In the Biblical story of Babel in Genesis 11, all people spoke the same language. Then they overreached themselves in pride and were forever divided by an inability to speak to each other, to communicate. At Pentecost, that was reversed (Acts 2:11) – unity in Christ brought unity in understanding and communication. It always gets me when people tell me that the Bible or history is not relevant – it happened a long time ago, we are different now, this is the modern world. No, we aren’t different now in anything but outward forms. And one of the most difficult of those outward forms to deal with is language.
I don’t mean language as in I speak English and she speaks French – that has its own issues and issues within issues. But the English language as I speak it and the English language as this culture speaks it often reflect different meanings. These differences in meanings can be relatively superficial. I remember someone relating that on her first night as an exchange student in England the host family husband politely asked “Would you like me to knock you up in the morning?” Like “boot” vs “trunk”, “wrench” vs “spanner”, this sort of variability in language can be gotten over and laughed about. But the current cultural battle, which includes what we see in our government, is over the meaning of one particular word: freedom.
English is a relatively new language, a mix of German and French, and what could be recognized as modern English is only about 500 years old. According to the author of the article, Gregary Beabout, “Freedom” comes from the name of the Norse goddess Fri (also Frig or Freya) who remained with her husband Odin not because of his power but because she loved him. So “freedom” and “love” share an Old English root, as does “friend”. But during the upheavals and revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries the concepts of love and family began to be denigrated, viewed as constraints, and separated from the concept of liberty and freedom. Freedom began to mean the right to do whatever one wants - in theory as long as nobody else gets hurt. The doer, of course, decides whether or not someone is getting hurt.
One of the reasons Latin remains the official language of the Church is precisely because it is a dead language. Unlike modern languages the meanings of its words are not in flux and will not change. In Latin, there is a clear distinction between libertas (liberty, freedom for excellence) and licentia (license, freedom from constraint). Right now we are in a battle to determine which of those two words for freedom is going to define us. The “grammar” can sound the same – love, justice, human rights. But the one rests on responsibility and a relationship with God and His commandments; the other defines the individual as God and so defines its own commandments.
The Tower of Babel sundered multitudes from each other and thousands of years later we are paying the price. It remains to be seen if a common definition of freedom will be chosen or if we will collapse in disarray. I choose libertas as my definition. After having lived many years by the other definition I well understand the true freedom of the one and the slavery of the other. But many people around me equate freedom with licentia. And I don’t know how to bridge that language gap.