When you read and write as many words as someone with my acute case of logorrhea does, certain words begin to bother you because of the frequency with which people use them, often seemingly unaware of how bizarre or cacophonous they sound. Two of these are nowadays commonplace, the third is beginning to make the rounds (unfortunately) and the fourth is a technical scholarly term that is fairly obscure but deserving of scorn all the same. These are Islamofascist, Judeo-Christian, theoconservative and miaphysite.
First, Islamofascist. I cannot stress strongly enough how stupid this word is, as are its close cousins Islamic fascist or the latest absurdity, Islamo-Nazi. I understand what people think they mean when they say it, and to a large extent I share the same opposition and revulsion to the reality to which this term obscurely refers, but I am obliged to recognise that it is a meaningless term. It takes the enemy of the moment, Islam, and in an attempt (not terribly convincing) to tell us that the war does not have a religious dimension or to say that we have beaten these sorts of people before or to claim that they are just like the people we have fought before we attach to it the handy label of fascist. Never mind that most people couldn’t give a serious, working definition of fascism that would be even remotely accurate, or that there are no substantive similarities between Islam and fascism except for their ready justification, use and glorification of violence and their shared commitment to a life lived as struggle.
Islam is submission to an almost entirely transcendent deity; fascism is a doctrine that claims that you can create your own transcendence through labour, struggle and action. One is theocentric, whatever you may think of their god, while the other is anthropocentric. Islam is a religion that makes no sharp distinction between the political and the spiritual realms; fascism is a political religion that elevates materialistic politics to the level of the sacred. Islamic civilisation, while severely burdened by the constraints of its religion, has still managed to create poetry, architecture and largely geometric art of some real skill and accomplishment; fascism has historically always been tied to kitsch and modernism and the ugliness associated with them. They are, it is true, both appeals to the masses, but appeals based in entirely different things: one the complete subjugation of everything to the will of Allah, the other the exaltation of a nation or nation-state to the point of earthly godhood. Both are pernicious and hostile to the creative synthesis of Christian civilisation and are historically most hostile to Christianity as a creed and way of life, but they remain distinct and very separate phenomena that we could not more press together into one term than we could could talk about ”conservatocommunism.”
If we object to Muslims fighting and believing as they have fought and believed for centuries, that is what we should say. Recognising Islam as the central problem of the Islamic world would also lower our expectations about the kinds of “solutions” or “cures” that can be administered, because you cannot cure another people’s religion. There has always been a vague awareness about this in the nations of the West, but because the role of Islam has been deliberately kept obscure (for various and sundry ideological and allegedly pragmatic reasons) our awareness of the limits of what can be done has also been diminished.
Furthermore, recognising Islam as the central problem of the Islamic world does not therefore oblige us to play the game the jihadis would like us to play, namely to engage them in fruitless conflict after fruitless conflict. Neither does it oblige us to justify perpetual war for perpetual peace, nor to endorse policies that we know, by our own standards, to be unjust or wrongheaded. But, if for Christians the blood of martyrs if the seed of the Church, we should understand that it is advantageous for the jihadis and Islam if we willingly provide them with more martyrs to their cause.
Second, Judeo-Christian. This is a word that has crept into the English language over, I would guess, the last 25 or 30 years. This is a word that, in its conventional usage, is complete nonsense. If it means to acknowledge that Christianity has Jewish roots, the term Christian conveys that well enough to people who know what it means. If it is an adjective used to describe things pertaining to Jewish Christians of the early centuries of the Church and thereafter, then it has some meaning, but this is almost never the meaning that is meant. What is meant instead is that all of what we have more recently and vaguely termed Western civilisation is a product of the “Judeo-Christian tradition,” which is either redundant or wrong. Western civilisation or, rather, Christian civilisation is a product of Jerusalem, Athens, Rome and medieval Europe (we can quibble later over how and whether Byzantium and her heirs belong substantively to this civilisation). Because of the inheritance of Israel–as embraced by Christianity–Jerusalem has a prominent place in the heritage of our civilisation. But it only had that place through and because of Christianity, and it is only through the synthesis wrought by Christians that Jerusalem came together with the heritages of Athens and Rome in the particular way that they did to create our civilisation. We might as well call the tradition Judeo-Islamo-Christian because Averroes’ commentaries on Aristotle had some influence on medieval thought as call it the Judeo-Christian tradition, which implies some sort of significant contribution to the tradition over and above the contribution of ancient Israel that requires the added label.
Related to my irritation with this word is the now almost universal habit of using the dating system of Anno Domini but referring to it by the meaningless, blatantly PC term “Common Era” (CE). This is mostly just an annoyance, because it doesn’t mean anything (what makes the first century part of the Common Era that the first century B.C. does not have?) and the dating scheme is still obviously centered on the birth of Christ as calculated by Dionysius Exiguus in the sixth century, so who are we kidding? It is a not too subtle attempt to root out any “unnecessary” mention of Christ from the teaching of history, and really serves no purpose except to add one more layer of obscurity that students and teachers alike must push their way through.
Third, theoconservative. My objections to this term are well-known to my readers, so I won’t dwell on this one very long. To sum up, the term is absurd. Are theoconservatives divine conservatives, or do they conserve God? Are they theological conservatives? If so, why is this term used almost exclusively to refer not to men who are conservative in their theology but who are religious conservatives of one stripe or another, some of whom may have very sketchy and not very conservative theological views? Why should anyone lend credibility to a term that not only means nothing but was created as an insult in intra-neocon political fights over the legitimacy of “the regime”? There has got to be a better way to describe people who now suffer the indignity of being identified as a theocon. No one deserves to have such a silly, meaningless label attached to them–not even Joseph Bottum!
Fourth, miaphysite. The issue at stake may be obscure for some of my readers, especially those who have not read my brief remarks on the subject in the past, but let me sum up: after the Council of Chalcedon, the Christians of Egypt, Armenia and eventually Syria, Ethiopia and Nubia rejected the doctrine of the council that Christ was one person in two natures. It was this idea of two natures continuing to exist in some distinct, real fashion that got their blood boiling, because this was, as far as they were concerned, Nestorian heresy, a division of Christ into two beings. They preferred their interpretation of St. Cyril’s mia physis tou Theou Logou sesarkomeni (one nature of God the Word incarnate) that said that there was only one nature after the Incarnation, but a synthetic nature that comprised divinity and humanity. This idea of synthetic nature was the position of Severos of Antioch, the most accomplished of the anti-Chalcedonian theologians of the sixth century and the representative of so-called “nominal” or “moderate” monophysitism.
The Orthodox were not impressed and remain largely unimpressed to this day with the whole idea of synthetic nature, which to them is the same as saying synkrisis and mixis or confusion and mixture. Confusing the natures destroys the integrity of both, jeopardising the understanding of Christ and ultimately salvation itself. That is to say, if the idea of synthetic nature were correct, man’s salvation would not have been possible, because instead of true God and true man Christ would have been a (in the favourite phrase of theology students everywhere) tertium quid. That was the Orthodox reason for opposing anti-Chalcedonian theology.
Now for a long time in the scholarly literature Byzantinists, theologians and church historians from all Chalcedonian confessions called these people monophysites, because they taught only one nature after the Incarnation. It did not matter to St. Anastasios of Sinai, who gave us this rather clunky term, that the monophysites saw nothing amiss with their formulation; naturally, he saw their affirmation of one only nature in the harshest light and assumed that this implied the denial of one of the natures or the confusion of both. By the seventh century, George of Pisidia’s polemical poem Against the Impieties of Severos of Antioch focused entirely on the monophysite error of confusion–it had become a standard argument against Severan Christology.
But then along come anti-Chalcedonian theologians in the modern period and ecumenists from the West who are convinced that this was all a big misunderstanding, or at the very least that Chalcedonians have never properly understood what it was that their adversaries believed. Because “monophysite” has a polemical origin and an allegedly more pejorative meaning, there have been proposals that we start using the term miaphysite instead. Miaphysite, you will recognise, comes from the phrase of St. Cyril. So, what could be the problem with this? Fundamentally, it is redundant, because the meaning has not changed, and second it is potentially confusing to students and novices who already find Christological controversy to be one of the more baffling elements of world history, but more importantly it gives the impression that there was something deficient about the term monophysite, when they both describe the same anti-Chalcedonian doctrine: that Christ had only one nature after the Incarnation. That the anti-Chalcedonians interpret this one nature as a synthetic nature that allegedly respects the full humanity and divinity of Christ is not in dispute, and everyone who knows anything about their theology acknowledges this. That the Chalcedonians are under no obligation to accept this qualification or view it as proof of the orthodoxy of the anti-Chalcedonians should also not be in dispute.
For my part, as an aspiring Byzantinist, I refuse to use the term miaphysite and will not use it until someone can convince me that it means something significantly different from the term that has been used in the past. It is liable to obscure more than it illuminates, and it tells us nothing we didn’t already know, which is really the problem with all of these words in one way or another. They fail to communicate very much by trying to capture some broader, more expansive idea of a thing. They lose their clarity by trying to be inclusive and clever. And, for the most part, they also sound horrible.