Language is theological. And since it is theological it is moral. Language is the gift of a speaking God who created us as speaking beings in order to speak with him and with each other. One of the beautiful aspects of the Genesis account of creation is that what God says becomes. In other words God says “let this happen” and it does, exactly the way he intends it to. Singularly pure, essentially divine language achieves exactly what it sets out to achieve. There is no dissonance between the words and the results of the words.
This correlation between language and what it achieves is then demonstrated in the as yet pure human, Adam. God brings the animals to Adam in order for him to name them – a language act in which whatever name Adam gives to the animal, “that was its name” (Gen 2:19).
And something more is going on than Adam simply saying, “Well that looks like it should be called a hippopotamus because it’s the most hippopotamussy thing I’ve seen all day.” In the Bible names convey meaning and identity. They are not just labels. There is correlation between the word or name of something and what that something is in essence.
This symmetry is broken when the serpent appears on the scene with the first dispute about the intention of words. “Did God really say?” the serpent asks Eve, before the downward spiral of language begins. Even before Eve fully realises it, she puts words in God’s mouth (God didn’t say don’t go near the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, just not to eat of its fruit).
And by the time Cain kills Abel he is more than able to detach any sense of protective duty from the meaning of the word “brother”. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” he flings back at God, never realising that simply being a brother to his brother implied that very reality.
The cracks that appear in language widen into a huge gulf in the ensuing story, with the nadir being the confusion of languages at Babel – a curse to ensure that language cannot achieve the results that sinful humans desire.
Does it matter that meaning is conveyed by language? Yes, of course it does. We only have to explore George Orwell’s great novel 1984 to see this. Orwell was committed to language as moral, (although it would have been something of a squeeze to say he thought it theological).
I own that tiny, weighty book of his called The Politics of the English Language which I recommend you read once a year. It would be a prescient book in these times. Orwell consistently saw the battle for language and meaning as the ultimate battle.
As Winston states in 1984: “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.” In other words the freedom to honour the limits of language, is the guarantee of boundless freedoms.
What happens when that freedom is not granted? What happens when we are required to call a thing what it is not? Well obviously Orwell – and Winston – knew all too well. All else that follows, when one is required to say that two plus two equals five for instance, is most definitely not freedom.
There is something important going on here. Why should it be that to mouth the word “five” instead of “four” would make such a difference? After all, it’s merely an utterance from your throat that like the word “four” also begins with the letter “f”; that like the word “four” also consists of four letters; that like the word “four” consists of one syllable. Why is this such a seismic shift? Surely it takes no more or less effort to say “five” than it does to say “four”?
It changes absolutely everything. The moment you do it, and I mean the moment you do it in order to push the boundaries of meaning in a self-expressed test of your freedom, you set yourself on a course that will lose you your freedom.
Your words become thieves in that they steal freedom. It doesn’t feel like this is what is happening, but it is, if language is theological and moral, which it is. You have uttered a lie, knowingly, playfully perhaps, but a lie nonetheless.
I say all of this as we stare down the barrel of a plebiscite on the meaning of the word “marriage”. For those with the theological conviction that words are designed by a speaking God we need to take this seriously. We cannot think that it is merely a pragmatic decision to sign off on changing the meaning of such a word. It’s a principled decision we are making.
So while we may believe that the gay community should be afforded all of the legal and social rights that other (though not all) members of the community are; while we may believe that people in same sex relationships should be afforded the dignities that they were not afforded in the past; this is not the same as saying we will allow the equivalent of “two plus two equalling five”.
For that is what the plebiscite question will pose. It will ask millions of voices to join in silent unision to either say “two plus two equals four” or that “two plus two could also equal five.”
Now most people making that decision won’t see it that way. But biblical Christians will. Because they know that language is theological: That language is moral. Hence to assent to changing the meaning of that word is to begin the process of losing freedom in deeply spiritual, significant ways that we cannot yet fathom as a community.
Way back in Genesis when language was in a heightened state, every fresh utterance pregnant with meaning, we read these words:
then the man said,
“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.”
24Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. (Gen 2:23-24)
Marriage is defined right there. And it has been so defined across cultures, time and space in this way since.
Hence what many in our community see as moralistic restriction we see as the essence of human freedom, given at a time when life was pure. Conversely what many view as human freedom – changing the meaning of a word to accommodate what Genesis does not affirm – we see as not only restrictive, but ultimately destructive.
And this, not so much because same sex marriage will lead to some moral apocalypse in the West (it may not make much difference at all to the overall scheme of things), but because once the language genie is out of the bottle there is no putting him back in.
I caution Christians who, like I, feel the weight of how the gay community has been treated in the past, to not misguidedly voting “yes”. Being part of the process that redefines the meaning of the word “marriage” for the noble ideal that this will merely rebalance the ledger, is a dangerous act.
Why? Because of language’s theological and moral frame. To vote “yes” pragmatically whilst still believing in principle what marriage means, will actually tip the scales away from true freedom in exactly the manner in which Orwell’s Winston feared it would.
I wrote these words to someone else today:
It comes down to definitions. If you believe that marriage by the definition of the term is between a man and a woman then whatever you would call a relationship recognised by the state as marriage, wouldn’t make it a marriage to you. You may celebrate that relationship, you may frown upon it, that’s not the issue. There is no logical link between a person who defines marriage as between a man and woman by definition and homophobia for example. That person may indeed be homophobic, but not, logically, on the basis of how they define a term.
Make no mistake, this plebiscite (if it occurs) will be about determining what Australia collectively believes two plus two equals. And, ultimately, freedom or bondage will be tied to what answer we give.