St Anthony of the Desert

Orthodox Christian Mission

Las Cruces, New Mexico

Fr Gabriel

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What’s the Noise About Traditional Values?

“When I use a word it means whatever I want it to mean,” snorted Humpty Dumpty smugly to Alice. Puzzled, she entered into conversation with him about the meaning of words under such circumstances. The problem is that if only I know what my word means, I can shift the meaning endlessly to the confusion and puzzlement of my partner.

Lewis Carroll was poking fun at the erosion of meaning in language in his day. Would that he could see the verbal disasters of our time, almost two centuries after he wrote Alice in Wonderland. He could have written volumes about the shifting sands of language.

Take “traditional values,” for example. Now there’s an interesting phrase. You have to ask each individual user what it means, because it denotes nothing in particular.  It’s a hollow phrase.  “When I use a word, it mean whatever I want it to mean,” remember. What a word connotes becomes more important than what it denotes and there can be a vast difference between the two meanings.

What you intend the word to mean has become more important than its original content. You can even make the word mean the opposite of what it originally meant. This is what George Orwell had in mind when, in his novel 1984, he coined the word “doublespeak.” You say one thing but you mean the exact opposite.

Take “value,” for example. This word that used to refer to a given quality that made you prize something. You could say a painting was valuable, or an antique chest, because of their makers or the quality of their manufacture. You could say pictures of your grandparents are valuable for sentimental reasons.

People didn’t used to have “values.” They had virtues and vices. Values were given, not possessed; they were not nouns but adjectives, in a sense.

“Traditional,” I note on some church signboards, now stands in contrast to “contemporary,” as though they were opposites. I suspect that “old-fashioned” might be the idea conveyed by the word “traditional” these days; it’s something that we in our hip modern society want to get rid of. The hidden assumption is that anything old is bad, anything new is good, unless it’s a van Gogh painting. We want to create a prejudice against old things by calling them traditional. Like fidelity in marriage, for example.

Oddly enough, if you are looking for a bed-and-breakfast, “traditional values” might connote coziness, solitude, quiet, substantial breakfast and the like. You would like your bed-and-breakfast to be given over to “traditional values,” in this case. We like to walk in the midst of quietness on occasion, but only by choice.

But “traditional values” in church? Well, here we often go the other way.

In this usage, “traditional” means people actually believe that something substantial can be talked about in terms of real content. Truth, for example. Such a church might actually call upon you for commitment and fidelity beyond some cheap notion of card-carrying membership.

So instead many people might look for “creative values” in a church – a synonym for do-it-yourself, make-it-up-as-you-go-along, trust nothing beyond your own intuition, religion. In this case, nothing will be asked, nothing known and surely nothing given.

The sand shifts readily enough under our feet without having to worry about what each word might mean when people speak it. But that is the nature of the society we live in. Words have been sucked dry of content to the point where the communication of truth has become questionable – but we still need the grounding in order to make sense. Be careful with Humpty Dumpty.

JUNE 2012