You keep saying that word…?

I was having a conversation with a young man. We were discussing philosophy, specifically his philosophy. He was describing his views to me in a beautiful flow of language. When he came to a stopping place I asked him what he meant by certain words he had used. He paused and said, “I don’t really know.” The reading he had done that formed the basis of his thoughts had had a powerful, evocative effect but had conveyed little conceptual clarity or content to his mind. This is common. Professionals use jargon all the time and while it serves as a useful shorthand it can also be a convenient mask for, or even enable, a lack of real, concrete understanding. Evocative language is not itself the problem. We use language in a variety of different ways – what Ludwig Wittgenstein calls “language games” – and the way language functions in each of these games is different. For instance, an inside joke can be evoked in all its power simply by means of a certain gesture, word, or phrase. So too with poetry. When Adele says that in her fury toward her ex she has “set fire to the rain” she is speaking evocatively. The problem with evocation comes when we employ it, as did my young friend, in a language game it isn’t meant for.

A perfect example of this kind of mistaken application is a political speech. A campaigning politician will use evocative words and phrases that convey the desired impression – freedom, dignity, fiscal responsibility, etc. –  without describing in any meaningful way what he or she actually intends to do. In cases like this the misuse is intentional and therefore, manipulative. Sadly, this kind of misuse of language sometimes makes its way into theological and spiritual conversations as well. It is especially popular (and useful!) for people who want to see a change of doctrine or practice that they know will be unpopular or contrary to what is currently believed. For example, if someone wanted to change the Orthodox Church’s understanding of human sexual relationships the way to do that would not be to come right out and say that such a change should be made. The way to do it would be to carefully wrap the suggestion in familiar and trusted evocations – dying and rising with Christ, eucharist, eschatology, resurrection, golgotha etc.. These words and phrases evoke a scriptural and patristic content that is familiar and trusted, and this allows the intended thesis to pass unobserved into the mind of the reader. In such a scenario success depends on the reader never stopping to think about the content of the evocations or ask whether that content is consonant with the impressions or ideas he or she is receiving. If the reader stops to do that the illusion will be broken and they will see that what’s in front of them is not an image of the King of Glory but a fox dressed up in His clothes.