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Meaningless Words and the Real Power of Intention

A rock star and a theologian understood what was at stake.

by James Leroy Wilson
April 23, 2009

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Meaningless Words and the Real Power of Intention

Robert Anton Wilson notes in Prometheus Rising that light rays coming into the lens of the eye would lead to images being upside-down. "The brain obligingly interprets the picture, turning it right-side up, and interpreting it in other ways more subtle." The object we see isn't what "is," but only what our eyes register, and how our brain interprets and "corrects" what we see to make it make sense.

This is why eyewitness testimony is often unreliable; the brain attempts to remember a startling event that may have happened in a flash, and tries, by borrowing from its memory of similar images, to make the visual memory sensible. It's also why the strange things we see in the sky may not be as strange as what we think. What we see is unusual, and our brains correct the image - fills in the gaps - to make it fit into something we've seen before, especially if what we've seen before was in UFO specials on TV.

Or, as I've pointed out before, our brains can make us "see" spirals that don't exist.

As Wilson notes elsewhere in the same book, "What I see with my eyes closed and with my eyes open is the same stuff: brain circuitry."

Or, as Lesson 1 in A Course In Miracles  puts it, "Nothing I see in this room [on this street, from this window, in this place] means anything."

What we see is not "objective reality." What we see has no meaning. Consciously and unconsciously, we only react and create "meaning" of what we think we see, not what is there.

Communication is similar. The words you read have no meaning.

For meaning doesn't exist without intention. Words are often not needed to communicate one's intention. Wayne Dyer in his Power of Intention PBS special tells a true story of boys playing baseball. A mentally handicapped boy is up to bat, and with the help of a teammate manages a ground ball to the pitcher. The pitcher scoops up the ball and overthrows it, allowing the boy to advance to first base. The pitcher's teammates correctly read the pitcher's intention and commit a sufficient number of throwing errors to allow the boy to advance the bases and score.

How you interpret a message is how you filter the intention of the messenger through your own intentions. Maybe Al makes a joke to Bob about the death of a celebrity, but Bob's mother had died the same tragic way. Did Al know about Bob's mother's death? Does Bob know whether Al knows? Was Al intentionally evoking painful memories for Bob? Such questions determine the degree of the tastelessness of the remark, and whether Bob will be angry with Al.

A conflict resulting from a misunderstanding has little to do with confusion about the meaning of words, but is, rather, a misreading of intention.  A misunderstanding results when, based on previous experience with a similar person or a similar circumstance, you anticipate the other person's intention but turn out to be wrong.

And this often happens even when we have the advantage of facial expression or body language. Misunderstandings are greater when we deal with mere words.

Patrick Madrid, in Where Is That In the Bible? notes this sentence: "I never said you stole money."

Say it or write it six times, but with emphasis on a different word each time.

Six different meanings in eight syllables - four of which are still somewhat accusatory!

Madrid's book is on Catholic apologetics, and his point is about who has the authority to interpret the Bible - to discern its intention and therefore its meaning - other than the very Church that compiled it. That question is still controversial, which is why the Christian religion has many sects.

The Bible is nothing but a long trail of meaningless words. It has instigated no persecutions, no Crusades; it created no Church, it is the basis of no moral code or civilization. It doesn't even convey clear ideas about God or ethics. The Bible's meaning is the meaning we we've been taught to see in the words. The more we learn, some of us are strengthened in our belief in the meaning we were taught; others find different meanings. Still others eventually don't care one way or another.

J. Gresham Machen was a theologically conservative Presbyterian theologian of the early 20th century. He believed his Calvinist interpretation of the Bible was the true meaning of the Bible. He also believed his Calvinist Presbyterianism was the only correct religion. As a result, he opposed Bible readings in public schools, and prayer in school.

That might seems strange to people today, whose experience with "conservative Christianity" is synonymous with the Religious Right and bringing back such practices.

But Machen died in 1937, decades before Supreme Court rulings on the subject, when Bible reading existed and was promoted in public schools. Machen's point was that the selective passages read in government schools to promote "civic virtue" or "character" did not mean the same thing to Catholics, Calvinists, or other Protestants, let alone Jews and other non-Christians. He said:

I think I am just about as strongly opposed to the reading of the Bible in state-controlled schools as any atheist could be. For one thing, the reading of the Bible is very difficult to separate from propaganda about the Bible. . . . When, for example, the great and glorious promises of the Bible to the redeemed children of God are read as though they belonged of right to man as man, have we not an attack upon the very heart and core of the Bible's teaching? What could be more terrible, for example, from the Christian point of view, than the reading of the Lord's Prayer to non-Christian children, as though they could use it without becoming Christians, as though persons who have never been purchased by the blood of Christ could possibly say to God, "Our Father, which art in Heaven"? The truth is that a garbled Bible may be a falsified Bible; and when any hope is held out to lost humanity from the so-called ethical portions of the Bible apart from its great redemptive core, then the Bible is represented as saying the direct opposite of what it really says.

Machen understood that the Bible by itself was just words and that without faith in a particular interpretation, its meaning could be readily changed by anyone - especially those with political objectives. Machen, to his everlasting credit, helped fight off the creation of the federal Department of Education in the 1920's and opposed "character education" in state-run schools.

One may disagree with Machen's interpretation of the Bible and his exclusive religion. But he was right on this: because Machen believed his religion was true, he didn't have to impose it on anyone else. He also understood implicitly that the very attempt to impose it would corrupt it. He also knew that those who insisted on Bible reading, prayers, character education, etc. were not strengthening the Christian faith but rather transforming it into a servant of the American State.

Frank Zappa was a rock musician who passed away in 1993. I don't know if he would have had anything in common with Machen, except the understanding that each could peacefully co-exist with the other in a free society where no one sought to dominate. In the 1980's, Zappa became the leading defender against the censorship of rock albums, when Sen. Al Gore's wife Tipper became concerned about the lyrics of the albums her children were buying.

The result of the Gores' sanctimony was a Congressional "hearing" intended to threaten and cajole the record industry into putting "Parental warning" labels on albums. The industry did succumb, but Zappa's point on behalf of the First Amendment remains unrefuted: "they're words!"

In a 1986  Crossfire debate over a Maryland bill on music censorship, Zappa holds his ground: they're just words.

Sexually-explicit lyrics could be satirical, but misinterpreted to the uptight. A song lyric full of metaphors and euphemisms could be far raunchier, but seem perfectly wholesome to the young and innocent. Words don't fornicate, people fornicate.

I can't control your thoughts. I can't control your intentions behind your words, or guess at how you interpret the intentions of others. We can at best punish harmful actions by working back to discover facts and probable intent. That's why it takes 12 jurors and unanimous agreement to convict. Even then the verdict might be mistaken.

When we censor mere words, or strings of words, we make a crime of expressing what, in itself, has no intent and no meaning. They could be satirical or ironic. They could express clear ideas or evil intentions. But words don't kill people, people kill people. The suppression of words is the vain suppression of thought, of intention. Censorship will only serve to restrain and punish those who do no harm and intend no harm. This is the essence of totalitarianism.

Comments (3)


Post a Comment

Steve Scott from Martinez, CA writes:
April 24, 2009
I liked Zappa's own "explicit lyrics guarantee" label on his album.

ELM from 98801 writes:
April 29, 2009
As for meaningless words & the real power of intention, I have always embraced this saying: "What you are speaks so loudly I can't hear what you are saying." I find that to be true of human nature!! Human nature is an interesting creature and study.

Aggie writes:
May 15, 2009
As a stubborn old Calvinist myself, I could not agree more. Amen to what J. Gresham Machen believed, said, and lived.

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