Looking For Heresy in All the Wrong Places

People have different views about the causes of heresy.  There are many, I suppose.  But have you ever considered the role mere words play, in causing heresy?

By heresy, of course, I don’t mean a departure from the One True Religion.  (Not knowing what the One True Religion is, I wouldn’t know a departure from it if it hit me square between the eyes.)  Rather, I mean heresy in the original Greek sense of the word – meaning choice.  Have you ever seen two strangers who agreed right off that God exists, but who, after discussing their ideas of deity long enough, have discovered areas of disagreement?  Have you ever seen how, if they talk about God long enough, those disagreements sometimes fester?  How the sometimes lead to argument and to accusations of heresy, with schism and holy war not far behind?  If so, have you wondered how much of the difference comes down to a difference in words?

Consider Jupiter and Zeus, for example.  To the ears of a modern Christian, Muslim, or Jew, the words Jupiter and Zeus likely produce similar distaste:  after all, Jupiter and Zeus were gods of the Romans and Greeks; which is to say, pagan; which is to say, heathen, or false.  Anyone who worships Jupiter or Zeus today would be considered a heretic.  But the Greek word Zeus is simply a different spelling of the Latin word Deus, meaning god.  (The Greeks didn’t pronounce their word as one syllable, Zoose, as we do.  They pronounced it as two syllables, Dzeh-oos.  You might even say it out loud.  Pronounced with historic authenticity, the relationship to the Romans’ two-syllable De-us is more easily heard if you do.)  The word Jupiter, in turn, was sometimes spelled Diuspiter or Diuspater, and is simply a Romanized spelling of the Greek word Zeuspater.

These differences in spelling are ultimately due to differences of pronunciation.  Since the birth of language itself, differences in pronunciation have resulted from geographic dispersion.  Jack and Jill pronounce words the same way,  but after Jack emigrates to the mountains, after a few generations, his progeny are pronouncing things differently than those in the valley.   If we could roll back time, we could see that an ancient Greek pagan on bended knee to Zeuspater was worshiping the same god as the ancient Roman worshiping Deuspater – or was at least using the same words, just pronouncing them differently.  Furthermore, and most importantly, if we put pronunciation aside (along with its stepchild, spelling) we can see that both Roman and Greek alike were worshiping God the Father.  That is even we use the same words to describe God that the ancients did – “God the Father” – only we pronounce it differently.

Consider another example: the word Jove.  When Henry Higgins said, in My Fair Lady, “By Jove, I think she’s got it!” his exclamation referred to the pagan god Jove, right?  As you likely know, in ancient Rome, Jove was another name for Jupiter.  (In fact, the Romans used Jovis as the genitive case of Jupiter.)  But have you ever considered how the word Jove would have been pronounced in that ancient world?  I’m talking as a student of phonetics, the way Henry Higgins’ studied the pronunciation of Eliza Doolittle.

First of all, the Romans pronounced their J and I like a long E.  (Julius, as in Caesar, was pronounced  Ee-ooh-lee-us.)  We speakers of English sometimes pronounce our i’s the same way – like the i in media, or the second i in idiotic.   When the Romans pronounced Jove, then, the word as they pronounced it began with the sound of our long E, or “ee.”

Moving to the second letter, the o of Jove:  just as in English, the Romans had both a long and a short o, and they were pronounced like the long and short o’s. are in English.  But while we’ve come to pronounce the word Jove with a long o, the Romans pronounced their original with a short one: the same short o sound we use in the words hot, shot, and not.  (I’ll spell that sound here as ah.)  The first two sounds of the Roman pronunciation of Jove, then, would have been the sounds Ee and ah.

Next we come to Jove’s letter v.  If you ever studied Latin, you know that the Romans pronounced their v’s like we pronounce w’s.  (Anatomically, their top teeth didn’t rest on their lower lips.)  That is, they pronounced Caesar’s Veni, vidi, vici as Way-nee wee-dee wee-kee.  They’d have pronounced the v in Jove as if it were written with an English w.

This brings us to Jove’s final e.  The Romans knew of no such thing as the English “silent e” at the end of a word.  A final e was always to be pronounced.  It could be long or short.  If, as in the ablative form Jove, it were short, it would have been pronounced eh, as in the English word bed. If long, it would have been pronounced ay, like the e of paté or the Spanish que.

Putting those four facts of Roman pronunciation together, we find that the Roman pronunciation of “Jove” would not have been anything like the way Professor Higgins pronounced it.  Julius Caesar would have pronounced  J – O – V – E  as Ee – Ah – W – Eh or EE – Ah – W – Ay.  Try it yourself, if you like: say Ee-ah-w-eh out loud.  As many times as he played the recording over and over again, Professor Higgins would have had a heckuva time distinguishing the sound of Jove from the sound of Yahweh.

Imagine what an argument might have sounded like, when an ancient Roman and ancient Jew debated whether Jove or Yahweh was the real God the Father!

“It’s Yahweh,” says the Jew.

“Not it’s not!  It’s Ee-ah-w-eh!” says the Roman.

Sadly,  I think, genocides, crucifixions, and jihads have come from differences not much more substantial than that.

Which brings me to my final word for today:  Ignosticism.  It should not be confused with agnosticism.  It is a philosophic concept which maintains that it isn’t possible to “believe in God” without first having a clear idea of what the word “God” means.  It goes to the heart of the difference between saying that we know something about a subject and knowing everything about it.

To illustrate, if Jack’s God were good and Jill’s bad, we’d likely say they did not believe in the same god. If Jack’s god created the world, but Jill’s didn’t, likewise.  If Jack’s were omnipotent and everlasting, and Jill’s wasn’t, likewise.  But how far down that path should we go?  If Jack’s god threw Lucifer out of Heaven, and Jill’s didn’t, are they the same god?  If Jack’s turned water into wine, and Jill’s didn’t, are they the same god?  If Jack’s god tells us to pray toward Mecca, or to cut off our foreskins, or to not eat meat on Friday’s, and Jill’s doesn’t, can they be talking about the same God?  At what point does it make sense to feel confident that two people, each of whom shout from the mountaintops that “I believe in God,” actually believe in the SAME god?

I mean, if you know a guy name Abe Lincoln who was assassinated in 1865, and I know a guy by that same name who was very much like yours – a lawyer, an Illinois Republican with a wife named Mary Todd who once argued cases for the railroads, etc – but my guy is still alive in Honolulu, then we’re talking about two different Abe Lincolns, right?  If your car is a 2014 Toyota Avalon with a beige leather interior and XM radio, and so is mine, we’re still talking about two totally different cars unless they share precisely the same Vehicle Identification Number inscribed on the body, right?  When we’re talking about real people or things, we’re used to thinking that either they share precisely the same histories, behaviors, and other characteristics, or they’re two distinct things, right?  Conceived that way, do two people ever believe in the same God?

I believe that early in human history, there were many who shared a similar feeling that the sky was like a father who lived above mere mortals and, when so disposed, fertilized the soil below.   At some point, people who shared that vague analogy – or who had experienced the same Creator in the Garden of Eden – began using the ancient equivalent of words like “father god.”  As our numbers grew, some of us moving across mountains, others sailing across seas, the words with which we shared the analogy evolved in different ways no less than the tortoises of the Galapagos.  As we focused on nuances and details, we eventually developed detailed systems of words to define our beliefs and practices.  Vaguely-defined analogies to a heavenly father became debates over methods and the time of creation; analogies to biology became arguments over the possibility of a virgin birth; analogies to fatherhood led to schisms over whether Jesus of Nazareth was a son, and if so, an “only begotten” one; and belief in a common father-god led to  holy wars among peoples, all of whom believed in the One True God of Abraham, but who adopted very different traditions about which of the descendants of Abraham was an incarnation of that God, and which His mere prophet.

If I proclaim “I believe in God,” my dear mother (may she rest in peace) may rejoice for me.  At the same time, my agnostic friends may wonder what purple Kool-Aid I’ve gotten into.  Among my friends who are believers, some may express happiness at my new-found faith, but may wonder if I believe in the same god they do.  To all of them, I can only express that I am, if anything, a heretic.  I am a heretic in the word’s original sense: I have made a choice regarding the words I use to express my sense of awe and appreciation.  I choose the words I do carefully and with great reserve, because it seems to me that words get in the way. Indeed, it seems to me that unless I’m willing to say that my god exhibits all the same inherent characteristics, engages in all the same activities, and condones all the same behaviors, rituals, and forms of worship that someone else’s god does, then I don’t know what it is I’d be trying to communicate by saying “I believe in God.”  Does the assertion have any meaning if we have no common understanding of what “God” is? Ignosticism holds that it does not.

I share (with most of humankind, I think) a sense of awe at Creation, an intuition that there’s something more powerful than myself, a sense of reverence, even thanks, for that which brought all this to be.  I share with many a sense of trust that, in the end, its all a good thing.  But when a government form asks me what religion I am, I fear that “ignostic” will cause someone to think I mean agnostic.  If I put “heretic,” I’ll risk being ostracized by those who mean something else by that word, something that at times has caused people to be burned at the stake.   And in the end, I think that if we want to find the root causes of heresy, we may have been looking in all the wrong places.  Words, I believe, are among the root causes of heresy, because words are our own fickle creations, laden with all the nearsightedness and subjectivity of which we ourselves are made.


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One thought on “Looking For Heresy in All the Wrong Places”

  1. I’m a believer in defining one’s terms and communicating precisely when it makes sense to do so, but religion is an area where that approach seems counterproductive. Unless one is a missionary or looking for a fight, probing into religious differences is just asking for trouble for no good reason. Generalities and lowest common denominators are the way to go. If one considers one’s belief to fall within the general rubric “Christian”, I would think that “Christian” is a good descriptor to use when filling out a government form. That way lots of people whose versions of Christianity are different in some way will not perceive that they are different, and wasteful conflicts will be avoided. If I were religious and thought I could get away it without further explanation, I would simply say that I believe in God when someone asked what I believe. I wouldn’t care a bit whether the other person really understood my particular religious stripe; I would much prefer that they assume we have something in common.

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