The Language of the Law

In my last post, I began to explore the tension between the absolute nature of English Law and the suggestive format of Latin Law. Canon Lawyers say the law of the church is exhortative. How does that work?

An Italian friend invited me to go and stay in Italy with her husband and her sister. The two sisters generally spoke English together for my sake (and the husband’s). It sounded like they were arguing most of the time, “You should never have done so-and-so” – but it seems that rather than having a series of major disagreements, this was the normal way in that culture to express mild differences of opinion.

Wittgenstein, a philosopher of language, advised us to “Look for the use, not for the meaning“. As an Aspie, I find it hard to see beyond the literal meaning. Every professional field develops its own use of language, and jurisprudence includes case law teasing out the exact weight of what a law really means. But I do find it objectionable that a law might be drafted in words which are not literally intended. How, then can we know what it is supposed to mean? Scripture says: “Let your NO be NO and your YES be YES – anything else comes from the evil one.” And how can we understand God’s commands in the Bible, if they do not mean what they say? “Did God really say not to eat the fruit?” – that was the very first Temptation.

The whole Old Testament is a history of generations of God’s chosen people failing to live up to the Law they were covenanted into. There doesn’t seem to be much wiggle-room there for saying God wasn’t serious about avoiding the cult of Baal, paying tithes to the Jewish temple and seeking justice for the widow, orphan and honest trader. The Catholic interpretation of the New Testament holds that ‘This is My Body’ means just that in the context of the Eucharist. Yet God’s Word, like Christ, is fully human and fully divine. I cannot deny that there are human languages which thrive on exaggeration, as I have seen in Italian. To interpret that literally might be as alien to my Italian friend’s culture as to be non-literal would be to my own. When language itself carries such double meanings, have we any hope about pinning down what God wishes to communicate? And if so, can we express this in language which is itself unambiguous?

I once received an invitation to a wedding and said “I’ll come if I can”. I wasn’t going to know until a week before whether there would be room between other committment. In the event, I did go to the wedding. I didn’t let the couple know in advance because I couldn’t stay for the reception anyway, so there was no impact on catering. They were amazed that I had turned up. But I said “I’ll come if I can,” and in the event I could, so I came!  What should I have said?

And if “shall I come for coffee” means “let’s have sex”, how do I invite a person to spend an evening sharing a caffeinated beverage?

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