Language is like the air we breathe: it surrounds us, enters us, and comes out again. It fills us with the spirit of the age, which is expressed in the particular language of our society. Today's international discourse is full of expressions that appear in a variety of languages – some deliberately vague, some euphemistic, such as "global war on terror," "undocumented alien," "single mother," or "reproductive health" – which convey various social, political, or ethical messages.
But what if we disagree with those messages, and with the spirit of the age in general? What if, for example, we are Christians? Should we speak the language of society, even though it expresses a secular world view that we reject?
Paradoxically, the philosophy of post-modernism, though hardly friendly to Christianity, can aid us. For it posits a society in which there is a dominant discourse created by those who hold power, which can, however, be resisted and even subverted. In today's Western societies, it is not the Church which holds power, and it is not the Christian discourse which is dominant. On the contrary, it is the secularist elite which dominates, in part through its control of language. And it is the Christian majority – if it still is a majority -- that is called upon to resist.
That the socially dominant view of the world diverges from the Christian view is abundantly clear in both Ukraine and the lands of the diaspora. Traditional churches have lost their positions of influence and leadership. The secularist minority, which seems to be concentrated in the academic world, the media, and the political and economic elite, dominates the discourse. By shaping the way we speak, these elite groups influence the way we think. Thus, by speaking the language of popular culture – which is not really popular at all, because it is created by the media elite -- we participate in secularizing thought.
Other examples come from the commercial world. A capitalist economy requires the production and marketing of ever-new products in ever-increasing variety. Thus, "newness" and "choice" are paramount, even if they carry no real value. Our everyday language reflects the false notions that what is new is necessarily superior, while what is old is inferior, and that the more choices we have, the better.
At the same time, expressions that reflect a Christian world view are passing out of our language. When did you last hear the admonition, "Have fear of God!" ("Бійтеся Бога!")? We are no longer able to even utter words like "sin" or "temptation" without an ironic smile – unless we are talking about chocolate.
If modern Christians are to successfully resist the dominant secularist culture, they must subvert the dominant secularist discourse. They can do this by simply teaching. They do not have to teach in the lecture hall, or on the pages of academic journals. One of the best teaching opportunities is the everyday, ordinary conversation. The Gospel of St. John provides a perfect example of teaching through dialogue, in Jesus' conversation with the Samaritan woman (John 4: 7-26). Thus, by their everyday speech, believers can put forth a different view of the world than that of the surrounding society.
They can do this in several ways.
First of all, they can refuse to participate in a way of thinking and speaking that presupposes a Godless universe. For example, when they express a fundamental opinion, do they automatically preface it with the phrase "to me"? "To me, adultery is wrong." Is that introductory phrase necessary? Doesn't it imply that what we are saying is only true when applied to us? In that case, why are we saying it? If we want to be polite, we can always start off with "I think," or "I believe." But the phrase "to me" reflects the widespread notion that there is no such thing as a universally valid statement, because there is no such thing as universal truth. If you believe that, then you cannot pretend to believe in Christianity -- because like most religions, it holds its truths to be universal.
Second, they can challenge and critique the dominant secular discourse by pointing out its falsehoods. This can happen even in the most ordinary everyday conversations. Sometimes it is enough just to ask the right question. When someone says that he or she is "pro-choice," it is not unreasonable to ask, "What, in fact, is the choice you are talking about? And at what point do you really make that choice?"
Sometimes it is not just a matter of a phrase or a formula, but of a whole conceptual framework. Do we discuss the issues of the day in a Christian perspective? When we discuss war, do we focus only on state interest, or do we look first at what it does to our fellow human beings? Do we analyze the situation using moral logic, for example in the light of the Just War doctrine? When we discuss taxes or economic reform, do we think only about ourselves, or the GDP, or the national debt -- or do we also consider how it affects the poorest and most vulnerable in our society -- and also those in countries affected by our economic policies? When we evaluate a book, a movie, a painting or a song, do we ask only whether it entertains us? Or do we also consider whether it reveals something true or good? In everything we talk about, and in the words we use to talk about it, we can propose an alternative perspective that challenges the conventional view.
This alternative view is Christian, that is, Catholic. But is it also Eastern, Byzantine? I have mentioned a few phrases that reflect a Ukrainian Christian world view. How can this world view inform and inspire our thoughts and our words today? That is a subject for reflection and discussion.
In any case, Christians can resist the dominant culture semantically – in the way in which they speak about everyday things -- by refusing to participate in the secularist discourse, by challenging its deceptions and falsehoods, and by substituting a mode of discourse that reflects a Christian world view. They can do this in any language and in the context of any culture. If they speak truthfully, and call things by their proper names, they may succeed in replacing a moribund secularist worldview with a culture of life.