What Happens When Words Have No Meaning

By Holly Ordway

Holly Ordway, apologetics and the Christian imagination
Photo Credit: Cristina Gottardi

Materialism has so thoroughly invaded our culture that the fate of one’s eternal soul is no longer a pressing issue for most non-believers. A ‘spiritual but not religious’ person may have a vague sense that all will be well, and so the question is not worth bothering with; the materialist believes that there is no such thing as a soul, and after death, there will be no part of ‘you’ to be anywhere at all. In either case, the ideas of hell and heaven are not sufficiently in focus to make most non-believers interested in pursuing the question. In contrast, people who couldn’t care less about who Christ is often have very strong visceral (and usually negative) reactions to Catholic teaching on ethical and social issues such as the sanctity of human life, marriage, sexuality, contraception, and what it means to be a man or a woman.  

Nonetheless, it’s not accurate to say that the people who reject Christian moral teachings are amoral or apathetic; in fact, the same people who find the very concept of sin to be incomprehensible or irrelevant often have passionate views about the environment, economic inequalities, social justice, and racism. Since the Church has quite a lot to say on social, economic, and environmental issues as well—because our Faith encompasses all of reality, not just the ‘spiritual’ bits—it might seem that these issues are an excellent place to engage with non-believers. However, it is an approach that is fraught with difficulties.  

It has become difficult for Christians to be heard if they address any moral issues in Christian terms, because the very language used to discuss the subject has become so distorted, even corrupted, that our arguments are brushed aside, ruled out as bigoted and intolerant, or reinterpreted in order to fall in line with the secular version of the argument.  

This state of affairs is not, I think, accidental. As Owen Barfield says in Poetic Diction, “Of all devices for dragooning the human spirit, the least clumsy is to procure its abortion in the womb of language.” It is in the “womb of language” that ideas are conceived, and then can grow and develop. The wider, richer, and more precise our vocabulary is, the more we will be able to use it to express ideas clearly and reflect on them deeply. Unfortunately, our language is subject to verbicide—the ‘murder’ of words through exaggeration or mis-use, so that the original meaning is lost. Verbicide can kill words by distortion as well as by watering down their meaning, as in the use of ‘sinful’ to mean ‘enjoyable.’ If a delicious slice of chocolate cake can be ‘sinfully good,’ then the word ‘sin’ has no real meaning at all.  

Verbicide can occur through carelessness, but it can also be deliberately cultivated by those who find it in their interests to render certain words empty of meaning. Authentic debate and discussion—like authentic democracy—are messy and discomfiting processes that require confronting ideas that are disagreeable, and accepting that you can’t always have things your own way. To raise an issue for discussion and argument means at least tacitly accepting that you might not be able to convince the other side that you’re right . . . and having to live with that. The alternative to authentic discussion is to manipulate circumstances such that the debate never happens, and the position that you favor becomes entrenched—or to manipulate language so that the other point of view becomes unsayable and eventually unthinkable.  

Thus, apologists must be prepared to deal not just with arguments and misunderstandings, but also with the conscious or unconscious manipulation and corruption of language. 


Holly Ordway is the author of Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith, which explores how personal narratives, literature, friendship, and more can be used in evangelization.