Thursday, May 31, 2012
Theology Thursday #10: Etiology and Wisdom
Is there really a difference between ketchup and catsup? (And who calls it catsup, anyway? In fact, as I'm typing this for my blog, the spell-check has it underlined in red as a typo.)
Why is corned beef 'corned' when corn is never used in the production of said meat?
I've always been fascinated with the origins of things. Etymology is definitely a lost art. Certainly, it is a vocation which doesn't pay well, since nothing is produced other than a "well-I'll-be-darned" from the readers.
But the origins of words - and, more importantly, of rituals - have to have meaning attached to them, otherwise going through the motions of a ceremony or the utterance of a word or phrase degenerates into another meaning, which has nothing to do with the original implication of the word or act.
Let me give you an example:
A friend told me a story in graduate school about his church he went to in Illinois as a child. This church, being a modern house of worship, included laity in their liturgical activities. Typically, for the first and second readings, the pastor recruited a lay reader to recite the texts. However, before the lay reader would ascend steps leading to the lectern in the front of the church, he or she would bow, lowering his or her head.
My friend who told me the story said that he always wondered why they did this; perhaps they did it out of reverence for the Holy Bible. Or maybe they were paying homage to the altar, also located in the front of the church. As a kid, he never found out. When he got to college, though, he worshiped in other congregations and noticed that the readers there never did this. So he took the initiative one Sunday to ask an older parishioner concerning this odd act. He said that when he asked, the older member laughed out loud and told him: "No! The reason why they bow before they go up to read is that there used to be a railing you had to duck to get under as a person climbed the steps. After they took the railing out, the people kept on ducking!"
Once in a Pastor's text study in North Dakota a more traditional colleague of mine bemoaned the loss of the second-person pronoun used for God in the King Jame's Bible: Thou. He told me: "I don't see why we have to translate the new translations with You when someone is addressing God. After all, we should be more formal with God since He is our creator." (I intentionally capitalized he in that quote, since that seems to be another fetish with traditionalists.)
I tried to inform my esteemed colleague that Thou was the familiar form of You, a form most commonly used with children, family, or very good friends. I told him it was very similar to the German Du and Sie. In fact, I apprised him that German Bibles reflect this in that they use the familiar form when addressing God. So, Thou isn't really formal at all. God is supposed to be someone with whom you can chat like a buddy.
He didn't buy it.
But it's true.
Often we find that the origins of things are so lost within the tangled buckthorn of history, that they entirely lose their meaning or gain another, wholly different one altogether.
Within the fields of politics, history, theology, spirituality, and linguistics, I think it is necessary to have a comprehensive understanding of the etiology of the particulars to gain a true - and more comprehensive - understanding of the whole. It's what holistic, liberal education is all about.
And...it is the beginning of wisdom.
Oh, by the way...
General Tso (or Zuo Zongtang) was a Chinese statesman and military leader in the late Qing Dynasty. He had nothing to do with the chicken dish we now order in Chinese restaurants. It probably was a late 19th Century or early 20th invention in the United States. (source: Wikipedia)
Still - it sure is tasty...