Thursday, August 27, 2009

Ambiguity and the Pope's latest encyclical...

I’ve always been fond of an Aldous Huxley quote: “ambiguity in language leads to confusion of thought”. Abusing language intentionally is the primary tool of the propagandist, who seeks not beauty and clarity of thought but emotional manipulation. The propagandist who goes about his manipulation fully knowing that the actions he seeks to inspire conflict with the actors own beliefs is a propagandist in the extreme. But not all propagandists are fully operating within a view they know to be morally incompatible with those they seek to influence. Most bodies of knowledge, in fact, are full of blind spots, which are, by default, overlooked in faith. In some cases, especially moral, the grounds for this type of faith is suggested more, if not entirely, by what the adherent rejects, by what he sees as an unacceptable consequence which keeps him back, safe within his faith-patched system of thought. It is here, in this second case of the propagandist, that we can at least have some sympathy and assume that any error we perceive in his thought is due to blind spots overlooked in good faith; it’s important therefore to see the end he has in view, and proceed then to an examination of means. Granting this good faith, I propose to examine, in the next post, what I think are the errors of an article written by Gabriel E. Vidal about the Pope’s latest encyclical. Before I go there, however, I should note one more thing.

Ambiguity in language is sometimes due to the inability of language to capture the dynamism of reality. It is, therefore, not always the person who propagates a view who is proceeding on faith, but the recipients who must accept on faith what the teacher says based on what they know of the faithfulness of that teacher. Jesus, for instance, knew full well that people could not see how they could eat his flesh and drink his blood, and, though the doctrine of transubstantiation was to develop later on as the bounds to which reason could go in understanding it, the apostles simply had faith. When it came time and those words were realized, when Christ broke blessed bread and passed around blessed wine, those same apostles, though not understanding fully, at least understood there was another sense in which this saying could be accepted. St. Augustine said likewise about the opening of Genesis, how there are deeper senses to the language in which the truth of creation was expressed. In both cases: In the case of Christ’s sayings, and in the case of the opening of Genesis -- as well as the Psalms and certainly other parts of Scripture -- it takes time to unpack meanings that are latent and which could never be discovered without first having faith. Everything about Benedict XVI equally suggests to me that, even where he is speaking as pioneer and not as clearly in light of past encyclicals, he deserves the benefit of the doubt, and that just perhaps he’s speaking in terms beyond his time, with plenty of senses to unpack for those who would first believe so that they may see.

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