Archive for August, 2011


Num-nums and a hey nonne-nonne!

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the Latin interrogative particles num and nonne.  Sounds like I’m ready for the rubber room, doesn’ t it? (example of nonne equivalent in English)  Surely you don’t think I’m crazy, do you?  (example of num equivalent in English)

The word num in Latin has no lexical meaning.  It is used as the first word in a yes-no question, where the questioner expects (or is calling for) a negative answer.  Usually this gets represented in English as “Surely you don’t …., do you?” or “You don’t …, do you?”  Nonne which consists of non (“not”) and the -ne suffix, which in Latin is used to signal a “yes-no question.”  Affixed to non, the question now is worded where the questioner asks a yes-no question, but expects (or is calling for) an affirmative reply.  We do something similar in English when we say “Isn’t this better?”  It is a yes-no question, but we expect a “yes.”  Often we see this in English when, instead of making a command, or a polite request, we rephrase it as a question.  When I taught Latin, at first I would ask students, “would  you turn to p. 45?”  Some smart alecks would then respond, “No.” and I’d then add — “Oh, I apparently didn’t make myself clear — TURN to p. 45!”

Now why would these interrogative particles come to mind?  Well, I’m never sure why anything comes to my mind — I think most of my thoughts must be lost and just stumble, unceremoniously, into my conscious mind.  It’s why I often look puzzled or bemused.  Inside my mind the Tim Allen, “Huh?” from Home Improvement goes off.  Eratosthenes had “Eureka!”  and I have Tim Allen’s “Huh?”

 But these particles did pop up as I was saying the All Souls (KC) covenant.  I never say it as it’s printed in the order of service.  I know several variations, and patch together those versions when others (most, maybe all) are saying the covenant as printed.  I always say “gift” instead of “law,” though I like Shawnee Mission’s “service is its sacrament” — as I’m trying not to miss the beat of the All Souls version when I’m there, I’ll stick with the monosyllabic “gift” instead of going with the word “sacrament,” which strikes a resonant chord in this Irish Catholic (ret.) boy’s heart.  Later in that covenant are the words “to seek the truth in love…”  Here, as someone raised Catholic, I hit a wall, and find these words tough to say, as I grew up in a religion that claimed to be “the true faith.”  As I rejected that idea as rather limited (and presumptuous) I find that the presumption in “seek the truth” is too much for me.  As an ideal, I’m not too bothered by it, but I wonder if there is a “the truth,” or simply “truths.”  Mostly I think the latter, which probably makes me a relativist, but there you have it.  At any rate, I usually replace that phrase with “speak our truths in love.”  I’ve heard that in some other UU churches, and find it closer to the way I see things.  There are truths that are mine, some part of which may be shared by others.  By saying “our truths” or even “my truths” I’m allowing for POV other than mine to be valid (even if not for me at this time), and am suggesting a need to publish “my (or “our”) truths.”  This is not to put out that “my truths” are “the truth.”  I’m not sure that I would know what “the truth” is.  But being willing to share my truths means that someone else’s truth does not hog the stage.  I think that when we don’t share our truths, especially in an environment that may not be receptive, we run the risk of giving the nod to the “nums” among us — “surely you don’t believe X…”  If we do believe X and don’t speak up, we are not being true to ourselves, and we are robbing our interlocutors of something to think on.  And, perhaps, we are giving a false impression of who we are. 

On the other hand, I sometimes find myself assuming agreement (unconsciously or not, using the ‘”nonne”) with people with whom I’m talking.  This happens, for me, primarily in matters of political discourse.  I do see it in churches as well.  Most credal churches do start with an assumption of “yes” to their basic creed, and one feels reluctant to speak out against any part of that creed — it’ll hurt people’s feelings, or I’ll lose friends, or people will think less of me, and so on.  But I think it happens in Unitarian churches as well.  I wish it didn’t.  For me, the great potential for the Unitarian-Universalist movement is the hope for openness.  But shared beliefs on many things may lead to assumptions that others think like us.  There is some comfort when others agree with us — we’re not alone;  there’s someone else who thinks as we do;  and so on.  But I wonder if that comfort may be leading us astray — for we go along to get along, and so a “yes” may not be a “yes” or a “no” may not  be the “no” we thought it was.  Or we may find ourselves surrounded only by those who think like we do, which means we miss a chance to get a fresh point of view.  In a way, “num” thinking or “nonne” thinking prompts others, and many will respond as prompted.  In its worst form, it’s a way of bullying someone into accepting our view as his/her view.  Even at its best, though, it probably muddies the water a bit. 

If I had a wish for this coming year it would be that I would free myself, to the extent possible, from “num” and “nonne” questions and the thought behind them.  Rather I would listen to another and try to understand the other’s POV, without feeling the need to cut off discussion by a well-placed “num” or “nonne.”  And I would wish it for the Unitarian-Universalist churches as well.  Surely that’s not too much to ask for, is it?  Can’t we expect that much at least?


Follow the Bouncing Ball…

The other day, I was thinking a lot about Pontius Pilate. It’s not that I have some unhealthy fascination with the Roman governor of Judaea at the time of the life of Jesus, but I do sometimes reflect on him, or rather on that interchange between him and Jesus reported in “The Gospel of John.”  After Jesus says that he was born to testify to the truth and that all those who love the truth listen to him, Pilate says “What is truth?”  I remember Sr. Paschal calling attention to this passage when I was in the 6th grade.  She cited it as an example of Pilate’s cynicism.  It wasn’t that he was an evil man, but he was a man who was jaded and cynical.  And so, in response to Jesus’ statement about witnessing to the truth, he cackles and says “What is truth?”  As Sr. Paschal told it, she probably didn’t use “cackle,” maybe “sneer.”  For in Sr. Paschal’s reading of the story, Pilate was a sophisticated Roman, who saw Jesus as some country bumpkin philosopher, and looked down his aquiline Roman nose at him.  I can’t help thinking that Sr. Paschal — of working class Irish-American stock like myself — imagined Pilate as one of the Boston Brahmins, who just shook their heads at all the dunderheads around them who didn’t go to Harvard.  At the time, however, I wondered about that statement attributed to Pilate, and I wonder about it still.  My wondering when I was in the 6th grade had to do with how strange the conversation seemed to me.  It seemed a rather abrupt conversation, and I always felt something was missing, but what?  On the face of it, I could not draw the conclusion that Pilate was some jaded sophisticate sneering at the yokel.  What if the question were genuine?  Or what if the sentiment behind the question were genuine?  For a Roman like Pilate, the mere statement by someone that he was a witness to the truth and that truthlovers listened to him might very well sound like an unsubstantiated claim.  Pilate’s question might then be a query for more information — what is this truth to which you are witness?  As the legal authority in a troubled part of the world, he might very well be skeptical or suspicious of someone brought before him.  I’ve seen enough police procedural shows to know just how skeptical the police can be when a suspect begins talking about telling the “truth.”  There are plenty of snorts and chortles then — the NYPD and other PDs on TV never stop at sneering or cackling. 

I’m not sure that Pilate was being disrespectful, whatever he actually did say in that interview.  But my reading of the line remains neutral.  Given his position, one could understand why he might make fun of Jesus, but I don’t read the line that way.  Rather I read the line as the sort of statement a philosopher might make — “what is truth?”  Is there an absolute truth, or only relative truths?  I think that Pilate might be someone who knew only the latter — the Roman political environment and the Hellenized educational environment both would suggest that “truth” was something relative and not absolute.  If there were absolute truth, a human could not know it, could not express it in any meaningful way to another, perhaps even to him/herself.  For a Roman the closest to an absolute truth might be that Rome was a city of destiny, and that it was the duty of all Romans to help Rome in its destined role as world leader.  Given that Jesus was likely described to Pilate as a dangerous revolutionary (and therefore anti-Rome), his response to Jesus is quite measured — after the interview, he tells the Jewish leaders he can see no charge to bring against Jesus. 

So is there an absolute truth?  Perhaps.  I do know that any truth I know is colored by my experience, as a man, as someone from the working class, as someone who wasn’t one of the cool kids, as someone who was an altar boy, as someone who was (and still am) terrible in sports, as someone who’s come to know the world through film and TV (and even radio), to say nothing of comic books.   And so, as a kid, I accepted the “truth” that my mom was smart enough to be a legal secretary, but that being a lawyer was not for her.  That isn’t a truth I accept any longer, but media of the early 60s might show tough-talking dames who could dish it out as well as take it, but they were dishing it out in approved roles.  Della Street was not pleading the cases.  That was Perry’s job. 

And so, who’s to say that Pilate wasn’t being a Zen master here — confounding Jesus, but only to get him to see things in a new way.  I admit, it’s a stretch.  But, in a sense, at the Unitarian church, this is what we’re expecting to find in Church — not a revealed truth, but a challenge to our truths, and an invitation to reconsider our positions.  There is something comforting about being told “the truth.”  But a truth we are told will, in the long run, not fit.  Jesus’ truth was not working for Pilate, not because Pilate was evil, nor because he was dumb.  So the comfort of the truths we now hold as self-evident may someday prove false, and we hold to them at some peril to ourselves. 

All this may seem well and good, but what about the title?  Well, Bouncing Boy has been on my mind recently, thanks to Thom Belote’s stunning sermon on X-Men (Bouncing Boy was not an X-Man, but Cannonball was — go, Sam Guthrie) and I heard today about Bronson Alcott’s statement that “truth is spherical.”  As the speaker explained it — Alcott’s view was that we could not know the whole truth, which was all around us.  We could only get a piece of the truth.  Still, we could get that, and we had an obligation to bring that into focus, but also had to listen to others as they spoke their truths.  Should we be daunted by the idea that the “whole truth” is beyond us?  Should we be depressed?  And should we be discouraged because that bouncing ball will always be a bit beyond our reach?  Well, my response is clear — let’s follow that bouncing ball.