Does theological language still have any real use? Sometimes a half a millennium of modernity has seemingly taught us that the center not only can’t hold, but didn’t. But theological language is just that, a language: a system of inexact metaphors whose correspondence to a literal reality is constantly shifting.
And yet, is this not the great strength of religious language, of religious stories? Inerrancy is a fallacy, literalism an error, and no more so than with religious language. Rather it is the adaptability of theological language that is its great power, and it is the ever-changing yet continuous historical chain of the emotionally powerful language and stories of faith that allow this vocabulary to still have such resonance, a power which other ways of speaking don’t have. To ignore this power is a mistake.
Religion is a fiction – this does not mean that the social phenomenon of religion isn’t real – it obviously is. Rather it means that the claims and principles of religion are fictional. But there, there is the crux. For if religion is a system of fiction, more of a way of speaking than anything, it still contains the seeds to redeem itself, and indeed, to redeem us. The assertions of religion may be fictional, they may not be real, but the words are potent, and can still contain power in a way that other systems do not.
“Good,” “Evil,” “Salvation,” “Sin,” “Redemption,” even “Heaven” and “Hell.” These may perhaps be literally meaningless words to our dominant paradigms today, but even if God is asleep those words need not lose their meaning. In fact, these may be the exact words we need. If we do not let them control us but rather use them as our own tools of expression they provide a means to encapsulate certain human experiences.
The great explanatory systems of the modern world for the past few centuries have been science, and to a lesser extent, the humanities and social sciences. Stripped down to their most primitive simplifications, the natural scientist sees everything as reducible to a material cause and the social scientist sees everything as reducible to culture.
But there are some phenomena – phenomena we all know to exist, which we all see, which we all experience – which are bigger than both biology and culture. If God must be a God of the gaps he does not dwell among the mundanity of the intelligent designer’s protein folding, but he dwells in this place of lived yet inexplicable human phenomenon. Certain concepts – beauty, goodness, love, and yes, evil – for ultimate explanations do not have recourse to biology or to culture.
Yes, the natural scientist can run MRIs on people, the social scientist can explain the cultural context of certain acts. But there are some things – call them forms, ideas, concepts, forces, powers, whatever you want to call them (because Christ knows I’m not equipped to explain them) – where the language of either the natural or social scientist seems inadequate.
I am not claiming a supernatural origin for these things (though I’m not saying that they don’t have that source either). This is less a claim of metaphysics than epistemology – I am claiming that the literalist language of our dominant systems can’t reduce these phenomena into those systems’ expected categories. To call for the rejection of material explanations, of cultural ones, would be wrong.
And yet the theological provides a narrative and logic that can provide interpretive meaning where those other systems may only be able to supply explanation. Perhaps nothing has been more powerful than the positivist system of natural and social science in terms of describing how things happen – yet the poetic language of religion is what gives us the why of events.
These are things that transcend our normal understanding, and though we can always comment on them, the true explanations can’t be put into literal language. They are numinous, ineffable; they have no explanations and can only be explained in the language of fiction, of poetry, of a humbled theology.
Wittgenstein once said that even if all the questions of science (and one could say of social science) were answered, the true questions would remain unsolved. Theological language gives us no solutions, but it gives us a vocabulary, one which can at least be momentarily satisfying.
I think about these issues today because of an event in South Carolina that happened last week. A man was able to sit inside of Emanuel African Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina for an hour, welcomed by a community who accepted him though he bore no resemblance to them and none of their experience, and after being granted this gift of grace he was able to murder them.
This is an event that we must understand has a long history behind it. That it occurred at a church so intimately connected with the history of slavery, abolitionism, Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, and so on only underscores the fact that we’ve never had that national conversation on race that Americans always say we should be having.
William Faulkner taught us that “The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even the past,” and historical traumas echo through the decades. That there is a connection between this man killing nine innocent people – people in prayer, people supplicating to God, people in the most intimate of moments – and the twisted-cross Confederate flag which just a few days ago obscenely hung over the South Carolina capital building should not be doubted. That today that flag has finally been taken down, 155 years after the assault on Ft. Sumter, is progress, but that it took more than a century and a half reminds us that we shouldn’t be so proud of our often-presumed national covenantal election and our supposed exceptionalism.
This murderer is just another monster of an unjust, unkind, and yes, evil system that we call white supremacy. Our conversation on race has gotten so caught up in a kind of pop-sociology lingo – “privilege” and “trigger warnings,” jokes about Rachel Dolezal. It’s not that these things aren’t important, and it’s not that that language isn’t useful. But when one branch of the body politic denies that an injustice has occurred and the other only has recourse to the most anemic of language, one wishes for the return of the theological, for the power that religious language has.
The killer may have been a product of his society, but he was also evil. This is a man who killed nine people. This is a man who told one woman that she would be left alive so that she would be forced to tell her story to others. This is a man who made a five-year-old girl pretend to be dead so that she could live.
The status of black Americans in our society is an issue of privilege and intersectionality, but those are the terms of social science. It is a language that is factual but in itself inadequate. What is more important is that these are issues of justice, which is the language of the divine.
The disenfranchisement of black Americans and their continual murder at the hands of authorities and vigilantes may be questions to be solved by policy makers, but more than anything they are issues of justice and morality. These murders are an obscenity, and the only term that can give them their true importance isn’t “white privilege” but “sin,” for such privilege is not just an issue of economics and history, but an issue of justice and morality.
This is not to say that I want the theological to replace those other vocabularies – far from it. To call the killer “evil” is to not exonerate him of responsibility: a man can be both a human and a demon. He was the product of certain ideologies, and both he and those beliefs deserve condemnation, and must be held responsible. But it is no disservice to call his actions for what they were – evil.
Conservative pundits are going to try and explain away this murderer’s evil. Right-wing talking heads will trade in their know-it-all smirky punditry and they’ll never call the murderer a “thug” or ask why “white leaders” won’t condemn the violence of the white community.
They’ll refuse to admit that a potent and poisonous combination of white supremacy combined with the fetishization of their Moloch-like idol known as the American arms industry have created yet another endless blood sacrifice in this ever-diminished “utopia” called America.
The left will understand better, or at least be more honest. They’ll know what social, cultural, political, and historical issues combined to make this event. They’ll have the suggestions and the policy recommendations to try and encourage racial egalitarianism, to reduce gun violence.
But they’ll sadly be hampered because they won’t have the language to really convey what has happened. They’ll correctly ascertain that to call one individual “evil” is to skirt the issue. But most won’t admit the correct diagnosis that need only be understood large – it is our society that is evil.
And white America must atone.
Here is what I know: a man whose name I don’t see the need to write was callously able to murder innocent people.
And another man named Tywanza Sanders who was worshiping in that church, when faced with the finality of death, tried to sacrifice himself to save a loved family member. I fear that we often live in the killer’s world, but I pray that one day we are worthy of Tywanza’s world.
Ed Simon is a Ph.D. candidate in the English department of Lehigh University. His research focuses on religion and literature in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Atlantic world. He has been previously published in Salon, Quartz, The Revealer, the Journal of the Northern Renaissance, and the Public Domain Review among others. Currently he is the assistant editor of the Journal of Heresy Studies, and one of the founding members of the International Society for Heresy Studies. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon.