Re-post 2013 [edited edition]
In September of 2012 I posted this piece on vulgarity and its relationship to a distinctively Christian vantage. Thanks to newadvent.org, my daily readership shot up from ~60 to nearly 9000 in a 3 days. I wrote it as a reflection on the f-word, which I believe is especially disgusting as it specifically degrades the beauty of the marital act.
After writing the post, I picked up a (non-religious) book on the topic — Swearing: The Social History of Foul Language, Oaths, Profanity in English, by Geoffrey Hughes. Hughes’ book makes clear that swearing has, of course, always been around. What I found most intriguing was the remarkable creativity in the universal human search for shock-value language that irreveres reverence, speaks the unspeakable, publicizes the private, ridicules the serious, profanes the sacred and the undresses modesty. What has changed in the last 50 or so years, Hughes argues, is that there has been an explosive growth of sexual profanity, while blasphemy (waning under secularism’s waxing) is on the decline. In addition, the social boundaries that contain profanity have progressively dissolved, ever more democratizing vulgar culture. I will not explore blasphemy much here, but see the Catechism’s discussion.
If you’re interested, here are my wandering thoughts for your own reflective consideration.
The Vulgate on vulgarity
Today I want to try thinking about the f-bomb with the mind of Christ. Let me reflect on a few relevant biblical texts.
James 3 is a mini Gospel of the Tongue, decrying the use of language unbecoming creatures created to sound forth blessing. For example:
If anyone does not fall short in speech, he is a perfect man, able to bridle his whole body also.
If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we also guide their whole bodies…
In the same way the tongue is a small member and yet has great pretensions. Consider how small a fire can set a huge forest ablaze.
The tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by humankind, but no human being can tame the tongue–a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brethren, this ought not to be so.
Matthew 12:34-37 offers Jesus’ approach to language:
…from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks. A good person brings forth good out of a store of goodness, but an evil person brings forth evil out of a store of evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will render an account for every careless word they speak. By your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.
In Colossians 3:8, St. Paul reminds the Colossians of their prior pagan manner of life:
…in this way you too once conducted yourselves, when you lived in that way. But now you must put them all away: anger, fury, malice, slander, and obscene language out of your mouths.
The Scottish Biblical scholar William Barclay (who was Venerable Fulton Sheen’s favorite biblical scholar) made this comment on the above Colossians text:
There can never have been a time in history when so much filthy language is used as it is today. And the tragedy is that today there are many people who have become so habituated to unclean talk that they are unaware that they are using it.
The Jewish view of language expressed in the first two chapters of Genesis sees human language as a premier sign of God’s image. For Christians, human language is also seen as an icon of God’s eternal Word who became flesh and spoke among us (cf. John 1:1-14) to reveal the true majesty of Godlike language. The vocation of the Christian united to the Word in Baptism is to, as St. Paul says so succinctly in Romans 12:14, “bless and do not curse.”
After reading Fr. Brendan Purcell’s book, From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution, I was left breathless by the thought of the billions of years of cosmic history preceded the sudden appearance of human language (especially pp. 225-39). The immensity of the time-space backdrop to the emergence of human beings, and of language, for me lends serious gravitas to the meaning and purpose of our existence. It made me think of my grandmother’s scolding words to me when I would, as a child, scarf down her homemade meals: “Tommy, slow down and appreciate your food! Do you know how many hours of work and how much love went into making that?”
Humanity, as the crown of God’s vast creation, lends creation words to bless the Father of the life-creating Word. Humanity thus conceived can best be described by the word eucharistēsas, as one “having given thanks” (Luke 22:19). Which is why the Eucharist is the most natural habitat for human language. As “priests of nature” (per St. Maximus), our vocation is to speak to the Creator in the name of every creature, and as prophets to speak to every creature in the name of the Creator. This is why I have always found such beauty in The Canticle of the Three Youth in Daniel 3:57-88, or the line in the preface of Eucharistic Prayer IV which reminds us, as we sing the Sanctus, that in the Mass we are “giving voice to every creature under heaven.”
A person of faith here must ask: is the f-bomb consonant with my vocation?
“You were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:20)
In Baptism, our bodies become Temples of the holy Trinity.
Temples, as in naos, the word for the inner sanctuary of the Jewish Temple, the Holy of holies (1 Corinthians 6:19).
A friend of mine, who works in construction, expressed this very vividly to me once. After undergoing a dramatic conversion back to the Catholic faith, he said to me one day, “I can’t even cuss any more, cuz now I know the Holy Spirit’s inside me listening!”
You might say that the antithesis of divine indwelling is demonic possession. I recall a number of years ago speaking with a priest who was a seasoned exorcist, who said:
One universal characteristic of exorcisms is that the inhabiting demons know how to curse and blaspheme in all languages; blasphemy, vulgarity and profanity are their native tongue. Jesus said when the Devil lies, he’s being true to himself [John 8:44]. The same is true for their abuse of language against the design of the Creator.
Why? Because they’re in the business of concealing, not revealing God.
One last thought
I remember in July of 1987, about 5 months after my “conversion experience” to a living faith, I was working in a factory in the machine shop. The men there were good and hard working men, many of them had been there for decades. And they cussed all the time.
After coming to faith, I made the decision to never swear again. Prior to that I was very foul mouthed.
One day during our lunch break we were talking shop, which I always enjoyed. Profanities were flying. I thought to myself, “I can’t take this holier-than-thou facade any more.” So I jubilantly threw into the conversation the f-bomb. They all stopped dead in the middle of the conversation. It was supremely awkward. The bearded elder of the group said, “Nope. That ain’t who you are, Neal. Don’t lower yourself.” As they continued on with their vulgar chorus, I made an inner resolution to be myself.