Between 500 and 479 BCE, Herodotus, the “father of history,” wrote On the Persian Wars. He was impressed by the diligence of the Persian horsemen who served as intelligence messengers to their king, Xerxes. Herodotus wrote: For these [riders], not snowstorm, not thunder-shower, not heat, not night shall work to delay their imposed mail-route nor their carrying it out as fast as possible. Apparently, the United States Postal Service had an antiquarian choose their motto!
One of the wonders of language is not only how it can carry such messages from antiquity but also how it is constantly changing. For example, Shakespeare authored works using 17,677 words. Of those, Shakespeare invented nearly 1,700! Imagine!
Let’s coin a Greek term, diaphora, expressing the hardiness of these Persian war messengers. Dia means “through” or “across.” The phor root means “bearer” or “carrier.” For example, the name “Christopher” means “one who bears (pher) Christ (Christo). Diaphora means carrying through despite obstacles.
Now, we come to the dual aims of this essay. First, as messengers called to our particular sphere of influence, you and I need strength and courage. Buck up, there are vital messages we need to deliver to our neighbors and to the next generation. At the same time, we need the freedom that comes by understanding that not all messages are essential. In the mass of information we process, we need not only strength and courage to pass on what is most crucial, we also need persistent attention to exercise principled discernment. Some mail is junk mail.
Adiaphora is “junk mail” – it’s an old word that is the opposite of our coined word, diaphora. The a – prefix negates all that follows. Matters of adiaphora are matters of indifference. For example, pharmaceutical adiaphora would be placebos – pills that do neither good nor harm. In morality and theology, adiaphora are matters considered non-essential – neither commanded nor forbidden – neutral. So, Paul writes: Food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do (1 Corinthians 8:8-9).
I first heard the term “adiaphora” at a gathering of church leaders. I transferred it to our family. At the time, my wife and I were raising teenagers (we still are!). Hair was an issue. But, as my wife and I talked about our sons’ hair choices, although cleanliness was a non-negotiable, we realized that length and style were adiaphora. How refreshing to have that category – and a polysyllabic word to describe it too! Not everything was essential.
But, be wary. In a permissive age, we face the danger that adiaphora has few limits. An over-indulged adiaphora bloats us until we become “agnostic” about too many things. “Agnostic” is from Greek agnostos “unknown, unknowable,” from a – “not” + gnostos – “known.” If we choose the neutral path too often, cowardice and passivity become our weary companions. Neutral is from Latin neuter, literally, “neither one nor the other,” from ne– “not” + uter “either” (of two). Our being “neutral” may come from our having been neutralized – neutered – unsexed – having been removed from the battlefield of life.
In a world which can embrace heresy, we need orthodoxy. Flacius (1520 -1575) taught, “A Christian cannot obtain peace by offending God to serve and satisfy tyrants.” In a world of moral confusion, authentic morality is possible. To get there, when we turn to the Bible, we learn to contrast God’s unchanging moral law with two more limited kinds of law – ceremonial and civil law. And although all sin separates us from God, we need to understand that some sins are more heinous than others.
Such principled discernment is foundational – “necessary” – from Latin necessarius, “unavoidable, indispensable,” originally “no backing away,” from ne – “not” + cedere “to withdraw, go away, yield” (see “cede”). Strength and courage, indeed. During the turbulent times of the Reformation, many navigated their way by heeding this advice: “In things necessary, unity; in things not necessary (adiaphora), liberty; in all things, charity.” Thomas Jefferson put it this way: In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle stand like a rock.
When life comes at you, ask yourself, ask those you respect: “What are the rocks? Where are you adamant? About what was Jesus adamant?” Adamant – is from Old English – aðamans – “a very hard stone,” or from Latin – adamant – “hardest iron, steel.” The other possible history of “adamant” is the Greek adamas – from a– “not” + daman “to conquer, to tame”” – adamas is the hypothetical hardest material, literally “invincible.”
What vital messages will we carry to the next generation? What are our foundational “rocks?”
Jesus, the Ultimate Person, the true and the living God, the Message made flesh, is the non-hypothetical, invincible adamant core – his holiness, his love, his justice, his mercy – even his adiaphora – are the necessary rocks. Christian, Jesus promised, after he returned to heaven, “The Father will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The Spirit of truth will guide you into all the truth. (John 14:16,17; 16:13).
Sucking out (some of) the marrow-nourishment from the bone-words with you,