Our language is built on the sediment and rubble of the dead meanings of words. Take the word influenza, which today means “a dangerous respiratory illness caused by a virus.” For centuries, influenza has referred to a cause of illness, but initially the cause was not a virus; it was the undue influence either of unknown origins or of the planets. The word persisted even as not only its early meaning but also its early frame of reference disappeared. Influenza no longer means influence at all, at least not medically, and no doctor today would attribute an illness to the alignment of the planets.
In books like Studies in Words and The Discarded Image, C. S. Lewis, from whom I borrow the example of influenza, dedicates much of his scholarship to considering the relationship between shifts in worldviews and changes in literature and language. Lewis’s work reminds us that an archaeology of language can be revealing and even helpful without needing to be the final word on meaning. We do not need to discontinue our use of the word influenza simply because we now recognize that what it once signified is untrue. We also must guard against exporting the modern sense of influenza as an illness or a virus into historic texts. Influenza epitomizes what Lewis, in Studies in Words, called the “dangerous sense” of a word: when a word’s scope of meaning has shifted just enough to cause confusion.
Words, of course, are a kind of symbol or sign. I recently read a theologian who argued that there is a difference between a simple, direct sign and a symbol heavy with meaning; she used a stop sign as her example. But the work of Lewis and many others suggests that things are not so clear cut. Surely “Stop!” means something particular today—something immediate, direct, urgent—because of its use to regulate automobile traffic and the history of deadly consequences when it is ignored. There is a set of related words (Halt! Cease! Desist!) that are almost, but not quite, as powerful as “Stop!” When it comes to symbols, simplicity, more often than not, is deceptive.
Christians have a vested interest in symbols of all kinds, especially the symbols of words. We use a word like “Person” in reference to the Trinity. Then we learn from studying Augustine’s On the Trinity how far its meaning has traveled over the centuries, and that knowledge can prompt further reflection on what we now mean, or do not mean, when using the word. For Augustine, persona (Person) was a Latin placeholder for the Greek hypostasis that allowed him to overcome an issue in translating the difference in Greek between hypostasis and ousia (being or substance). For us today, “person” and “personhood” are laden with anthropological, psychological, and sociological meanings; if these meanings were not relevant to why Augustine used persona, should they (or how should they) matter for us today? Has Person, like influenza, developed a “dangerous sense” we must beware?
One of the fascinating things about being alive today is that questions like these are being asked of all kinds of symbols, including words as well as monuments, not just in academic settings but in public debate. That debate is often conducted incautiously and is fraught with limited conceptions of politics, which should make Christians wary of entering the fray. Nevertheless, we have much to learn and contribute in this debate. Should a word’s history determine its present usage? Is it possible for symbols to be redeemed? Have we invested too much of ourselves in certain symbols? What symbols (words or otherwise), if any, are worth defending? Are there ways of maintaining what they signify, or what we want them to signify, while finding new symbols? In the early centuries of the church, Christians persisted in calling the symbols of Holy Communion the body and blood of Jesus Christ, even though that prompted accusations of cannibalism; are there parallels for us today?
Christians are a people with a vested interest in symbols of all kinds because we are the people of the Word Made Flesh, Jesus Christ. For us, language and meaning are gifts rooted in the goodness of God and not problems to be solved. Indeed, we must avoid the Pelagian temptation to believe that we, on our own, can and must fix what is wrong with our symbols. Babel, at Pentecost, was not overcome by the disciples’ rigorous study of contemporary languages but by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. We must dare to rely on the Spirit to speak once more by prophets the Word that brings our words to life, so that we may proclaim the mystery of faith in symbols, words and otherwise, “according to the riches of God’s glory in Jesus Christ” (Phil 4:19, NIV, modified).