Resonant phrases

I want to dispute one small item in Philip Kitcher’s “Militant Modern Atheism.” [pdf]

He describes the people in between the mythically self-conscious and the doctrinally-entangled, “whose ideas about how to interpret doctrinal sentences are far less definite.”

They are not prepared to say, with the mythically self-conscious, that there is no defensible interpretation of those sentences on which they are committed to the existence of transcendent entities. On the other hand, they are not willing to offer any definite interpretation that would provide a content to which they would subscribe.

Oh those. Yes. The hand-wavers; the resorters to purple language. What about them?

Many of them are inclined to take refuge in language that is resonant and opaque, metaphorical and poetic, and to deny that they can do any better at explaining the beliefs they profess.

Yes indeed, yet they also get very huffy if anyone dares to suggest that this might hint at a certain amount of…vagueness and even emptiness in those “beliefs.”

If pressed, they will admit that they can only gesture vaguely in the direction of something that might commit them to the existence of transcendent entities — or might not.

And then they will call you shrillandstrident, for good measure. They will call you a bully; they will call you a New Atheist; they will accuse you of being unreflective.

Their lack of definiteness frustrates militant modern atheists, who find no value in the resonant phrases that pervade theological discussions, but believers will contend that literal language gives out here, that as with great poetry, religious language somehow functions in ways that cannot be captured in the preferred modes of speech of their opponents.

No no no! That’s where Kitcher goes quite wrong. I’m not having that. I find plenty of value in resonant phrases themselves, just not when they pervade theological discussions. But resonant phrases? I yield to no one in my finding of value in them. King Lear for instance – King Lear is full of them. Most of them are brutally simple, but resonant all the same.

“I remember thine eyes well enough.”

“No sir you must not kneel.”

“Art cold, my boy?”

There are three just off the top of my head. Absurdly simple, but if you know the play, they’re like gunshots.

But in fact the way they work can be explained, and they don’t point vaguely in the direction of a cosmic boss who gets to tell us all what to do, and they don’t pretend to be making claims about the nature of the universe. Religious language does not function in the same way as great poetry, and it’s just self-flattery to claim that it does. (Notice that I don’t go around saying my writing functions the same way that Shakespeare’s does. That’s because it doesn’t. Believers don’t get to claim that priestly guff does, either.)

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