Mind Matters

by Rev. Robert H. Tucker

Number 300
June 22, 1998

Misplaced Concreteness

"Child abuse by God needs to be eliminated." That is the proposal of one group that abhors the traditional statement: God sent His Son, Jesus, to die so that we might be saved from our sins.

Child abuse? Living through the past four decades with demythologizing and "Jesus Christ Superstar," I thought little could surprise me. I was mistaken. Child Abuse!

But, it did trigger in my mind a long forgotten conversation with a person who, because of being severely abused as a child, had a catch in the throat when God was called Father. Another person still remember someone refusing to say, "I am a child of God," and responded with "I am an adult of God."

For some, how difficult it is to use familiar religious words and images, especially when those words are attached to hurtful experiences.

The mathematician-philosopher Alfred North Whitehead diagnosed this serious, and sometimes fatal, disease of the intellect as "misplaced concreteness," That is, we make words and images the reality, identical to that to which they point.

For example, those who want to burn the American flag may be irritating, but they are not destroying the country. They are only attacking a symbol that points to our country. The Supreme Court wisely recognized this when they made flag-burning protected speech and not arson. A photograph may draw one's thoughts back to happy family days, but the loss of the picture is not the destruction of the happy family time. As important as flag and family pictures are, neither are "the real thing." King Lear made a verbal vow a measure of his three daughters' fidelity. Cordelia, refusing the verbal vow, was dismissed. His misplaced concreteness made this Shakespearean play "a tragedy."

Religion is rife with misplaced concreteness. Not just divine child abuse, but onservatives use words as a litmus test of orthodoxy, and liberals think they have rejected religion by rejecting words.

"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me" is a genuine bit of childhood wisdom that describes misplaced concreteness. Well, words actually can hurt (even traditional Christian theology) because we haven't learned that childhood lesson. One might even speak of Mind Matters as misplaced concreteness, but then, out of kindness to the author, one might not.

--Robert H. Tucker
22 June 1998

© Robert H. Tucker, 1998.
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