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What Freedom Means in the New Babel

In the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, “the whole earth had one language” (Gen. 11:1). In an effort to make a name for themselves, the people tried to build a city and a tower that rose to the heavens. In response, the Lord said, “Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech” (Gen. 11:7). According to Genesis, in response to the human quest for pride, God introduced confusion by multiplying languages. Each language, with its own grammar and vocabulary, used different terms to describe the same (or similar) realities, so those who spoke Hebrew were unable to understand those who spoke Greek or Egyptian, and so forth. This was the problem of the old Babel.

At Pentecost, the story of Babel was reversed. The listeners were able to understand the apostles because each heard the message in his own language. Instead of raising a monument to themselves, Jesus’ disciples used language to glorify God and to communicate the Good News. In that context, language did not lead to confusion and misunderstanding. Rather, out of different languages, a common understanding was achieved. “We hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God” (Acts 2:11). In that moment, the Church was formed.

I Say Freedom, You Say Constraint

Those who seek to explain and defend the teachings of the Church find themselves speaking amidst a new Babel. For example, when entering into debates about abortion, we must be aware that “freedom” and “choice” mean different things to different people. Secular defenders of a “woman’s right to choose” see themselves as defending “freedom,” and they see Catholics who are pro-life as “opposed to freedom.” So, when Catholics (and others) defend the pro-life position as flowing from authentic freedom, we can find ourselves speaking at cross-purposes with secular defenders of “individual choice.” Each side uses the same words; we’re both speaking about freedom, but we mean very different things.

In the new Babel, language is confused, not by a profusion of languages, but by the use of the same words to mean different things. One language (for example, English) contains terms and concepts that have more than one meaning; in other words, English has multiple grammars and vocabularies (see What Is a Moral Grammar?” on page 9).

A Brief History of Freedom

The term “freedom” is particularly prone to the problem of the new Babel. A little bit about the history of the English word reveals how it can mean very different things.

In Latin, the main language of the Church, there is a clear distinction between libertas (liberty, freedom for excellence) and licentia (license, freedom from constraint). However, as the Church moved to the use of modern vernacular languages after the Second Vatican Council, subtle distinctions in meaning were lost—not only in worship at Mass, but also in a lot of its theological discourse.

The English language is about a thousand years old. (In historical perspective, this means that English is only half as old as the Church.) For the first several centuries of the development of our language, spoken English sounded like German. It would have been unrecognizable to most of us. Modern English began to emerge about 500 years ago. The English we speak is a mixture of German and French because the people living in England were of Germanic background, but their rulers were French.

The English word “freedom” comes to us from Norse mythology. The goddess Fri (also called Frigg or Freya and for whom Friday is named) was believed to be the goddess of love. In the Teutonic myths, Fri remained with Odin, her husband, not because she was coerced, like Odin’s slaves, but because she loved him. For this reason, freedom (from an Old English word meaning “love”) originally connoted the bonds of love and friendship. The word “friend” also developed out of this connection between freedom and love, in recognition that we feel most free with our friends and those with whom we share the bonds of love and family.

In the modern era, however, the meaning of freedom underwent significant changes . During the revolutionary period of the 17th and 18th centuries and with the rise of modern democracies, many secular thinkers began to view the traditional bonds of love and family as an infringement on freedom. Such thinkers used the term “freedom,” in spite of its etymology, to signify a lack of constraints, or the ability to do whatever one wants without regard for traditional morality. Influenced by modern individualism, the word “freedom” was sundered from its association with love and marriage; it came to mean the right to do whatever one wants—so long as that desire did not harm the freedom of others.

But because a word undergoes a change in definition, that doesn’t always mean the older meaning is abandoned. Just as we use the word “keyboard” when talking about computers and when talking about pianos, the modern, secular, individualistic understanding of freedom didn’t wipe out the older notion of freedom. The idea that freedom flows from a properly ordered affection for those one loves still resonates with us, even as we find it natural for artists to depict freedom as a woman (such as the Statue of Liberty) who reflects the loving maternal devotion of the Norse goddess Fri. Despite our tendency to overlook those older meanings, the term freedom can still mean different things in English. Thus, in the new Babel, two people professing a commitment to “freedom” might have two different ideas in mind. One person’s freedom is another’s slavery.

The new Babel involves confusion, not just about freedom, but also about other moral concepts. While the grammar of secular individualism emphasizes freedom, it also stresses love, justice, and human rights. We are just as likely to hear an exhortation about freedom, love, justice, and human rights on the lips of Hollywood activists and secular intellectuals as we are to hear those words from the pope and bishops.

Know What Translates—and What Doesn’t

Is there a way to overcome the confusion of the new Babel? How can those who want to share the gospel message do so in a way where listeners hear what is said “in their own language” without resulting in distortions or misunderstanding?

Let me try to outline the beginnings of a solution. First, recall the way that the confusion of multiple languages was overcome on the first Pentecost. Before they were filled with the Holy Spirit, the disciples gathered together and “devoted themselves with one accord to prayer” (Acts 1:14). Prayer and the presence of the Holy Spirit are always the first step to overcoming Babel’s confusion.

But the new Babel calls for solutions that are different in some ways than those that overcame the problems of the old Babel. The problems of confusion and miscommunication are obvious in the old Babel, where people used different words to refer to the same realities. In the new Babel, where competing moral grammars use the same English words to mean different things, we must recognize that beneath the same words, distinct grammars may be at work. The grammar of secular individualism is a way of life that uses the terms freedom, love, justice, and human rights differently from the Catholic faith.

The next task involves becoming “multilingual”—not in the usual sense, where a native English speaker learns Spanish or French, but in the sense that one is able to recognize how words apply amidst distinct ways of life. For some of us, that means gaining a deeper understanding of our faith tradition. Then it means making an effort to understand the “language” of another tradition. In particular, some evangelists may be called to develop a more profound understanding of the secular individualism that shapes so much of contemporary culture.

It may seem that this awareness of multiple moral grammars results in a kind of relativism. I may speak with someone who says, “You’re a Catholic and I’m a secularist. We each speak our own language. And there’s no way to determine whether one is better than the other.” However, that response is oversimplified in several ways.

We tend to assume (incorrectly) that languages are either identical or completely dissimilar. For example, when we learn another language, we commonly begin by assuming that the second language functions the same as the first, but with different words. But as we become more adept at a second language, we realize that certain expressions cannot be literally translated from one language into another. This does not mean that they are impossible to translate. It only means that to capture all of the subtlety in one language, we may need to explain much more in the second language. Sometimes, what is captured in a single word or phrase in one language requires a long explanation in another language.

Go Beyond Mere Vocabulary

This difference between languages is especially clear when translating stories and poems. To translate a poem from one language into another, the translator must have an excellent g.asp of both languages. Frequently, the best translators of poetry are themselves poets. For example, consider the work of Rhina Espaillat, a poet who was born in the Dominican Republic. Her native language is Spanish, but she now lives in the U.S., and most of the poetry she writes now is in English. She is an outstanding translator of the poetry of St. John of the Cross, the 16th-century Spanish mystic who reformed the Carmelite Order and who wrote beautiful Spanish poetry.

We might be tempted to think either that English is just as good as Spanish or that the two are incomparable (since some things can’t be translated from one language to the other). Each of these views is partly correct and partly wrong. English is just as good as Spanish for some things, but not for everything. The literature of the great Spanish masters, including the books of Cervantes and the poetry of St. John of the Cross, is best in Spanish. Some phrases that St. John of the Cross masterfully turns in Spanish cannot quite be captured in English. But then, along comes a great translator who is herself a poet and a master of the English language; she stretches English poetically so that it captures some of the subtle beauty of the Spanish mystic’s poetry. In the process, English is expanded.

In a similar way, those engaged in Catholic apologetics and evangelization may benefit from thinking about “translating” between the “language” of secular individualism and the language of the Catholic faith. When the task of translation becomes difficult, it may help to recognize that great translators need to be masters of both languages. Of course, not everyone is called to master the grammar of secular individualism, just as it is possible to live a life of deep faith without mastering all of the technical vocabulary of theology and canon law. However, those who hope to evangelize our contemporaries immersed in the language of secular individualism must become more proficient in the grammar of each.

A good place to start is with a deeper understanding of the way that the notion of “freedom” is used in the grammar of the Church.

Liberty Enlarges; License Diminishes

The New Testament repeatedly praises the liberty that comes with living an orderly life according to the commandments, a life of loving God and neighbor. For example, when Jesus says that he will give us liberty and set us free (John 8:32), he does not mean free to do whatever we want. Rather, he is stating that those who remain in his word as his disciples will know the truth, “and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). The apostle James expresses a similar notion when he writes of the “perfect law of freedom” (Jas. 1:25). This is the liberty of one who is a “doer of the word and not just a hearer,” the liberty to choose freely what is good and true. In a similar way, St. Paul praises liberty. “For freedom, Christ set us free” (Gal. 5:1). Christ set us free from the slavery of sin so we could direct our lives in a responsible and self-disciplined manner, restoring the integrity that God the Father intended for each human person in creation. This liberty is a force for growth that allows us to mature, developing a more perfect friendship with God and neighbor. The more one chooses what is good and excellent, the more liberated one becomes.

Because “freedom” in English can mean either “liberty” or “licentiousness,” St. Paul appears both to advocate and condemn “freedom.” At the same time that he praises freedom as liberty for excellence (Gal. 5:13), he roundly condemns licentiousness—that false freedom which is actually bondage to sin and disordered desire (Gal. 5:19).

The grammar of secular individualism holds freedom as the right to do whatever one wants so long as one doesn’t harm the freedom of others. While this concept of freedom is not identical with the licentiousness that St. Paul condemns, it is also not identical with the ordered liberty that the Gospels celebrate.

In fact, the freedom which secular individualism praises seems to collapse rather quickly into a consumer mentality that promises individual happiness to those who buy whatever they want in the marketplace. The modern dream of equal freedom for all seems to turn into the shallow pursuit of diversions: video games, Vegas, trips to the mall, NASCAR weekends, and all sorts of highbrow or lowbrow entertainments for distraction. “Shop and be happy.” I once saw a bumper sticker that captured the emptiness of this way of life. It said, “I buy things I don’t need, with money I don’t have, to impress people I don’t even like.” It is not difficult to get defenders of secular freedom to recognize that their understanding of freedom tends to collapse into empty consumerism. So, the fields are ripe for evangelists who can help explain and defend the Church’s more robust understanding of authentic freedom.

Pray for a New Pentecost

On the first Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came upon Christ’s followers. The apostolic message was proclaimed in a way that allowed each listener to hear of the mighty acts of God in his own language. Luke tells us that Peter “testified with many other arguments” (Acts 2:40). We don’t know exactly what arguments Peter used on that day, but we are told he exhorted his listeners: “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation” (Acts 2:40). Peter’s message was accepted by 3,000 people who were baptized and who devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles, to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread, and to the prayers. “Awe came upon everyone” (Acts 2:43).

To overcome the new Babel of our time, we need evangelists who can recognize the ways many of our contemporaries are talking past each other by using the same words to mean different things. Many people seem unable to hear the gospel in their own language. In learning to become “multilingual” and in being able to understand secular individualism while also recognizing some of its deficiencies, let us pray that evangelists can speak in a way that is heard by each in his own language. Recall that Luke ends his description of the outpouring of the Spirit after that first Pentecost with hope: “Every day the Lord added to their number” (Acts 2:47).


What is a Moral Grammar?

In order to decode the confusions of the new Babel, it helps to be able to recognize and understand competing “moral grammars.” But, just what is a moral grammar?

While the term “grammar” is usually associated with the rules embedded in language, some theologians, philosophers and social theorists have stretched the meaning of “grammar” to refer to the order inherent in human actions and a way of life.

In one of the most famous books of Christian apologetics, John Henry Cardinal Newman describes the Grammar of Assent. In this case, Cardinal Newman uses the word “grammar” to mean the order implicit in various ways of affirming belief, especially religious belief.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), whom some people consider to be the most important philosopher of the 20th century, also stretched the notion of a “grammar.” Wittgenstein begins his book Philosophical Investigations by reflecting on St. Augustine’s account of language. As Wittgenstein’s thought unfolds, the term “grammar” is expanded to mean a network of rules that determine what does and doesn’t make sense in a particular form of life.

As a young scholar, Wittgenstein thought that science and logic could explain everything (so that ethics and faith were unnecessary), but as he matured, he came to appreciate that modern science cannot explain everything. Wittgenstein suggested that we can understand the distinctive order in everyday, ordinary language. In his mature thought, Wittgenstein came to realize that theology, like ordinary language, makes sense, not according to the rules of modern science, but according to its own “grammar.”

Wittgenstein’s notion of a grammar has been very suggestive for later thinkers. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has spent his career criticizing the grammar of modern individualism and trying to retrieve the grammar of virtue. The sociologist Robert Bellah, in his book Habits of the Heart, argues that Americans tend to speak using the grammar of individualism while engaging in forms of life that unwittingly draw from the older moral grammars of civic virtue and biblical faith.

This expanded notion of a grammar as the order embedded in human activities or in a way of life has sometimes been thought to imply a kind of relativism. Considered this way, it appears that, just as there is no way to decide if English is better than French, there seems to be no way to tell right from wrong. But this sort of moral relativism is not implied in the notion of a moral grammar. Wittgenstein wrote of “the common behavior of mankind,” implying that there is a moral order (a deep grammar) embedded in human activity as such. Pope John Paul II sometimes used the term grammar in this expanded manner. For example, in his message celebrating the World Day for Peace (on January 1, 2005), John Paul II spoke of the “common grammar of the moral law.”

Words Don’t Always Mean What We Think

When I was a college student studying in Rome, I had an experience that reveals this kind of confusion with language. I was riding on a train in Italy. Across from me in our compartment was a young Italian woman in her 20s. We struck up a conversation in Italian. My Italian was good enough to carry on a conversation for a while. I knew simple phrases and basic grammar, but I was at a loss to talk about any subject that required a large vocabulary. After an hour or so of talking, the Italian woman suggested that we switch to English. She explained that she had studied English for three years in high school, but that she had never had the opportunity to speak English with a native English speaker. I gladly agreed.

Her first words to me in English were quite puzzling. She asked me, “Are you strange?”

I was stunned. Up to that point, I thought that we were having a very friendly and enjoyable conversation in Italian. I interpreted her to be asking if I was weird or unusual.

As I was thinking about how to respond, it dawned on me that, in Italian, a straniero is a stranger, that is, a foreigner, or someone from a different country. She was asking if I came from I different country. I was relieved.

This confusion in communication wasn’t the result of our speaking two different languages. We were both speaking English. But she was using words in English to mean one thing, and I was interpreting them to mean something else.

Consider also the humorous example of King George I. He is said to have told architect Christopher Wren that his masterpiece, St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, was “awful and artificial.” Today, we interpret this as an insult. It sounds like the King was saying that the architect’s work was terrible and phony. But in the context of the early 18th century, “awful” meant awe-inspiring, and “artificial” meant “full of great art”!

So, to avoid confusion, it is important that we become aware that terms in English can have multiple meanings. This is a pervasive feature, not only of modern English, but also of life in the modern world generally. Every major modern language faces this problem. As the Second Vatican Council states, “the very words by which key concepts are expressed take on quite different meanings in diverse ideological systems” (Gaudium et Spes 4).

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