All Points

And Let Us Say, Amen

Sacred words in secular life

By William Deresiewicz | June 16, 2013


I continue to be vigilant for signs of the religious impulse in secular culture. The old emotions don’t disappear; they just assume new guises. One place to look for them is language. Here’s the sort of thing I mean. In an essay on the humanistic educational ideal, Lionel Trilling writes about the president of Columbia, Nicholas Murray Butler, and his insistence, in 1909, that beyond becoming a professional, a college student should aspire to “be something else in addition—a cultured man.” “We understand,” Trilling comments, “that he really wants to say that one ought to be a cultured gentleman, but he is canny enough to know that the time has already gone by when one might conjure with that word.”

Gentleman, for Butler, Trilling is telling us, was a kind of holy word, albeit one whose day has passed—a word whose very utterance, like the elevation of the Host or the opening of the ark, is sufficient to inspire awe, compel allegiance, and secure assent. “A word to conjure with,” in the phrase that Trilling evokes (one that might be usefully revived)—a term, that is, that’s felt to be possessed of something like magical powers, a kind of ideological open sesame.

Such words are not uncommon, once you start to look for them. Journey is big now, and innovative. Some, like other religious objects, belong to specific communities. It would be hard to explain the authority invested in the word body when I was in graduate school. Actually, it wasn’t body, it was the body, a ghostly abstraction that flitted through the going discourse (discourse was another) like the third person of the Trinity. But then, I had a holy word of my own, community, which I’d learned to worship in Zionist youth movement (we were all supposed to move to kibbutz). One of the best things about writing my dissertation was that by looking into what community actually consisted of, I drained the term of its aura. Which doesn’t mean I don’t have others still, like art or education.

Holy words are everywhere in public life. Political rhetoric, in fact, may be characterized as the manipulation of crypto-religious language. Half the Pentagon budget rests on terms like warrior, hero, and 9/11. There’s no mystery that the God-word for conservatives is freedom. The comparative liberal weakness with respect to “messaging” might be understood, in part, as a failure to maintain the potency of justice and equality. Then there’s the old standby for politicians of all stripes, guaranteed to be uttered at least once in every congressional hearing, the American people (best pronounced with a manly elision of the first two syllables—‘merican pee-pul!—to signify one’s principled indignation). Sacred words are stand-alone arguments—which means, they are a way of obviating argument. Nor are all of them positive; there are Devil-words, as well. When Portland voted against fluoridating the water supply last month (don’t get me started), the phrase you heard most often was industrial chemicals. Industrial! Chemicals! Then we better vote against it.

Here’s another word we might consider making use of: brains.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Comments powered by Disqus