The Heart of our Meaning


 I've always had a theory that the rhetorics of science and religion have more in common than they let on. Call it confirmation bias, but Courtney Bailey Parker's article on "spiritualized language" in the most recent issue of Praxis highlights some of these parallels. 

Parker's article describes spiritualized language as a kind of jargon with unstable meaning that is frequently used by students in religious communities: phrases like "house of god"; "biblical attitude"; or the "spirit of god" appear as examples. 

Parker identifies two problems with this discourse. First, it may provoke unintended responses from "readers who are not familiar or not complicit with [religious] language." Second, it may lack the nuance of a more sophisticated engagement with faith. 

Though I have never encountered religious writing in the writing center at UT Austin, I find that I encounter similar difficulties when working with students in the scientific disciplines. Scientific writing can run into trouble from readers who are not familiar with its jargon. And it can frequently be used as a way to evade nuance.

Parker's solution is to teach students to "re-see" their writing from an outside perspective, making it possible for them to identify jargon and rewrite it in language that is both more precise and more appropriate for an academic context.

I envision some barriers to successfully applying this method to the scientific context. When I asked my students recently whether they think science uses too much jargon, the answer was an emphatic "no." Unlike spiritual language, which holds a contested position within the academy, scientific jargon holds pride of place at the top of the discursive pyramid. Students may be more resistant to letting go.

The results, however, could be highly beneficial. Truly interrogating the limits of scientific jargon could help make science writing more accessible and help students achieve even greater scholarly precision.

When considered from a spiritual context, however, I imagine even greater benefits to interrogating science in the writing center. Parker sets high stakes for writing about spirituality. She writes: "Like many, I feel that a mark of mature faith - in any religious tradition - is the ability to communicate the nuances of that faith in such a way that outsiders need not acquire a spiritual dictionary to understand the heart of our meaning" (2).

What if that were the goal of scientific writing, too?