Posts tagged ‘semantics’

God: I do not think it means what you think it means

This is the third of a three-part essay about semantics and a quote from The Princess Bride. Read the first part here and the second part here.

So. God. Right. I’ve been having trouble writing this section because I’ve been talking and writing about God for a long, long time. In my parallel existence, I’ve actually been encouraging others to talk and think about God/Goddess/The Universe/The Divine/A Higher Power for quite some time. There are so many angles I could take to discuss this issue. I could talk about my own life and my own arrival at the God of my understanding. I could talk about history. I could talk about organized religion and the ways it works and doesn’t work.

But I think I’ll just give you the short version. In bullet points, even, because people like bullet points. I’ll number them so that it sounds like a logical progression. But you should be forewarned, in case you don’t already know, that God is not a logical thing. Thinking about God, arriving at a concept of God, even deciding to believe in God, is not a logical thing. It is a need that some of us have. Or, apparently, don’t have.

  1. In the United States, most people, whether or not they consider themselves Christian, associate the word “God” with the Lord, the Father, the One True God. This notion of a One True God began with Hebrews’ Elohim, or Yaweh (or, more politely, YWVH). A good number of Christians seem to use the words “God” and “Jesus” interchangeably, but according to most Christian theology (and there are many, many versions of Christian theology, just as there are many, many flavors of Buddhism and Islam and paganism and other religious traditions), Jesus is the son of God, not God himself. Mary is not divine. Special, but not divine. A sort of elevated house slave with some pull with the Massa’. Let’s refer to this God, this semantic meaning of the word, as “God the Father.”
  2. God the Father really loved his “thou shalt nots.” In the older books of the Bible, he used to open up a lot of cans of whoop-ass on people who shalted when they should have shalt-not’ed. Jesus was a bit more kind. He said things like “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Of course, he also busted shit up from time to time. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all stem from this original Abrahamic religion. Admittedly, I don’t know as much about Islam as I do about Judaism or Christianity, and I know a hell of a lot more about Christianity than about Islam. But the fundamental message I find in these three faiths is that the body is bad, the pleasures of the flesh are bad, and they need to be controlled. If you don’t control them–sometimes in ways that look really unnatural to me–God hates you. I know a great many people who grew up thinking that God hated them. Because they were homosexual or bisexual or just slutty or addicts or had parents who hit them or maybe just had a different concept of God than the one in the holy books. I was one of those people, for all the reasons listed above. But I also had some wonderful religious experiences in the Franciscan-flavored Catholicism of my childhood.
  3. I tried going without God altogether. Some folks do it very successfully and it seems to work for them. Most of them believe in personal responsibility and ethics and proving their worth and dignity and stuff to their fellow human beings. That didn’t work for me.
  4. When I was 14 years old, Mom dragged me to Alateen, which had this friggin’ awesome concept that has stayed with me ever since: God as we understood him. Alcoholics Anonymous and the related 12-step programs was influenced to a great extent by the Oxford Movement, which promulgated the necessity of a direct connection to and relationship with God. The Oxford people were Christians, so they assumed that you’d be hanging out with God the Father and maybe Jesus a little bit. But cutting out the middleman of the priests and the saints and whatnot. But one of the original members of Alcoholics Anonymous was a staunch agnostic. He was responsible for insisting that Bill Wilson include those four little words in the 12 steps, which are pretty much the core of the AA recovery program. A lot of the literature has this annoying tendency to assume that God is male, and depending on which meetings you attend, some people have an annoying tendency to assume that everyone understands God as the Christian god. I was pretty fed up with the Christian God by the time I went to Alateen. So after learning this mind-blowing concept, one of my first visions of God was of a great sheet of graph paper (this was way before everyone knew what a pixel was). And that each of us, every thing in the world, people and rocks and trees and cats and dogs and giraffes and cars and books and ideas and orgasms, was one of those little moving squares on the sheet of graph paper. And that God was the totality of that graph paper, but since were right there in the middle of the moving squares, we couldn’t really grasp that totality. Just parts of it.
  5. There is a difference between spirituality and religion. I see spirituality as a direct experience of the Divine, of the thing or things that exist beyond the experience of the five senses. I see religion as a group of people with similar experiences of the Divine, and with beliefs about ethics and behavior and responsibility that extend from their experience of the Divine, coming together to celebrate and study and worship and form a cohesive community of faith. One of the etymological interpretations of the word religion comes from religare, “to bind fast.” A religious community is bound together by common belief. I was born into a religion that told me from infancy what my beliefs were. By the time I got to confirmation classes and realized what they expected me to believe (we’re all inherently sinful, women can’t do the same things as men, sex is bad except for procreation), I was pretty fucking pissed. Eventually, I found a religion system that worked better for me. I did a lot of soul-searching and research to find it.
  6. Now, I see the word God as a variable. Maybe instead of God, we should all just call it X. I think everyone should be forced to remember the basic principles of variables and values, and how the two differ. I mean, most of us who attended at least one year of high school (and that’s most of the folks in the U.S.) learned this concept in Algebra I. A variable is like a pot. The value of the variable is what you put into the pot. You can take things out of the pot and put things into the pot. The variable’s value does not change the variable itself. The two are separate. Of course, not all of us were paying attention or remember what we learned umpteen years ago. But it’s an important concept, expressed beautifully by Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride: “you keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” In another context, he and Vizzini might have been standing at a blackboard, and he might have been saying to Vizzini, “I don’t think you solved for X correctly.” This is where the mathematical analogy fails, however, because unlike in math (at least the sort of math they teach in Algebra I), where there is always a right and a wrong answer, ALL the values for the variable God are correct.
  7. A few more illustrations of this concept: one is from the Vedas: The Parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant. (Hint to n00bs: click on things that are underlined). Another is of my own invention, or at least if I got it from somewhere else, I no longer remember:

    God is a diamond, too large for us to see in its totality. Each of us sees one facet of the diamond, but not the diamond as a whole.

    Or, the tapestry, like the moving graph paper mentioned above, but with echoes of the Greek fates.

    Or, God is the top of a mountain, with many paths up the mountain. Silly humans, fighting over which path is the right one to take. They all get there eventually.

  8. The facet of God I usually like to talk to these days is the Great Mother, the Goddess. Sometimes it’s the Universe. But I like a nurturing Goddess image. I love all the names people have made for her over the years: Isis, Astarte, Diana, Hecate, Demeter, Inanna, Kali, Athena, Ameratsu. Sometimes I talk to the All-Father, too, but he’s a more generous sort of fellow than that jealous old God of the Hebrews. I like the Dagda a great deal. Sometimes I like goaty Pan, or the wild Cernunnos or Herne. I am a daughter of Yemaya, the Yoruban goddess of the ocean. The God/dess I worship in all its various forms gave us physical pleasure as a gift. As Doreen Valiante wrote half a century ago, “All acts of love and pleasure are her rituals.”

March 9, 2008 at 4:19 pm 3 comments

Fuck: I do not think it means what you think it means

This is the second of a three-part essay about semantics and a quote from The Princess Bride. Read the first part here. The third part is forthcoming.

It’s questionable whether we all see the same color blue. But it’s definite that we do not always speak the same language, even when we are using the same words. That’s because certain words have stretchy meanings. They contain concepts that are bigger than their common connotations.

There are three words I use that do not mean what you think they mean. They are: love, fuck, and god.

“Fuck” is a challenging word in the English language. It is undoubtedly an obscenity. Net Nanny programs are probably blocking this page right now because I’m using it. Which is just as well because only consenting adults who have signed liability waivers on file while with Omnivore Inc are actually allowed to read it. What do you mean you don’t remember signing that? I’m calling tech support!

Word nerds will know the etymological origins of “fuck.” Its predecessors meant both “to copulate” and “to strike.” Andrea Dworkin and her crew made much of these double meanings during the anti-porn crusades of the 1970s and 1980s. I’m glad for the radical feminists who broke the land for me. And I’m also glad that for the sex-positive queers who came after Dworkin and provided clean, well-lighted places for women to get their sexxay on. As a kinky woman who enjoys getting fucked, I get the whole copulating/hitting connection. Cunnilingus is awesome, but so is the feel of a cock or a dildo repeatedly striking my cervix. So is a spanking. Or a beating. From either end. Provided it’s consensual, of course.

Fucking usually refers to sexual intercourse. Not sure what I mean by sexual intercourse? I present to you the Family Research Council-approved definition:

One man and one woman get married, preferably in a church. The state sanctions their wedding and they get to save money on things like health insurance and income taxes. After a big, expensive wedding, they go to a special place called a bedroom. They turn out the lights, take off all their clothes in the dark, and then the man inserts his penis into the woman’s vagina. Eventually he ejaculates some semen into her vagina for the purpose of conceiving a child.

Of course, this definition fails to mention all my favorite parts about sex. I prefer the definition put forth by Alyssa in Chasing Amy. Fucking is about a sexual act. It’s not always penetrative. It is, however, raw and lustful. It’s different than making love (which can be nice too but doesn’t make for nearly as fascinating reading, IMHO). When I tell someone to fuck me in the throes of passion, I’m not saying “please stick your penis (or fingers or other object) inside my vagina.” I’m saying “keep doing that because it feels good.” I’m saying “I am completely in your control and I like it. I like being objectified and I’m feeling slutty and hot and delicious and I want you to keep doing what you’re doing until I come like gangbusters.”

I like being fucked. And I like fucking.

This slippage in meaning (or semantic disparity, if you will), got me in trouble once during a very hot, very chance, very spontaneous encounter with a gorgeous redheaded California farm boy on the beach alongside Highway One just south of Santa Cruz. He was doing a marvelous job of going down on me in the sand between some sheltering rocks. “Oh, fuck me, fuck me,” I cried, per usual, as his tongue did that thing a tongue can do to drive me insane. I was not requesting that he insert his penis inside me, especially since neither of us had a condom. But he took me more literally than I’d intended and proceeded to fuck me in the more traditional manner. For reasons for that are outside the scope of this entry but which did not involve mind-altering substances, I wasn’t quite possessed of my senses enough to stop him.

Luckily, the gods of high-risk sexual behavior decided to let me off with a warning ticket. I’m fortunate that I didn’t get of those nasty diseases men can give you. I hear there’s one where this little replica of yourself and the other person actually grows inside of you and then you have to take care of it for the rest of your life.

February 20, 2008 at 1:33 pm 7 comments

Love: I do not think it means what you think it means

This is the first of a three-part essay about semantics and a quote from The Princess Bride. I’ve been sitting on it for a month because I want it to be perrrrfect. But, of course, dissemination of information is never perfect. That’s why we have semantic professors and “information technology” professionals who pull in ridonculous amounts of money trying to figure out what a hammer is. Meanwhile, the people who swing the hammers may or may not have access to adequate health care.

But I digress.

There are three words I use that do not mean what you think they mean. They are: love, fuck, and god.

Love is universal, god is love, love is all you need. People pay lip service to agape, a word from the Greek that connotes the way a community can come together for a shared experience like a rock concert (or a Greek tragedy). Agape love is by necessity unpossessive. Yet powerful. What happened in NYC after 9-11 was an expression of agape. Shopkeepers handing out food to people on the street. Folks talking to strangers on the way home (the only people who talk to strangers in the Northeast are tourists and the mentally ill.)

While we pay lip service to agape, we don’t celebrate it. The underlying message is that agape not quite as good as eros: the love between two people, especially the kind of love between two people that involves one man kissing one woman, a few shots of some indeterminate flesh, swirling sheets, and then a cut to a commercial.

The words “I love you” have been co-opted by this idealized, mass-media-ized notion of what love is. Any other love is not real love. It’s just practice rounds. The live ammo is what you see at the end of every romantic comedy: schmaltzy music, kiss, church bells, white wedding dress, house in the suburbs, mortgage, lawn-mowing, perfunctory sex when the kids are asleep.

Because of the constant, constant repetition of this message in music, movies, books, and perfume ads, “I love you,” no longer means just “I love you.” It means “I want to own you. I want to spend every Friday night on the couch with you, watching DVDs and eating takeout.” It means “I want to make a claim on you. I want to tell you who you can sleep with (not anyone besides me), how you will spend your vacations (with me and my family), where you will live (with me), and what you will eat (whatever we can both agree on).”

“I love you,” co-opted as it has been by these dumb-ass messages, has come to mean loss of freedom. It means no more lazy mornings alone in your apartment, writing in your journal, catching up with friends, watching bad TV. It means no more spontaneous weekend trips to the ocean. It means that you now have to factor in another human being’s wants and needs and desires into just about any decision you make about how you spend your money and your time. It means, in short, loss of autonomy.

But I don’t mean that when I say “I love you.”

Every morning I call my AA sponsor, an older gay man. Given the configurations of gender and sexuality, the possibility of erotic love is completely impossible. That’s why I love my gay sober men, actually: they’re the one kind of person I never have uncomfortable sexual energy with. My sponsor is not a romantic partner, nor is he related to me. But the love we feel for each other is deep and abiding, a love that’s different than the love I have for my family, whom I didn’t choose, different than the love I’ve had for my boyfriends and girlfriends, but which in 99% of cases ends in complete loss of contact.

Every morning, my sponsor and I say “I love you” to each other. I say it to a great number of my friends, too. Another gay friend of mine, not in AA, often starts his voice mail messages with “I called to tell you I love you.” And he does. I tell him too. It’s so easy to discount this kind of love in our society, which tells us over and over again that the only kind of love worth telling stories about is the kind that results in dead teenagers or a happy wedding with frilly dresses, or a house with a picket fence and a bunch of rug rats running around in the yard. But it’s the love of my friends and my family that has proved the most constant and sustaining.

I don’t think I will ever really have that Hollywood kind of love—not in this lifetime. I say that not in an angsty, self-pitying way because really, I’ve tried and I find that kind of love to be stifling and binding (and not in a hot, sexy way either). When I try to fit my sexuality and my heart into that little box of monogamy I stop being able to tell the truth. I abandon a part of myself in order to prove to myself and everyone else that I’m a nice girl, a good girl, a productive member of society who can get married and have babies and live in the suburbs like everybody else. I cut off my feet or my head to fit myself into that Procrustean bed. And often, I stop wanting to have sex, to write, even to live.

Sometimes I fall in love with strangers. Sometimes I love someone for a week and then never want to see them again. Sometimes I confuse sex with love, but love is still love even if it’s confused.

Carson McCullers wrote a short story about this kind of love. In it, a man walks up to a perfect stranger and tells him “I love you.” Of course that gets the usual crazy-person reaction. But the man begins telling him about the habit of loving he has been cultivating. Starting with a rock, a tree, a cloud. This is the kind of love that fills me up and feeds me the most.

Don’t get me wrong. I still get possessive. Sometimes I want to be special. Sometimes I want to be the only one. Sometimes I want to feel like I own someone. But I usually only feel like for the amount of time it takes to give a man a good spanking and fuck him up the ass. Or for the amount of time it takes to push a woman down on the bed and drive her crazy with my tongues and my hands. Maybe sometimes it lasts an afternoon, a day, a weekend. But no matter how much I love someone, I still want to be able to get up at 5:00 am and have the entire apartment to myself. So I can write essays like these.

February 14, 2008 at 3:47 pm 5 comments

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