The definite article

December 23, 2013

I really do mean the word “the” in English.

I used it in a comment about the deficiencies, in my experience, of a secular approach to life and its issues.  This was in response to the Ross Douthat column “Ideas From a Manger” in Sunday’s Times.

I referred to “the horizontal relationships” because I was distinguishing them from “the vertical ones.”  But by using the definite article and not just referring to “horizontal relationships,” I may have made possible the interpretation that I was referring to my own relationships happening to be inadequate to the task of helping me deal with a situation adequately, not to the more general phenomenon of human relations being inapt for some issues, period.  (I wrote, in part, “In my experience, the secular approach has nothing to offer when the horizontal relationships are inadequate. And there really are some situations in which the horizontal relationships are inadequate to the task — again, in my experience.”)

Sometimes a little misprision can have a big impact, for better or for worse.  In my context, it probably doesn’t much matter, given how limited the reach of my comment, but I was interested in it as a opportunity to understand how misunderstandings can get started, including in religious texts.  Just a little change in emphasis in translating from the concept into language at all, or the translation of the idea and words from one human language to another, can get it started.  Some languages have demonstrative adjectives but no definite articles.  That’ll make a difference in emphasis and thinking.  And to give another example of how emphasis can get transformed, as I recall it, Latin does something very different from what English does when it expresses the report of something negative — the negative goes with the reporting verb, not the thing reported.  It looks like “I deny that X happened,” where in English we would say that “I say that X didn’t happen.”  That can make a difference in emphasis, too.

The content of the interpretation I did not intend in my Douthat comment is also not wrong in itself, I think, anyway — vertical relationships are available to people whose human ones happen to be inadequate, even if others have human (horizontal) relationships that would be adequate to the situation, I think.  But that wasn’t really what I intended to say, in part because secularists tend to take that to mean we should all only focus on our human relationships and improving them.  Telling that to child born into a family of narcissists is like telling the child to get water from a stone, although many children will eventually, when they can choose their own relationships, find substitute ones that will fill in for deficits in family relationships, at least to some extent.

So I actually think there are two dynamics:  one in which one finds oneself in a situation in which one’s needs exceed what other human beings can help with, and the other in which one happens to find oneself short of what one needs, like being short of change when buying a pack of gum, because of weaknesses in one’s own human relationships (for whatever reason or reasons).  In both cases there is, I believe, help available through vertical relationships.  I don’t think God or the universe invokes the lawyer’s concept of needing to exhaust administrative remedies before filing a lawsuit, I think grace is available on a much more generous basis.  I don’t think God is like a clever lawyer any more than I think God is like a cranky parent (and I don’t think God is like a cranky parent).

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