The word redefine didn't enter into English usage until the 1840s. Today, however, it's use is ubiquitous. There seems to be a common sentiment that everything must be redefined, not simply reformulated or resourced. If you think about it, the idea of redefining something is very odd. This is because we naturally understand the definition of a thing to be something we discover, not something we constitute. St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, uses at least two definitions for a person – an individual substance of a rational nature, and a master of one's self. Both definitions are equally valid descriptive of different aspects of personhood. However, neither of these definitions negate or conflict with the other; they're simply precise descriptions of an object considered from different angles for the sake of analysis. This is radically different than today's trend of redefinition.
Oddly, the current business trend of rebranding is closer to the traditional method of defining than the contemporary method of redefining. When done well, rebranding capitalizes on the actual things that a business does and excels at. When done poorly, it tries to capture what a business would like to do well. The difference is subtle, but it's one that can lead to real world successes and failures. The former describes a reality, the latter describes a fantasy.
This gets at the heart of the problem with redefining words. Words, i.e., definitions, are supposed to accurately describe things the way they actually exist regardless of how we might want them to be. Redefinition tends to describe things the way we wish them to be regardless of how they actually exist. Essentially it's the difference between accepting or rejecting the objective reality of a thing. What's worse is that when we redefine something we expect it to bend to our new definition. It's like defining light as darkness, ice cream, or cowboy boots.
The great danger with this is that it's at least a tacit denial of the intelligibility of reality. As we continue to redefine things according to our subjective whims we do violence to the ground upon which human knowledge stands. Words lose their meaning because they no longer signify real things. If this trend continues each one of us will eventually end up with our own private language game. We are already seeing the practical implications of this trend in the widening polarity of contemporary politics. Debates have devolved into shouting matches where opponents are frequently talking past one another. Political opponents often lack a common language, so to speak. The contemporary marriage debate is a perfect examples of how the meaning of words have lost any ground in a commonly held notion of reality. And, this is, in fact, what is at stake. In the end, the question is about the nature of reality. Is it something we must accept as given, or something we constitute.
The assault on language is one of the most troubling aspects of modernism. It's an attack on the reality of the world, and hence on the intelligibility of the world. Really, take some time to reflect upon the very serious ramifications of this phenomenon.
They are all around us. And, they aren't pleasant.
The words we use betray us. They betray what’s on our mind and what’s in our heart. Listen closely to the words a person uses, the phrases he employs, and you’ll learn more about the speaker than he intends. This listening skill is essential for those of us who participate in the ministry of the “care of souls”. It’s not just the words that matter. It’s what’s lurking behind the words that’s often far more important. The words people choose often hint at a more fundamental disposition. It sounds cliche but it’s almost always true.
This is simply a preamble to what I really want to talk about. I feel this preamble is necessary because what I want to say touches on a core issue of the human spirit. I want to talk about the perceived relationship that we, as individuals, have with God. I say “perceived” on purpose. Sometimes we can think our relationship with God is strong when the reality is actually the opposite. A friend of mine asked me a question one time that illustrates the problem. He said, “when I’m praying, sometimes I wonder if I am actually talking to God or just talking to myself.”
Now that’s one heckuva statement!
He wasn’t questioning the existence of God. No, he was questioning himself. He was questioning whether he, in fact, had the sort of relationship with God that he believed he had. Essentially, my friend was wondering if he was actually a spiritual narcissist. This is a great question to ask ourselves regularly. Just being able to ask this question is evidence of spiritual maturity. Becoming spiritually mature often requires this sort of a shake up. Essentially, my friend wasn’t satisfied with simply relying on his own judgment about the things he discerned in prayer. He wanted external confirmation. He needed something tangible, something objective. He needed something to keep him grounded in reality so he didn’t fall into the trap of creating God in his own image. And, man, is it an easy trap to fall into. Parenthetically, this is exactly why Christ established his Church. She is the guardian and storehouse of the Deposit of Faith. She is a sure guide for living a good and holy life. This is why Blessed Pope John XXIII named the Church both Mother and Teacher.1
This memory popped into my mind because something keeps popping up in my conversations. I hear it online and offline. It’s almost a catch phrase at this point. When I’m having a conversation with someone about some moral failing (no matter what that failing may be) at some point my conversation partner will say: “I know that God loves me just the way I am.” At this point you’re probably scratching your head wondering, “What's the problem, Br. Gabriel?” Well, let me tell you. I mean, it’s usually a wonderful thing for someone to realize that they’re embraced by the all-encompassing love of God. Not everyone realizes this. The problem is that it’s the right answer to the wrong question.
I’m always surprised when this phrase is used. I shouldn’t be, but I am. It shows just how far our culture has fallen away from a basic understanding of God. Whenever I hear it I have an urge to grab the person by the shoulders and shake some sense into him saying, “Look, yes, you’re right! But that’s not the question. Of course God loves you. That’s a given!” What, then, is the question? The question we ask ourselves needs to be, “Do I love God?” But, see, this is the harder question. This is the question that many people don’t want to ask. They don’t want to ask it because they don’t like the consequences that follow from the answer.
If the answer to this question is “no,” the consequences are pretty terrifying. But, if the answer to the question is “yes,” the consequences are still pretty terrifying. The former is terrifying for, hopefully, obvious reasons. The latter is terrifying because it requires change. And, change, serious change, is always scary.
The moment I profess love for God I’m beholden to the words of Christ in John 14:15, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” I call this Christ’s Eliza Doolittle moment. Christ is effectively saying, “if you love me, show me!” So we can’t just say, “God loves me” and then be satisfied with the manner of our life. On the contrary, once we know that God’s love is both intimate and personal we have an obligation to repent of the imperfections, faults, and sins in our life and believe in the transformative power of the Gospel.
This isn’t the “health and wellness” gospel. This is the true gospel message. This is the message that requires courage to follow. Christianity isn’t the easy path that some make it out to be. It’s a daily struggle to live up to the name ‘Christian.’
So, does your love for God make you want to be a better person? Does your love for God make you want to please him above everyone else? Does your love for God make you want to follow his commandments with diligence regardless of how you feel about those commands? I hope so. If not, it might be time to reflect on the nature of your relationship with God. Do you really and truly love God with your whole mind, your whole heart, and your whole soul? Or, are you holding something back?
This is simply a choice that we get to make. Love is, after all, a choice. So, if we choose to love God, then we need to live out that love with intensity and reckless abandon. Don’t be satisfied with simply knowing that God loves you. That’s lazy. Root out of your life those things that displease God. I know, it isn’t easy. We have a tendency to rut and wallow in our sins. We hold onto them like a miser griping his last coin. But, if we love someone we generally desire to please that person. And, we generally don’t get to decide the terms and conditions for pleasing that person. We have to please them on their own terms. God is no different. But, if we’re spiritual narcissists we’ll never discover how beautiful an authentic love relationship with God can actually be. We will always be dictating our terms to God like petulant children.
Don’t fool yourself.
Don’t be afraid to conform yourself to his will.
It’s hard work, but, there’s true happiness, joy, and peace waiting for those who truly love him.