Words: Mystical (vs McLaren)

Re-post from elsewhere in 2007

St Hildegard receives a mystical vision

Words are very important. They are how we communicate ideas, from the simple, “Whip the cream on medium speed,” to the profound, “Now the Catholic Faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity; Neither confusing the Persons, nor dividing the Substance.”

Charles Kingsley says:

These glorious things — words — are man’s right alone. . . . Without words we should know no more of each other’s hearts and thoughts than the dog knows of his fellow dog . . . for, if you will consider, you always think to yourself in words, though you do not speak them aloud; and without them all our thoughts would be mere blind longings, feelings which we could not understand ourselves. (Quoted by John Stott in You Can Trust the Bible, p. 52)

[Unsurprisingly], I think words ought to be used with precision. I admit now that I am probably more guilty of using words imprecisely than I think, including on this blog. But an admission of non-innocence doesn’t mean that an ideal ought not to be striven for.

One of my chiefest complaints regarding A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian D. McLaren is his imprecise use of words. He uses mystical by its connotation, not its denotation. (Connotation is the cloud of emotion surrounding a word, whereas denotation is what the word technically means.) What he really means is vague, mysterious, bigger than we are, things that cannot be fully comprehended by the rational mind, and expressing the mystery of the universe – fine. Christians are called to do that.

But that’s not what it means to be mystical. Not in reality. Maybe in a world where post no longer means “after” (its denotation as old as the Latin language) but “coming from, emerging from, growing from, and emphasizes both continuity and discontinuity.” (120) But in the real world, the world where words have meaning, mystical refers to someone or something associated with mystics and mysticism.

The whole goal of Christian mysticism is reaching upward to God and achieving union with the Divine. It enters into mystery, into a world beyond reason, but neither does it abandon reason nor does it seek illuminative experiences for themselves. Some mystics are very down-to-earth, others appear not to be. But this has nothing to do with some sort of airy-fairy word with little meaning and use if it just means “bigger than I can comprehend, mysterious, somewhat vague, written with poetic language, etc, etc.”

I remember a professor who came as a guest speaker to my Writer’s Craft class in High School. He delineated for us the difference between flower and rigour. I shan’t do him justice, really, and probably remember incorrectly and am reinterpreting his words through the lens of my own thinking, but he says that good writing has more rigour than flower. It means taking time and choosing the right words, using them appropriately, and writing sentences that make sense. A lot of old poetry was very good at flower, but not rigour, abandoning sounding like a human being for fitting into meter. He seemed to be anti-meter, but if you read Shakespeare, you see a skillful use of meter, whereas if you read some other poets, you see it done badly. Shakespeare had rigour. Certain others did not.

If we use words with rigour, using them to mean what their denotations mean, then their connotations actually have real power and force, if you ask me. Suddenly, they add depth and meaning to the well-wrought sentences that we bring to the page, rather than feeling light and skimpy – for when used to refer to mysticism or a mystic, the word mystical can bring much more depth than if it is left to mean merely its connotation. It will bring both its connotation and its denotation to the table, and the world will be richer for it.

If we like, we could start criticising my blog and the medium as a whole for being the sort of place where little rigour is found, for blog entries are rarely given enough time for the words to be carefully chosen. In a blog, words are just chosen. A blog is more like a birthplace for ideas, a place where they can start flowing. Nonetheless, perhaps we bloggers should be more responsible as we blog. We should think on our words and make sure we are using them for their technical meaning. When we use words like church, do we mean “those called out” [its meaning by the etymological fallacy] or do we mean “the assembly” [its actual denotation]? These are the questions every writer should ask, regardless of how long his writing takes. At least, this is what I think.

But I’m neither a mystic nor a poet. Maybe Brian D McLaren would give a different answer. The postmoderns out there are all railing against this entry, I’m sure, decrying it as modern, saying that I’m trapping words and limiting them and binding our thoughts and so forth. But how can our thoughts move forward into the new future and the world if they are imprecise, if they are sloppy? If we want to have a proper understanding of the world, regardless of how incomplete we admit it to be, regardless of the fact that we realise the failings of our own perceptions, to at least communicate our broken, fallen, failing understandings of the universe clearly is a laudable goal. And if precision in writing is “modern”, it is also medieval and ancient. And perhaps being “postmodern”, if it means being imprecise is simply being post-everything.

But that should be okay, since post doesn’t actually mean after, whatever my Latin dictionary tells me.*

*This last dig is directed at McLaren’s declaration in (the otherwise good) A Generous Orthodoxy that post doesn’t mean after, but, rather, taking the good of the old and looking forward to what comes next. I maintain that that is not what post hitherto meant, and if we are going to start making up new meanings for old words, we shouldn’t be surprised when people misunderstand us.