Friday, March 26, 2010

Smell My Finger

A writer once said that America and England are two nations divided by a common language.

Well, almost!

If Webster had had his way, the differences would be much more than they are. He wanted to completely alter American English, which would have probably encouraged even greater pronunciation differences than exists today among English-speaking people. Aside from a few changes (“Savior,” instead of “Saviour,” for example) Americans retained English’s archaic and cumbersome spelling system.

Our language has the habit of dragging along all the layers of our linguistic past as we continually modify it for current and future use. That habit affects our spelling – a lot – but it affects other things too, such as church culture.

Here is an example: think about how some Christians speak of the “Holy Spirit,” while others say “Holy Ghost.”

The reason for this difference is not theological. We use both terms because of our language offers both of them for our use.

English vocabulary comes from two major sources: the German and the French.

Our language was originally a form of German. Those Germanic roots gave us the word “Geist,” which over time became the English “ghost.”

When the French invaded England nearly a thousand years ago and made their language the official tongue of the realm, English also ended up digesting huge chunks of Romance. (The language refers to language, not love. The French tried to give love to Anglo-Saxons but so far they’ve refused the gift.) Romance – “the language of Rome” was in the process of becoming modern French. That’s where we got the word “esprit,” from the French and in time modified it to become a more English-sounding “spirit. “

Ghost and spirit mean similar things then, although we tend to use them differently.

English has thousands of duplicate words like this.

“Get” and “receive,” “father” and “parent,” “cow” and pig” are all examples of how our language draws upon both its Germanic and its Romance roots to create its vocabulary.

A rule of thumb about what words to use for which occasion seems to be this: the lower the class of the speaker, the more primitive his experience, or the closer to his heart, the more an English speaker will use German-derived words. The higher his class, the more refined his experience, or the more abstract the thoughts he wishes to express, the more an English speaker will use Romance- derived words.

Cuss words? All Germanic! For an explosive explicative, the soft sounding syllables of French will not do. People won’t even understand that we’re angry or frustrated.


See what I mean?

However, when we want to eat, we ask for “a slice of mutton or beef;” not a “hunk of sheep or cow.”

Protocol requires us to choose between Germanic derived and French derived words several times a day.

But I’m off my subject.

Classical Pentecostals, who formed their denominations in the early 1900’s, have tended to use the term “Holy Ghost,” just as most English-speaking Christians did the past. However, since our language, like all languages, keeps changing; the tendency seems to be toward using the Latin based “Spirit” more than the Germanic word “Ghost” for spiritual conversations.

The fact is, both terms, although they may feel a bit different when we use them, mean exactly the same thing.

Whichever we use, “Spirit” or “Ghost,” we face a problem in defining the indefinable Holy Spirit!
Either term, “Holy Spirit” or “Holy Ghost” seems to encourage a mental impression of something like an intangible, ill-defined, floating fog. When we put “Holy” in front of a perception like that, what do we get? Well, a Holy ill-defined fog!

This is especially true if we are thinking about the Holy Spirit as an impersonal force rather than as a Divine Person.

I don’t mean to be irreverent. However, I do want to point out how difficult is it is to describe the Holy Spirit.

Could this be the reason why Western Christians have often avoided discussions about the Holy Spirit?

Even great thinkers like John Calvin, the spiritual father of Presbyterianism, a man who seemed to lack never words about any subject, seems rather tongue-tied when it comes to the Holy Spirit.

It seems that Western theologians have usually preferred to deal with subjects that are more predictable, contain less mystery and are more easily described.

Ever since Roman times, Western Christians have preferred concrete definitions and articulated doctrines. We leave it to the spooky Easterners to use words that point toward some concept that cannot be fully expressed in words.

Most of the time, our preference for concrete words over abstract ones -- and for practical results over mysterious experience -- serves us well. Sometimes this preference makes us – well, so Anglo-Saxon. It can get in the way of spiritual growth.

It’s like the man trying to communicate with his dog about how to find food.

The man points to the bowl over across the room and yells, “FIDO!! OVER THERE! LOOK!

The dog only hears “FIDO!! BLAH! BLAH! BLAH!”

So the dog walks over and smells the man’s finger.

As it turns out, communication problems exist everywhere; not just between the Americans and the English.

Of course, none of this would have been a problem if the French would have remained on their side of the Channel.