Monday, June 25, 2012

Formal Does Not Suck

People tend not to like anything formal nowadays. They prefer “authentic things,” by which they mean spontaneous and unplanned things. Describing a meeting as “rather formal” is usually a mild insult, and implies that the meeting was boring, pompous, cold, lifeless, and so on.

The word formal is particularly bad when used to describe a religion event. After all, region is a word already twice damned. So adding the word formal to this repulsive word makes a belief or practice sound at least useless; perhaps even demonic.

Both words -- formal and religion – suffer from post traumatic stress due to the repeated rape of our language somewhere around the middle of the twentieth century. Since then, English has staggered and drooled, trying its best to keep carrying meaning from one person (and from one part of the culture) to another. But unfortunately, some of its old words and phrases have not survived the ravage.
Religion is one of those.

Religion implies a binding of oneself to a set of beliefs and practices. Since the thugs beat up our language, all binding must be resisted; otherwise one cannot be spontaneous or authentically spiritual. One cannot, evidently, be both spiritual and religious in this new era. So mention the old word “religion” now and even religious people will shutter at your indecency.

The word formal is not as provocative as the word religion. People will be surprised that you have said it but will just smile or sneer. Formal is to our language like a senile uncle is to a family reunion; no one wishes him any ill but what are  do we to do with him when it comes time to talk?

The problem is, the entire structure of Western Civilization is tied to the notion of formality. Even the New Testament is barely recognizable without understanding the doctrine of forms.

Take, for example, St. Paul’s words in Romans, chapter twelve.

Don’t be conformed to this world. Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

The underlying root of both words is “form.”

Form was a loaded word in the ancient world and deeply connected to the way people viewed reality. They thought everything in the visible world was a manifestation of eternal things in an invisible world.They called those invisible things forms. Forms were what made things down here on earth what they are. Dogs are manifestations of dogginess. Chairs are manifestations of chairness. You get the idea (which is funny because idea is the word the Greeks used to refer to forms. I’m sorry. That pun brought out my inner nerd.)

Anyway, ancient Greco-Romans described material things that had lost their form as “deformed.” They thought such things might be reformed with some work but they were definitely not themselves. To remain what something was supposed to be required someone to work on retaining its form.

But that brings us to the heart of today’s rant: to rediscover the form of something requires a person or group to occasionally become formal, as in a ritual or ceremony. These occasions make it possible for a society to remember and recover its form, that is to say the ideas and beliefs that structure its unique nature.

That is why the Passover, for example, is done a certain way.

Or why the flag is folded in a certain way.

Or why weddings, not so long ago, were done in a certain way.

The reasons a group performs – that is to say ‘sets into motion a particular form’ a ceremony, is to teach its children and newcomers the underlying structure that makes it what it is. If a society fails to perform these lessons from time to time, its essential form will soon be lost. It will become deformed.

This language is found throughout the New Testament, as in the phrase a “form of godliness.” In that case, Paul warns Christians that one can adhere to the “form of godliness” without partaking of its power. He is not insulting people for having acquired the “form of godliness.” He is merely warning them that there is much more to our faith than its form. He would be aghast that we have understood him to mean that our faith was formless. Nonetheless, the warning about the limits of formality is terribly important.

I mean, what wife would want her husband to keep repeating the vows he uttered during the wedding? If every time he wanted to make love to her he would begin with “I, Sam, do take thee Julia, to be my lawfully wedded wife, to have and to hold ….”

That husband would have the form of marriage down pat but would seriously misunderstand what makes a marriage live.

But does that mean that bridegrooms should wear ball caps to their wedding? Should we just not plan weddings at all? Should we just let everyone offer whatever words come to mind at the moment? So we need ceremony for anything?

Now think about St. Paul’s reminder in Romans chapter twelve about the differences between conform and transform.

In Latin-based languages, the three letters “c-o-n” means “with.” To be conformed to something means to bring one form into unity with something else. In this case, we are to resist any automatic participation in the form that structures the world around us.

“Don’t form yourself according to the values of your culture,” Paul is saying. Instead, be transformed by intentionally renewing your mind.

The suffix trans means, “across.” Flying transatlantic means moving across the Atlantic Ocean to an entirely different continent.

How are we going to move our human form from where it is today into an entirely different place? How can we be transformed? Well, Paul claims, it involves resisting the pull of the world around us. We are not to be conformed to the world. We cannot become transformed if we allow ourselves to be conformed to this world.

Form is structure, a skeleton. As in the case of a human skeleton, we don’t usually want to see it. That is why too much formality makes us uncomfortable.

But without a skeleton, a body is a blob.

If some alien force were to suddenly suck all of our skeletons out of our bodies, we would be gelatinous gobs of undifferentiated matter. We would have no form.

Not having a form would be even worse than religion! It would be like, gosh, sucky like.

If those horrible aliens kept sucking out all skeletons, they would eventually remove the grammar from our language.

Word the order matter wouldn’t.

Punctuation? What; ! # ... (:)

“Meaninglessness sucketh,” we would shout.

“Understanding you I cannot,” we would whine.

But then an alien professor from Yale could reassure us.

“Meaning is a personal construct, “ he would remind us. “The issue is what does it all mean to you?”

"Whatever!" we might shout back, lacking by that time any more intelligent word or phrase which had not already been deconstructed. 

A post form-sucking world doesn’t sound like a very nice place to live.

On the other hand, we would be utterly authentic -- at long last!

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