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[Chalice] Words matter — but . . . [Chalice]

This service was also recorded live.
The live recording includes special music from
Robert Sibbing - clarinet, Rosa Julstrom - piano, and Mari Hauge - cello.
36:45 minutes - 14.8 MB - Words matter — but . . .mp3 file.

Presented April 15, 2007, by Joe Conover

Opening words:

The opening words are from the tao tse ching, or in English The Book of the Way, a book written by Lao-tzu, a teacher perhaps a contemporary of Confucius, as translated freely, and sometimes very freely, by the writer Stephen Mitchell:

Men are born soft and supple;
dead, they are stiff and hard.
Plants are born tender and pliant;
dead, they are brittle and dry.

Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible
Is a disciple of death.
Whoever is soft and yielding
Is a disciple of life.

The hard and stiff will be broken.
The soft and supple will prevail.


A Chinese proverb says: The beginning of wisdom is calling things by their right name.

Lao-tzu said: The more you know, The less you understand.

And Socrates said: The misuse of language induces evil in the soul.


As a preface today, I have a story. A man was born in South Carolina, went to work at an early age, removed to Kentucky as a young man and met his wife there. He managed a farm while engaging in business activities that included a mining operation and he eventually acquired nearly 800 acres of Kentucky land. After some years, he, his wife and a son moved to Illinois where he again farmed. Once again, he became a major landowner in his community, platted and recorded a town, conducted various small businesses and became an active and respected member of his local church. After his death, succeeding generations continued to honor his memory.

Some of you will recognize this skeletal sketch of the life Frank McWorter. For those who don't know, Frank McWorter was born a slave in 1777. His mother was a West African woman named Judah. His father, by family oral tradition, was his mother's owner, a smalltime Scotch-Irish slaveholder named George McWorter. McWorter moved to Kentucky in 1795 and by 1800, when Frank was 23, Frank was running McWorter's farm operation. Working on his own time, Frank was, among other things, mining saltpeter, a necessary ingredient for the gunpowder needed in the War of 1812. Frank bought his wife's freedom in 1817 and his own freedom two years later. In 1829, Frank traded his saltpeter business for the freedom of a son, Young Frank, and the family, which now included freeborn children, arrived in Pike County, Illinois, in 1830. Frank founded the town of New Philadelphia in 1836, and with money from selling town lots and from his various farm and business operations bought the freedom of 16 family members. In Barry, First Baptist Church records show him an active participant in the life of that church and fifth-generation descendants hold reunions there today. Frank McWorter's story is one of remarkable determination and personal bravery in the face of the severe hardships and adversities of his time. I will return to it later.

Preparing this talk became an odd ramble through several books and a thicket of thoughts and ideas. The point at which I began was not the place I ended up. I hope you will think the journey led somewhere. Because, at first, I thought I would talk about writing. Writing — in one of its less sophisticated forms — was what I did for more than 30 years. It pleased me to think I could quote a favorite sentence from Ambrose Bierce: "Good writing is clear thinking made visible" — a statement that tells you how difficult good writing is. I recalled that Eric Hoffer, long a favorite of mine, wrote that "words cannot move mountains, but they can move the multitude; " So, I thought a suitable title for a talk about writing would be "Words Matter," even though the phrase is a commonplace.

Then, during a Tuesday afternoon in the Borders bookstore at State and Randolph in Chicago, I came across a wonderful little book by Harry Frankfurt. Frankfurt is professor of philosophy emeritus at Princeton University. It is not my wish to be vulgar, but the title of this New York Times best-seller is "On Bullshit." Frankfurt begins it this way:

"One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, nor attracted much sustained inquiry. In consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves."

Frankfurt conducts an inquiry, and in so doing ends up explaining the difference between bullshit and lies — a difference certainly relevant today. "It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth," says Frankfurt. The bullshitter is unconcerned about what is true and what is false; his concern is for disguising what he is up to. Thus, says Frankfurt, "bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are." Well, I thought, let's make the title of the talk "Words Matter — but " To state the obvious, words DO matter — in ways uncountable and inscrutable — as one purveyor of talk-radio BS learned this past week to the general benefit of the public good.

At the moment, I am still reading Jacob Needleman's most recent book, "Why Can't We Be Good?" Needleman is not an easy read. A philosophy professor at San Francisco State, Needleman is one of those writers who piles words upon more words. His main premise is that we as individual human beings know what is good, yet we are mysteriously helpless to take in to our inner Self the ethical, moral and religious ideas bequeathed to us that help us be good.

"Moral action is never automatic," Needleman writes. "It presupposes intention, free choice. And intention inevitably either begins or must pass through the mind. Sooner or later, the mind has to assent in order for any action to be free." Needleman lays out two levels of morality: the higher morality is to love our neighbor and to do good for those around us.

The lesser morality is to acquire the ethic of self-knowledge that enables us to love our neighbor and do good. This lesser morality is, of course, the more difficult. Harry Frankfurt, for instance, argues that "As conscious beings we exist only in response to other things, and we cannot know ourselves at all without knowing them." And he claims there is nothing in theory or experience to support the notion "that it is the truth about himself (one's self) that is the easiest for a person to know."

I am also reading Andrew Sullivan's "The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It/How to Get It Back." Sullivan describes conservatism as "a political philosophy based on doubt, skepticism, disdain for all attempts to remake the world and suspicion of most ambitious bids to make it better." As defined by Sullivan, the conservative remains skeptical of almost any attempt to improve society, no matter how benign it may seem. "The defining characteristic of the conservative is that he knows what he doesn't know," Sullivan writes. By that definition, perhaps some of us are a bit more conservative than we thought. The conservative, says Sullivan, "begins with the assumption that the human mind is fallible, that it can delude itself, make mistakes, or see only so far ahead. And this, the conservative avers, is what it means to be human."

Words matter when used by an Andrew Sullivan. Sullivan is a highly skilled British-born polemicist blogger who is a political conservative, a practicing Roman Catholic — and a gay advocate for same-gender marriage. Thus, Sullivan does not consider religious fundamentalism, and its drive for theocracy, benign in any of its sectarian forms. The most compelling element of his book is its cogent analysis of the radical nature of religious fundamentalism — a fundamentalism that for Sullivan has subverted and perverted true conservatism, particularly the American variety.

"The essential claim of the fundamentalist is that he knows the truth," writes Sullivan. " It is a total truth. . . . In its more neurotic forms, it encompasses not merely basic moral virtues but even the minutiae of personal hygiene, diet, clothing, facial hair. It gives us clear rules for the living of our lives, tells us what is good and what is evil, and regulates everything from what we wear to whom we love and how we reproduce. It is not even something that a believer can seriously question — because the human being who could question such things is already defined by a truth that is far greater than he is. "

I am reminded here of Harry Frankfurt's comment: "It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth."

"Fundamentalism succeeds," says Sullivan, "because it elevates and comforts. It provides a sense of meaning and direction to those lost in a disorienting world. It does this by taking you into another world, immune to the corruptions and compromises of this one. subjugation of reason and judgment and even conscience to the dictates of dogma can be exhilarating and transformative experiences."

As Eric Hoffer, that self-taught philosopher of the Cold War era, pointed out decades ago, communism, fascism and Nazism were all 20th century attempts to remake the world. For some 21st century fundamentalists, the remaking of the world is the impending Apocalypse, the "End Times"; or, as Sullivan says, "the moment when modernity's contradictions are erased in a new era of Heaven on Earth."

While struggling for an understanding of Needleman, and appreciating the briskness of Sullivan's words, I remembered something said during the talkback last month with Bill Fox — and this sent me off on a different tack. In response to a comment during the talkback, a church member said "our common bond is our humanity." Yes, how true. I think both Sullivan and Needleman would agree. But, thinking about it, while reading Sullivan, a question arose: How viable, how legitimate, how enduring, can be the "common bond of our humanity" with those who fear, or at worst loathe, being human?

It seems to me that at the core of the radical fundamentalism Sullivan describes is an irrational, debilitating fear of being what human beings are — human. Words matter, and in so many different ways for so many millennia we have been told — whether we're Jew, Christian, Muslim, or none of the above — that by our very nature we humans are inherently weak, miserably flawed, lost souls, sinners all. Even intuitively I think we have long understood the necessary imperfection of being human — or, as Sullivan's conservative might say, doubt and fallibility are what it means to be human, so live with it. But if our sense of self is already tenuous, fragile or deeply injured, we can fall easily into a tragic self-loathing that finds solace only in that Other World that relieves us of the real world.

Eric Hoffer observed four decades ago that a shrinking and increasingly complex world makes it difficult for individual human beings to maintain a sense of self-worth. "Self-righteousness is a manifestation of self-contempt," Hoffer wrote in "The Ordeal of Change," and he made the point that in "man's life the lack of an essential component usually leads to the adoption of a substitute. . . . Thus blind faith is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves; ." Our world today is even smaller and more intricately complex than 45 years ago — but Hoffer's words are still relevant.

While reading Needleman and Sullivan, there were, by coincidence, intriguing news reports about recent work by evolutionary biologists. After several decades of observing empathetic behavior in nonhuman primates, primatologist Frans de Waal at Emory University believes that human morality was preceded by, and evolved out of, the social behavior of apes and chimpanzees. If the New York Times is correct, De Waal is not alone. Other biologists believe that an innate sense of community and moral action preceded religion, with religion evolving as a narrative form of the societal rules human primates found necessary as they became increasingly sophisticated beings.

There is debate, of course, over how innate our goodness might be. Some social psychologists argue that human behavior is more influenced by factors outside of us than inside; that we must be aware of our potential for evil because external circumstances can overwhelm us and seduce us into doing evil. The Abu Ghraib prison abuses are now cited to make the point.

But there does seem to be some empirical evidence of our moral advancement. Stephen Pinker, one of the "new humanists" and a psychology professor at Harvard, noted in a recent essay for The New Republic that contrary to what current military adventurism, media noise and intellectual fashion would suggest, "violence has been in decline over long stretches of history, and today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species' time on earth." Pinker debunks the fashionable notion of the "noble savage" — the idea that naturally peaceful human beings are corrupted by modern institutions. "Now that social scientists have started to count bodies in different historical periods, they have discovered that something in modernity and its cultural institutions has made us nobler." The decline in violence, Pinker writes, appears to be a worldwide trend, with the tipping point at the onset of the Age of Reason in the early 17th century. For example, if the wars of the 20th century had killed the same proportion of the population that die in the wars of a typical tribal society, there would have been two billion deaths, not 100 million.

At about the same time I was reading Pinker's essay, I came across a reference to St. Irenaeus, the 2nd century Christian theologian and defender of early church orthodoxy. These words of his perhaps you know: "The glory of God is a human being fully alive." "Fully alive" are two words that matter because they offer such immense opportunity for speculation. A traditionalist theologian might say that Irenaeus meant we are "fully alive" only when we fully submit body and mind to the will of God. But could "fully alive" mean something else, something more particular?

Could being "fully alive" mean embracing and reveling in what Hoffer referred to as our fantastical variety — including our capacity for good and our potential for evil, our failings and foibles as well as our wit and our wisdom, our yin and our yang?

Is it possible that being "fully alive" means consciously and deliberately accepting each other as we find each other — as essentially decent people until proved otherwise, regardless of our eye color, hair color, skin color, stature or weight, gender, sexual orientation, social or economic status, language, education and so on and so on?

Is it possible that being "fully alive" means exercising enough Sullivanesque doubt to live by the knowledge of today, instead of the ignorance of the past, while striving mightily to understand the difference between the two?

Perhaps being "full alive" means simply living by that positive ethic that was also taught over the last 4,000 years by all the great religions of which we know: treat others as we would want to be treated. If the evolutionary biologists have it right, this is in fact the ethic that came to us from our primate ancestors. If so, it is this ethic that is truly fundamental.

What is a human being? Jacob Needleman asks this question at the very end of his book. There is comfort in his answer: "a human being is the being who yearns to love, who is built to love and to act justly toward man — just as we have heard since ancient times in our Western world and in the great teachings of the East, "

If we agree with Needleman that moral action flows from the mind, and with Sullivan that radical fundamentalism holds no special claim on truth, then words matter — but what we do matters more — and what we think of ourselves likely matters most.

This brings me to the moral lesson I find in the story of Frank McWorter. McWorter was illiterate — he couldn't write his name — but he was a do-er. He knew what he wanted — freedom to live as all human beings should be able to live — and he used the system — the political, social, cultural system of his day — to achieve that freedom for himself and as many of his family as he could. His was a purposeful and moral life. He achieved material success; such as it was on the Illinois frontier in the years leading up to a great civil war. He achieved the respect, and the love, of those who knew him. Frank McWorter achieved these qualities because he was, by all accounts, what I believe the world will eventually insist each of us is: an intrinsically good human being — fully able to enjoy the common bond of our humanity.

Closing Words:

The closing words are Chapter 74 of Mitchell's version of the tao te ching:

If you realize that all things change,
There is nothing you will try to hold on to.
If you aren't afraid of dying,
There is nothing you can't achieve.

Trying to control the future
Is like trying to take the master carpenter's place.
When you handle the master carpenter's tools,
Chances are that you'll cut yourself.


Frankfurt, Harry G., "On Bullshit," Princeton University Press, 2005
Hoffer, Eric, "The Ordeal of Change," Harper & Row, 1963
Mitchell, Stephen, "tao te ching/A New English Version," HarperPerennial Modern Classics, 2006 (Harper & Row, 1988)
Needleman, Jacob, "Why Can't We Be Good?" Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2007
Sullivan, Andrew, "The Conservative Soul: How We Lost It/How to Get It Back," HarperCollins Publishers, 2006

©2007 Joe Conover

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Conover, Joe. 2007. Words matter — but . . . , /talks/20070415.shtml (accessed July 9, 2020).

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