out, visit a college classroom and suggest that your faith is “the way, the truth, and the life.” It’s not only implausible, it’s repugnant. We live in a world in which “God is no longer an inevitability.”3 Dissolution undermines the character of the thing believed, the notion that any particular faith system is more aligned with reality than any another faith. Difference undermines the coherence of belief, the strength of its plausibility when put under pressure. Something fundamental has changed. It is not only the case that we no longer believe what we once believed, but what we mean by belief and how we hold to beliefs has changed. When we speak of belief, we’re no longer talking about reality and how we hold to beliefs, we’re not excluding other possibilities. If a faith system can’t describe reality with any degree of reliability, it’s implausible to imagine the church enjoying credibility that is beyond challenge. Thus, the operative word in a world of difference and dissolution is tolerance.
The solution is strengthening our collective grasp of reality, reconstructing our most basic definition of it. Augustine wisely notes: Nullus quipped credit aliquid, nisi prius cogitaverit esse credendum—“no one indeed believes anything, unless he previously knew it to be believable.” The believable is tied to the plausible. Every society has plausibility structures that define the taken-for-granted collective consciousness, what is thinkable and doable for most people. Every choice a person makes is made inside the frames of this taken-for-granted reality that are, as Michael Sandel puts it, “antecedent to choice.”4
This is why starting with “truth projects” on “worldviews” doesn’t work. Propositions are not the solution. People first need plausibility structures. In Jeremiah’s day, this meant the Jews had to flesh out reality in Babylonian institutions. When Babylonian institutions took seriously the Jews’ definition of reality, they experienced a connection between speaker and word spoken. Dissolution solved. Words meant something. These institutions became plausibility structures for Judaism. This is the same solution we need today—institutions such as Sprint, Sears, and schools becoming plausibility structures for an accurate assessment of human nature and reality.
On the flip side of the coin, we need churches to serve as alternative plausibility structures—so that people recognize there are real differences that matter when it comes to defining reality. But these churches need to be in sync with reality just as much as center institutions. If Sears defines reality by ought-is-can-will, we need local churches defining reality by creation-fall-redemption-restoration. When the church is an alternative plausibility structure, people will see that the meaning of words isn’t small potatoes.
That’s why there is a truth to the statement extra ecclesiam nulla salus, that “there is no salvation outside of the church.” Strong and coherent beliefs require strong institutions enveloping those who aspire to believe. Since people live most of their lives outside of the church, it requires plausibility structures in center institutions as well as in “four-chapter” churches. As J. Gresham Machen warned early in the 20th century, “We may preach with all the fervor of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas, which, by the resistless force of logic, prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion.” The pious quip “One person and God is a majority” may be good theology, but it is terrible social psychology. Social context does not make something true, but it can strengthen or weaken whether individuals think it is true—and work together.
George and Ira Gershwin’s song loses its lilt in the last line, which reads: “but oh, if we call the whole thing off then we must part.” Human beings cannot flourish if reality is dissolved and undifferentiated. This is the world Yeats saw on the horizon in the 1920s: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” The modern response was captured by Rolling Stone Magazine: “We used to think the center couldn’t hold. All of a sudden, there doesn’t seem to be a center at all.” Human life cannot flourish if everyone’s take on reality is self-referential. The meaning of words matters. When you say potato and I say potato, we’re not talking small potatoes.
1 George Steiner, Real Presence (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago, 1991), p. 3.
2 Peter L. Berger, The Heretical Imperative, New York: Anchor Doubleday, 1979, pg. 18. 3 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007.
4 Michael Sandel, “The Politics of Public Identity,” The Hedgehog Review 2.1 (Spring 2000).