As I was re-reading Walker Percy’s The Thanatos Syndrome this past fall I ran across this remarkable passage. I will quote it at length. It is a conversation between Dr. Tom More and a presumably mad priest, Father Smith. The old priest is now a fire-spotter for the park service and the conversation takes place in the tower he lives in. We pick up the conversation with Father Smith speaking:
“Words are signs, aren’t they?”
“You could say so.”
”But unlike the signs out there (the trees on fire), words have been evacuated, haven’t they.?”
“They don’t signify anymore.”
”How do you mean?” . . .
The two proceed to spar verbally until Father Smith proposes a word association exercise.
“Let me turn the tables on you and give you a couple of word signs and you give me your free associations.”
“Sky, fleecy, puffy, floating, white –
“Bogs, Notre Dame, Pat O’Brien,“
“Blacks, Africa, niggers, minority, civil rights –“
“Israel, Bible, Max, Sam, Julius, Hebrew, Hebe, Ben –“
“Right! You see!” . . .
“What about Jews?”
I say after a moment, “Precisely!”
“What do you mean?”
“What about Jews?”
“What do you think about Jews?” he asks, cocking an eye.
“Nothing much one way or the other.”
“May I continue my demonstration, Doctor?” . . .
”May I ask who Max, Sam, Julius, and Ben are?”
“Max Gottlieb is my closest friend and personal physician. Sam Aronson was my roommate in medical school. Julius Freund was my training analyst at Hopkins. Ben Solomon was my fellow detainee and cellmate at Fort Pelham, Alabama.”
”Don’t you see?”
“Unlike the other test words, what you associated with the word Jew was Jews, Jews you have known. Isn’t that interesting?”
“Yes,” I say, pursing my mouth in a show of interest.
“What you associated with the word sign Irish were certain connotations, stereotypical Irish stuff in your head. Same for Negro. If I had said Spanish, you’d have said something like guitar, castanets, bullfights, and such. I have done the test on dozens. Thus, these word signs have been evacuated, deprived of meaning something real. Real persons. Not so with Jews” . . .
“That’s the only sign of God which has not been evacuated by an evacuator,” he says, moving his shoulders.
“What sign is that?”
“You got it, Doc” . . .
He leans close, eyes alight, “The Jews – cannot-be-subsumed.”
“Can’t be what?”
“Since the Jews were the original chosen people of God, a tribe of people who are still here, they are a sign of God’s presence which cannot be evacuated. Try to find a hole in that proof!” Debate continues but Tom More is unable to get around the old priest’s argument.
Neither can we! Father Smith diagnoses our present predicament with astonishing acuity. Words no longer signify. Especially Christian words. Nobody listens to us any more – nor should they! Our words no longer signify. And they no longer signify because there is no people, no community, no presence to give substance and reality to them. Our Greek and Western heritage has finally run us into a dead end! Our tendency to vest reality in what can be thought and linguistically expressed has run out of steam. Having bought into this way of doing things as the church, we now find ourselves bereft and unable to imagine any way forward but more and better of “the same old same old.”
Our words no longer signify! Thus is the peril and the opportunity the church faces today in our culture. Whether it be peril or whether it be opportunity is the crux we face. Can we find our way, through the Spirit, to a place where, again, our words signify the truth demonstrated by the incarnation of that truth in the lives of God’s people in this time and place? We shall see.