Words are amazing vehicles of meaning. But sometimes they change. I remember going to Italy as a teenager and using the word in Italian that I thought meant ‘bathroom’. It was ‘baccausa’. My Italian family did not know what I was referring to. The Italian word is ‘cabinetto’. It turns out that what I was using was an Italian American word which was a corruption of the English word: Backhouse. This was the shed behind the house before there were indoor bathrooms with indoor plumbing!
Religious words that had very specific meanings have changed in our modern parlance. Three of these offer an interesting example: Passions, Idols and Pride.
If you were to make a study of Christian Spirituality, you would quickly discover that the word ‘passion’, when not used for the sufferings Christ on Good Friday, would connote a definitely negative thing. God gave humanity the gift of reason so that he can make rational choices, and in making them imitate the Creator God who brought Order out of Chaos. Passion was more akin to the chaos. For it was the passions which confused the human person and caused him to make wrong choices. It was like smoke that got into his eyes.
To be passionate today means to lead with the heart and not with the coldness of reason. It is enshrined in the Pantheon of ‘Feelings’ that seem to take the lead in importance. How do you feel about something today means more than what do you think. To be passionate is to be fully alive, even when your passions lead you to leave your wife or husband of many years for someone you just met and “fell head over heels over”. Passion has gone from bad to good in the modern world and this has got to be understood in evaluating the soundness of modern sensibilities.
The word ‘idol’ is perhaps a clearer case. In the Bible, there is hardly any word that is more negative than this word. It means something we put in the place that only God must occupy. The very first Commandment is a warning and a prohibition that it is very serious. It does not only mean an effigy like the golden calf in the book of Exodus. It stands for anything or anyone that we make more important than God. Money can be an idol. So can sex, or power or even good things like one’s own country. But now we use it approvingly of ‘Teen Idols’, or ‘entertainment idols’ or ‘Sports idols’. We have made it a minor complimentto someone whom people rave about and whom people in devotion become fans of. The word ‘fan’ is derived from the word ‘fanatic’. Someone who has made themselves a fanatic of an idol is often spoken of approvingly. But in the life of the fan, is his idol a replacement for the true God whose rightful place has been usurped?
Finally, we have the word ‘pride’. In Dante’s “Divine Comedy”, the sin that is the most heinous and the most punished is the sin of Pride. Like Idolatry, it puts something in the place which is the rightful place for God. Pride is the basis of all sins since we make of ourselves the ultimate tribunal for all things moral.
In the modern world, pride has taken the place of honor, self-esteem, and a healthy regard for oneself, a sort of natural self-respect. This meaning is not bad in itself; but by substituting the word ‘pride’ for these worthwhile attributes, it drags along with it all the negative connotations like vanity and vainglory. So that when in moral theology we state that Pride is the worst of the Capital or Deadly sins, we risk confusing the unsuspecting learner with the more positive meanings outlined above.
The meanings of words are important and care must be used in employing them, especially in the moral sphere. But words are very porous. They are exceptionally permeable to time and history. That is why it is very important to contextualize words especially when dealing with moral matters. Pride may be a positive in today’s parlance, but it is the deadliest of the deadly sins. An idol is not just a crooner, but the very opposite of the living God. And when we extol passion, let us never forget that for centuries the greatest spiritual writers warned of the negative results of a passionate nature.
As in all the sciences, precision is very important in theology. So, when a secular journal uses a religious or moral word, be careful! You may get a wrong idea!