Don’t Panic: I’ve got five pages of further explanation!
My wife does a very good job of presenting the way the average person perceives me and my words. I think I understand her to be saying that my last two posts communicate to most people two things. First, that words are completely meaningless to me, so I’m free to make up whatever the hell I want. And secondly that I’m better or smarter than everyone else because see beyond their petty common concerns.
I can see how people would see it this way. What I’ve found over the past several years in my own life is that there are messages and ideas that completely repelled me in the past, but after some time I’ve seen that there is validity in them. I think this is an issue of mental stretching. Most ideas have several foundational concepts, that if you disagree with, the idea will seem foreign, scary, evil, stupid, etc. So if I haven’t had time to digest any of those foundational concepts, I’ll reject the idea out of hand. It would be like taking calculus before learning addition and subtraction. I don’t particularly like that analogy because it makes it sound like I’m saying I’ve ‘advanced’ from the common man’s perspective to the exalted plane I’m on now. But I don’t feel that way. I’ve stretched, and progressed. But progress is a neutral word. Progress is good if it’s a creation of beauty and worth, and bad if it’s cancer. And I can’t say that my ideas are closer to sweetness and light or to cancer.
What I know is that I did a lot of reading, thinking, praying, living, and conversing and ended up coming to these uncomfortable conclusions about language. And these conclusions have big ramifications for all spheres of life, especially in morality and religion. So when I skip all the interim reading, thinking, praying, living and conversing, and just drop the ramifications of my conclusion on the subject of religion like a nuclear bomb, it can only come across as if I’m attacking religion. But the fact is that I don’t have anything against my faith. I don’t have any incentive to critique it to death. My sole motivation is to try to figure life out. To find an internally consistent framework for interpreting and evaluating the various theories about life. Even when the answers I find are uncomfortable, confusing, and difficult to integrate into the way I wish to live my life.
One thing that struck me in my search was that it doesn’t make much sense to conduct my inquiries in a medium that I’ve not even thought much about. That medium is language. And I know from experience that medium affects message. Everything I read and hear is being affected by the medium of language, so it behooves me to analyze the nature of this medium and what kinds of messages it facilitates well, and what it has trouble with. And the first thing I found it has trouble with is specificity.
But that doesn’t mean that language is completely arbitrary. Meaning is predicated on consensus. In other words, the larger the group of people you get that agree that a word means something, the more precise that definition is. So there is a continuum of consensus that all words can be charted on. Toward one end you have proper nouns like Josh and Seattle. Because virtually everyone can agree on what those words mean specifically, there’s not a lot of wiggle room. If you say Josh is in Seattle there’s a good 90% chance that the person Josh is in the city of Seattle. But as you move further up the continuum it becomes harder to nail down specificities. Words like verbs: jump, run, fall, and such get stretched pretty regularly, used poetically or hyperbolically. “ I ‘ran’ over here as soon as I heard!” Often really means “I changed shirts, walked to my car, and drove over here as soon as I heard.” But since this is rarely explained, it’s very possible that two people hearing this sentence could come away with two different narratives concerning the events described. And can someone ‘jump’ out of their chair? Well, that’s debatable, you’d have to get really darn specific about the definition of ‘jump’, right? And if you ask 10 people to define jump with precision, you’ll end up with a lot of variety in the answers. So the consensus will not be as high as the consensus of what a proper noun like Seattle means. So does this mean that ‘jump’ and ‘ran’ are completely arbitrary? Not at all! It means that these kinds of words are simply MORE prone to being ambiguous and causing confusion without further inquiry.
Now consider adjectives like delicious, dark, great, lame, etc. Speakers and listeners will bring a lot more of their personal biases and preconceptions into a statement using an adjective. “I was being chased by a ‘huge’ dog!” could mean an average sized dog that seemed much larger to the speaker because they were in panic mode. But again, one can make further inquiries and dig deeper and find out it was actually a terrier. Though this is only possible if the source is interactive, such as a person talking to you. But in a historical document you don’t have that kind of access to the writer. That’s why multiple attestation is SO valuable to historians. If they can learn about a person or event from multiple perspectives they will find different versions, and will have to examine which perspective is more likely to be accurate.
So to reiterate: Proper nouns are very precise, verbs are less so, adjectives even less. Basically, the further you get from a physical example that can be pointed at as reference, the more ambiguous the word becomes. This is because people are bringing their experiences into the equation as they interpret the words. And because of that the consensus regarding the meaning becomes smaller and smaller.
In institutions such as political parties and religion this fact is hidden by consolidating people of like-mind. So when a bunch of Christians who are close to each other in culture and doctrine get together and talk about God they get the feeling that everyone knows what is meant by God and Savior, and acceptance, etc. I think this fosters an inaccurate impression that these words are more like proper nouns than they really are. But the problem to me personally, is that I can’t apply a universally consistent approach to critiquing the claims within this system. That is: I can’t very well say: “MY faith tradition is 100% True as an a priori.” And then turn around and say, “But a Muslim or Buddhist needs to question THEIR a priories.” So in order to have an approach that is universal to all people I actually have to include EVERYONE’S opinions when I try to define words like God, Savior and accept. And when I do that, the words almost evaporate into complete ambiguity.
And I have to confess, I haven’t actually stretched myself that far yet! There is an emotional as well as a practical and philosophical reason for this. The practical one is that no one can hold all the data of what every human ever thinks about these words. The philosophical issue is that even if I COULD consider everyone’s opinion on the words there is no reason to assume that Truth is arrived at via democratic aggregate. However, DEFINITION is determined this way. Although no one took a vote and decided that the world ‘cool’ should grow from a temperature designation to also mean positive, neat, fun, trendy, fashionable and such, the general consensus in western English speaking cultures can caused it to be so.
And the emotional reason that I haven’t stretched myself to the point where I can say that the word God is practically meaningless (This does not mean that GOD is meaningless, just the word) is that I WANT to be able to talk about God. I love God. I speak with Him every day. I live my life according to stories about a man who was purportedly God in the flesh. I don’t want to lose that. And I think it would be catastrophic for me and my family to do so.
However, I can’t simply ignore my ‘discovery’ that theological statements are constructs built on words of sand. Though I’m also constrained by the humility to admit that my ‘discovery’ could be completely bass ackwards. There may be some vital and obvious argument that contradicts these ideas that I either can’t understand or haven’t come across yet.
But until I find an argument that defeats this problem with the medium of language, I’m stuck with a system of understanding theological propositions as extremely arbitrary. Not because I WANT theological propositions to be so. Because I can’t see a way to claim that they are not. And believe me, I’ve TRIED!
C.S. Lewis warns about the post modern tendency to try to ‘see through’ everything. By over-analyzing one can dissect a concept to the point where it dies. Lewis says some amount of this is good, like the ability to see through a glass window into a beautiful garden is good. But if you then seek to see through the garden, and everything beyond it you have nothing left to see. The world becomes meaningless and intangible. But I think there is a natural barrier to this. At least there is for me. And that is the fact that I’m a flesh and blood creature in a physical environment, in relation with others like me. This means I’m forced to make a multitude of decisions every day about how to live my life, how to interact with others, what kind of attitude I want to bring to every situation, and I constantly receive feedback in my emotions about the results of those decisions. To me, this keeps me grounded. I can’t make a decision based on an extremely arbitrary concept. I am forced to order my values and act accordingly. But the interesting thing is that when I do that decision-making, language rarely comes into it.
Sometimes I’ll talk myself through a decision. Or bounce my ideas off others using language. It can be a very useful tool. But as I’ve shown (and have yet to find a refutation) the words used to articulate the reasoning behind my decisions are still often nebulous. It’s quite vague to say that I spend time every evening memorizing Bible verses with my kids because It’s something my dad did with me and I feel like a more grounded, mature person as a result. That statement is enough for me to decide to continue the activity. But dig a little deeper, ask me for specifics and I really can’t give you much. HOW am I more grounded and mature? HOW do I know it was the result of my Bible memorization? I don’t. I just FEEL like it is.
And this is crucial to what I’m trying to communicate in this clumsy medium we call language. Our decisions are not made within language even though it influences us. They are made in a part of our mind that can be called feelings, or spiritual, or emotional, or primal. The fact that I used so many ‘or’s there is another illustration showing the futility of articulating meaning in a medium ill-equipped to communicate it. If we were all telepathic we could communicate on this spiritual/emotional level without words. And you wouldn’t have just wasted your time reading four pages of text trying to figure out what the hell I’m trying to say!
So from my perspective, this view of language is not as radical as it may appear. It is not the tipping point into an infinite abyss of relativity. It is not a rejection of words as a means to understanding, wisdom, Love, God, etc. It is simply a recognition that language IS a medium, and as such it has its strengths and weaknesses. And if we ignore the weakness of the medium we will abuse it and use it poorly. But if we understand the limitations, we can wisely discern when words are inadequate to communicate certain concepts. When Spirit is necessary to breathe life into our minds rather than words alone.
And this brings me back to my thoughts on faith statements and doctrine. Because these linguistic forms cannot use nouns, but instead rely on metaphor, simile and analogies, this leaves so much room for interpretation that consensus evaporates. And the only way to hold consensus together is to form collectives of similar thinking people who tend to interpret the words in similar ways. Thus giving the illusion that the words are concrete and obvious. But in my view, where I attempt to consider a broad range of opinions on the definitions for the words used, I see a vast sea of options. This lack of specificity could lead to helpless relativity. OR (and this is the case with me) lead one to conclude that another medium is at work beneath the surface. The medium of Spirit. Only a unified and transcendent God can take all these divergent definitions and encompass them in any meaningful way.
In a world where there is no “Christianity” but Christianities, no “orthodox” but “orthodoxies”, no Bible but Bibles, (Ever wonder why, if God chose the original cannon of Christian scripture He let the reformers ax 7 books, and if He let that happen, why can’t a future reformation ax more?) in this world of tens of thousands of Christian denominations all insisting that THEY are the ones who are reading and interpreting the Bible correctly… how can any unity exist? Unity can only exist in the medium of Spirit, and only because the medium of language is inadequate to specify absolute definitions of the transcendent. See that? The very LIMITS of language are exactly what are NECESSARY for Spirit to operate. If language could be precise about theological words than unity could never exist. It would be like different groups pointing to a tree, and one insists it’s fish, and another that it’s a unicorn, and another that it’s the color blue. The fact that language is best suited to the natural world, and least suited to the spiritual world creates enough wiggle room to fit odd shaped people together.
No two people can precisely articulate or agree on a definition of God. There will always be a difference no matter how slight it might be. So when I worship God next to you we are worshiping two different CONCEPTS of God, though His transcendence allows us to be worshipping the same Ultimate God. Likewise with doctrinal and faith statements. You can interpret something very different than I do when you repeat a doctrinal statement. And we are both probably off by a wide margin because we are both seeing the words through our dark, distorted lenses. Interpreting the metaphors differently. But if below the medium of Language there is the medium of Spirit, operating in our hearts, our distortions can be accommodated by Grace. The same kind of grace that we intuitively give to young children when they fail to perfectly recite their lessons or otherwise display their ignorance and limitations. Surly if there is a God of Love, He knows that language is constantly confusing and confounding our search for Him.
So where does this leave me on a practical level? How can I gain anything from my religious tradition and scripture if I can’t pin down the words with exactitude? Well, just because I don’t know what a verse means doesn’t mean that I can’t like what I THINK it means and apply that to my life. Sound like a pick-and-choose religion? Well, as I’ve studied the practical application of scripture in authors and speakers too many to count I can see that they are doing EXACTLY the same thing. They just don’t admit it. They pretend that their interpretation must be the right one. And yet somehow this idea that I’m dissecting and killing words out of arrogance is what I’m communicating. My opinion is that it is arrogant to assume you KNOW concrete definitions for every word in your Bible and doctrinal statements. But not the kind of arrogance that says you are better than others. Just the kind that causes us all to coast through life with so many unexamined prejudices and assumptions because at the base of all our epistemology is the idea that we really ARE the arbiter of Truth. That we really CAN understand this world and interpret life better than anyone else. Otherwise, how could we hold any opinions?
So my ‘progress’ if that is what it is, has been to find these unexamined assumptions and examine them. Perhaps I’ve dug too deep and released a Balrog of philosophical destruction that will end up damning me. If this is the case I honestly don’t know where I went wrong. Can you say it is a sin to be curious? To question oneself and one’s own mind? Is God displeased when we seek Truth with our fallible minds? Is He mad if that search takes us out of the Christian box? For how else can one examine the framework one is in without stepping out of it for a better look? Without seeking criticism from outside sources? And if some of those criticisms seem completely valid, what then? How can one decide to return to a doctrine of which one is no longer convinced? If this search is Pandora’s Box, at what point was I warned to never open it? I’m pretty sure I never was. I feel like C.S. Lewis, MacDonald, Francis Schaeffer and Tolkien were behind me the whole time, cheering me on.
What I can say with certainty is that, like every other God-lover out there, I worship the God that I HOPE exists. I live my life by standards that are rooted not in language, but in Spirit. I can’t articulate my doctrine, or tell you exactly what any Bible verse means. I have opinions just like everybody, but I strive to keep them contingent upon further education, maturity or revelation. I recognize the fragility of my own reasoning, and can only hide in the shadow of Grace.