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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Sacred words

In a previous post, Exodus, we discussed the idea of a "biblical worldview." There is a notion that has been popular in some Christian circles that the Bible teaches one worldview. It follows, then, that one of the main reasons to read and study the Bible is to understand this one worldview. If we understand this particular way we should view the world, then we can align ourselves with it. Put another way, we can "think God's thoughts after him" and think the way God wants us to think.

But this view seems subject to many problems. First, a worldview encompasses far more than one's intellectual beliefs. Most of what makes us tick is deeper and non-cognitive. Psychologically speaking, we can discuss the subconscious and the drives that dictate behavior. For example, what leads us to make an impulse buy? Or, conversely, to despise all impulse buying? Life is deep. It just doesn't work to cognitively believe the "biblical worldview" and then think that this will auto-magically translate into deep spiritual transformation. Life doesn't work that way.

Another snafu in "the one true biblical worldview" perspective is that the Bible itself seems to have many many different ways of viewing the world. One example of this is that the book of Proverbs seems to praise the wisdom tradition, while the book of Ecclesiastes seems to undercut and destabilize the wisdom tradition.

Perhaps we can develop an alternative approach to the Bible.

20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein spent much of his life thinking about language. He wrote a small little book called the Tractatus at a young age, believing that he had solved all of the problems of philosophy. Later he decided that there was more to be said.

Wittgenstein directed us back to language as "use." What is language? How do we determine meaning? Look to see how it is used. We share language with each other, so language is a public exchange, which is why we can understand each other. But for this reason, it also changes and evolves.

Language is like a city, Wittgenstein says, that evolves over time. We tear down buildings and build new ones. We redirect or widen roads. Having visited Wittgenstein's home city of Vienna, I could see that this was the case. The layout (or "language") of the city has clearly changed in accordance with the way people have needed the city to function. We do the same when we speak, we construct words and phrases and use them to do what they need to do. Currently, we are using new words and terminology to describe new technology. We are using this language to help us discuss and even to think about this new technology.

Without language we cannot think. The more restricted our language, the more difficult it is to understand and process our world. This is an insight that Wittgenstein made much use of in his philosophy.

So, what is the Bible? It is language that helps us think about God, life, religion, spirituality, psychology, wisdom, love, pain, relationships, self, sacrifice, and on and on the list could go.

The often-quoted passage on biblical inspiration mirrors Wittgenstein's idea of language as use. "All Scripture is God-breathed (theopneustos) and is useful for......" The passage uses the literal term "God breathed" (not "inspired") and it immediately qualifies it as a pragmatic thing: usefulness.

The language of the Bible is God-breathed in direct connection with its ability to be used as such. The early and medieval church had a much better understanding of this. They used the language of Scripture for many diverse purposes.

So, what if we make this suggestion: The Bible is something like a sacred language that some of us use to discuss life as we know it.

Because the Bible is language, it has limits. Theologians throughout history (Christian and non) have held that many of the most sacred things (including God herself) are ineffable. That is, they cannot be described with language.

At what point should language cease to describe? What is the role of silence? And can we use the language of the sacred texts together with silence? These are important considerations if we believe that some things are deeper than words.

These observations accord with what we know about ourselves and others: that much of who we are seems to operate in non-cognitive ways, ways that we can't always put into language.

So rather than being the foundation for a biblical worldview, the Bible becomes the language we use to describe what we can describe; but it also leads us to the limit of language, bidding us to explore areas of life and reality that the text itself cannot describe.

Describing Vienna is one thing, trying to navigate its twists and turns is quite another. Reading about a city has limits but is very useful. Experiencing a city opens it up for a whole new realm of experience. And then there is the evolution of a city that lies beyond all the comprehension of language or experience. This is the totality of its complicated developments as time winds on, the myriad exchanges between people and the experiences they share. There is no one philosophy of a city that is comprehensive for language to describe its totality. The totality of a city is greater than words, deeper than language. And in the same way, there is no theoretical, linguistic description that can do justice to life or to the sacred.

There is no one biblical worldview. There is language. There is us. There is reality. There is God. Somewhere in that mix something meaningful and profound may arise. In my mind, this makes our analysis of the Bible far more important. Rather than just a systematic answer key with a "biblical worldview" as its end goal, we must continually examine and re-examine the language and words we use. "It takes a village." Yes, but more than that, our views are formed by the language we use. This is actually where the "biblical worldview" people get it right: our words are important. But we all must struggle with our language, because in the end it isn't about getting the right language, but about understanding something much deeper. Possibly, it is about not understanding something.

For this reason, the language of other denominations and other religions (and non-religions) becomes important. Not to prove them wrong, but to serve as a possible corrective to our language.

We must discuss, we must think, we must engage, and paradoxically we must let be.


Daniel Lowe said...


To piggy back off of your 2 Timothy usage, have you considered this - the idea of Scripture being God-breathed follows in a tradition beginning in Genesis 1, then most obviously seen in Ezekiel 37. Genesis 1 uses the term nephesh [breath, spirit, wind, etc] which God breathes into both humans and the rest of creation so that they became living beings. Ezekiel 37, valley of the dry bones, describes the life giving breath of God. Following in this, if Scripture is God breathed, how then do we understand it, not simply as something we use, but as an actual part of the conversation that shapes the way in which we see God at work in the world, in history**, and now both in, through, and outside of the Church? And, in light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ?

It seems to me that if we approach Scripture as simply a tool, as something that we use, then we run the risk of missing out on a vital part of the conversation that helps to inform our own worldviews.


**History = salvation history in relation to the missio Dei, though not limited to Jewish and Judeo-Christian history

Jonathan Erdman said...

Hey Daniel,

Good comment. I agree with you, completely.

My point was not to suggest that we approach Scripture simply as a tool, but that it be used (as you well said) to breathe life as well and "an actual part of the conversation that shapes the way in which we see God at work in the world, in history, and now in both."

This idea runs counter those who limit its use. That's why I mentioned those in church history who had broad and diverse uses of Scripture. Aquinas talked about this, as did Origin.

So, my idea of "use" means that we not restrict our hermeneutics, as the Reformers did. These kinds of restrictions (such as a literal-only approach) are often made in order to try to get at the so-called one true meaning of the text. It is quite similar to what the "biblical worldview" people do. Sacred texts should never be restricted in this way.

Here is an interesting section from the Catholic Catechism that talks of "the four senses":

115 According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral and anagogical senses. The profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church.

116 The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation: "All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal."83

117 The spiritual sense. Thanks to the unity of God's plan, not only the text of Scripture but also the realities and events about which it speaks can be signs.

1. The allegorical sense. We can acquire a more profound understanding of events by recognizing their significance in Christ; thus the crossing of the Red Sea is a sign or type of Christ's victory and also of Christian Baptism.84

2. The moral sense. The events reported in Scripture ought to lead us to act justly. As St. Paul says, they were written "for our instruction".85

3. The anagogical sense (Greek: anagoge, "leading"). We can view realities and events in terms of their eternal significance, leading us toward our true homeland: thus the Church on earth is a sign of the heavenly Jerusalem.86

118 A medieval couplet summarizes the significance of the four senses:

The Letter speaks of deeds; Allegory to faith;
The Moral how to act; Anagogy our destiny.87

john doyle said...

"The Bible is something like a sacred language that some of us use to discuss life as we know it."

Why a "sacred" language, as opposed to say a historic or poetic or technical or polemic or political language? Because it's "God-breathed" I guess, and God is sacred. To me it reads like ordinary language being used to talk about particular topics. It's not particularly hard to understand. The "God-breathed" idea makes it seem as if, behind the ordinary language, there is some other non-verbal transcendent language expressing itself through the Bible to those who have ears to hear.

"Because the Bible is language, it has limits."

All language has limits. The words we use to talk about something never capture the entirety of the thing. In that sense even a rock is ineffable to some extent. One question is whether language gets closer to the thing or farther away from it. I.e., does language impose a barrier between you and what you're talking about? Similarly, does consciousness get you closer to the object of your thought, or does consciousness impose itself as a barrier separating you from the object?

Jonathan Erdman said...

ktismatics: Similarly, does consciousness get you closer to the object of your thought, or does consciousness impose itself as a barrier separating you from the object?

That's a good way of looking at it.

Ktismatics: Why a "sacred" language, as opposed to say a historic or poetic or technical or polemic or political language?

To say that the Bible is a "sacred language" is simply my choice, my choosing to orient myself toward the Bible. One can, perfectly legitimately I might add, read the Bible as a historic work, a collection of poetry (as in the Psalms), a work of science, a science fiction novel (apocalyptic/Revelation), a very popular work of religious literature, a sociological and anthropological exploration of human society, etc. I think all of these are legitimate approaches due to the nature of the text.

My purpose in calling it a "sacred language" is to define the dominant way in which I, myself, choose to approach the text; I was not suggesting that this is the only way or that others need to also approach it as a sacred text. In fact, we learn much by not approaching the Bible as sacred literature, quite frankly. But nonetheless, I do have a dominant sense of the sacred when I think of my primary hermeneutical orientation, there is this God-breathed sense that I resonate with. And yet the way in which "inspiration" (so-called) has been defined theologically, at least in my circles, leaves much to be desired for me. Starting with Wittgenstein and analyzing the way language is used makes sense as a starting point for me.

K: The "God-breathed" idea makes it seem as if, behind the ordinary language, there is some other non-verbal transcendent language expressing itself through the Bible to those who have ears to hear.

I don't know that I agree with this, but I may not understand what you are saying, either. Could you expand this thought? It sounds like an important point, one I would like to engage a bit deeper.

john doyle said...

You say it's God-breathed because it's useful. Useful to the reader or to God? I don't follow, so I was trying to infer your meaning. Is all useful language God-breathed; e.g. a cookbook, a Spanish-English dictionary? To me God-breathed is something God says, just as Erdman-breathed would be something you said. To speak you have to breathe, the air goes across the vocal chords...

Jonathan Erdman said...

Okay. Good question.

Sure. One might consider a cookbook sacred. One can (and perhaps should) consider anything and everything to be sacred.

The term theopneustos, God-breathed, is a metaphor, I think. That is, we shouldn't try to nail down the precise meaning. Theologians have tried, and I find their attempts to be insufficient and unsustainable.

I was just saying that in context, the Scripture passage on "inspiration" (so-called) was not about constructing a "biblical worldview" but about the fact that scriptures have good practical value. This practical value is in its possible ability to transform.

My thoughts on what the Bible mean as "sacred words" would come first from recognizing the limits of language and second from using scripture in a transformative way.