Monday, March 4, 2013

Meaningless Words: Obscenity, Truth, Gay, Marriage, and Love

Justice Potter Stewart, commenting on Jacobellis v Ohio (1964), could not define the word obscenity, but noted that “I know it when I see it.” 
And we thought Justice was only blind.
In not being able to define obscenity, it seems that Justice Stewart was only slightly ahead of his time.  Today, despite there being laws on the books in various places, there are no prosecutions (and certainly no convictions) for obscenity.  Everyone has their own definition of what the word means, and so Stewart was certainly correct that there is no definition, or certainly that there is not one definition.  In fact, I suspect there are so many definitions, that you would not need a dictionary, but a separate book to just define that one word.  And in our society, there are many words today joining the “un-definable” list of words. 
Perhaps THAT needs to be a new book, not a book with words and their meanings, but a book of words with NO meanings ---- or words which can mean whatever you wish them to mean.  In commenting on Casey, the Supreme Court said that “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of life.”  The Supreme Court said it.  God said: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” but nine Supreme men in our country said no, no: “EVERYONE can define his meaning of truth.”  Therefore there is no truth, or at least not a definition which would fit within a single book, since everyone’s is different.  And along with this supreme law of the land, there is, by law, no Way in America, nor certainly any Life, for each of us is free to define “the mystery of life” as we see fit.
The Supreme Court has commented on obscenity, truth, gay and is soon to comment on marriage.  And in its opinion, there is no definition of the first three, only what any one person defines those words to mean.  And can the very meaning --- or lack of meaning --- of the word “love” be far behind?
The philosopher Josef Pieper wrote wonderfully about love, and the four Latin words used to describe love.  (His book, Faith Hope Love, is an outstanding read!).  It’s too bad that English has only the one word, but it’s sadder still that that one word has taken on an infinite number of meanings.  In colleges a 30-second “hookup” is described as “making love,” while environmentalists talk fervently about loving the earth.  And many of us (but oh, how sadly few of us) know of marriages of 50 years or more, and we see how two people have grown through love into one in their lives ---- a visible foretaste of the eternal love we are all meant to share, grown together in the Body of Christ.  This is the definition of love I know.
How and why can a society which prides itself on growing wiser, choose to destroy the meaning of words which have had meaning from the beginnings of man?  How can it be an advance of civilization when communication is destroyed?  How can it be an advance of civilization when we no longer understand what people before computers, tweeting, texting, and the internet understood? 
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This morning I read from a homily by Saint Basil the Great, bishop:  “What then is the right kind of boasting?  What is the source of man’s greatness?  Scripture says: The man who boasts must boast of this, that he knows and understands that I am the Lord.  Here is man’s greatness, here is man’s glory and majesty: to know in truth what is great, to hold fast to it, and to seek glory from the Lord of glory.”
To know you, O God, is to reach holiness.  (Wisdom 15:3)  This is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.  (John 17:3)
How wise men seek to be, in their own minds.  They think this is the goal and purpose of life, to be what THEY want to be, to have what THEY want to have, not to be who, in love,  they were MADE to be.
We have so much to learn.
And for those who would boast of the advances of science and knowledge, and how the knowledge of old and beliefs of old no longer apply, because THEY know better today, I would encourage them to read about the life of St. Casimir, which I read today also.  He was the son of the king of Poland in 1458; he had all that he could want at his fingertips.  And yet a contemporary wrote: “He always preferred to be counted among the meek and the poor of spirit, among those who are promised the kingdom of heaven, rather than among the famous and powerful men of this world.  He had no ambition for the power that lies in human rank and he would never accept it from his father. … It is difficult to imagine or express his passion for justice, his exercise of moderation, his gift of prudence, especially in a most permissive age, when men tended to be headstrong and by their very natures inclined to sin.”
We think we are so wise and advanced?  That was written about the times of the 1400’s, “a most permissive age.”  Have we advanced from then?  In riches, perhaps, but certainly not in wisdom.
All these things can sound very sad, but only if you wish to focus on sadness.  Lent is a time designated for us to focus on some sad things, true, but also to begin work to change those things, starting with ourselves.  Another thing I read this morning was from Fr. Groeschel’s Lenten meditations.  There he said this:
“Here is a practice for Lent.  Make Christ and His teachings explicit in your life.  Let people know what you believe.  You can start by wearing a cross or religious symbol.  You can mention Christian values in your daily life and identify those as coming from the Bible.  Let people know that you are a believer in a way that does not cause offense but makes it clear that freedom of religion does not mean the absence of religion.  When the media are antireligious or undermine Christian values, write and protest explicitly to the sponsors and advertisers of these antireligious programs.  Christ has said that he will acknowledge before His heavenly Father all who acknowledge him before men.  Pray even for those who undermine moral values and for their conversion.  Then you will be doing the work of God.”
And then you’ll be growing in holiness and love. 
I could think on the words obscenity or truth or gay or marriage for a long time, and make little difference, I fear.  But I will ponder further on love. 
I find it interesting that those who would destroy the meaning of words, to make them all relative, choose the words they choose.  They do not seek to change the meaning or “rock” or “book” or “chair” or words such as that.  Instead they seek to change the meaning of words whose meaning only resides in our minds and hearts.  They wish to change how we think, to think as they do.  And in particular, they wish to change the meaning of words which once were as solid in meaning as rock or book or chair, and make them as flexible as time.  I could worry and ponder all these other debates started in our society, but at their heart is the meaning of a single word:  Love.  All these debates have been dancing around the edges of the meaning of love, and they are only now getting to the heart of it.  The debate about the meaning of love is the most important, for without Love we have nothing.        


  1. Thanks - just thanks. Your words of encouragement were just what I needed this evening. Yes,I will join you in pondering on Love. Nothing is more important than that, and, as you say, without Love we have nothing.

  2. Thank you for another rich and wonderful post.

  3. Thank you, ladies, for your kind thoughts. It'd be easy to look at trends and get down, but I've read enough Church history to know that we've seen these kinds of trends before. God is faithful.