Saturday, November 12, 2005

Language and Religion

Many of us, Christian and Non-Christian alike, can relate to the complaint that in Christianity you can often find religion but you can not-as-often find God. Bono, for example is one to say that "religion often just gets in the way of God" (paraphrase). Bono's Dad, for example, who was Catholic but who never accepted God into his life, was sort of miffed by Bono's 90's albums, as he found them to be "irreligious." I, personally, am one who loves God, seeks after His heart that He has planted into my own, His passion and Life. I long for my life to mean something. And I am seeking to either find that in or bring that to the church. Because it is clearly all-too missing, for whatever reason. Below is an very brief and incomplete exploration of one aspect of the reason and/or reasons.

I have found that language is actually the speaking of our soul, and that things other than verbally spoken words can often either very highly resemble language, or be more like language than what we often engage in when we speak. With that said, language therefore constitutes our "world-view". I don't just say that because we say what we see, although partially that, but also because our language actually establishes the limits by which we can see, interact and engage with, and enter into a reality.

"Since language expresses the modes which organize the way we categorize and classify reality, natural languages must be considered as holistic systems. They organize the totality of our vision of the world. It has sometimes been suggested that there are experiences, recognized by other cultures and capable of being expressed in their languages, which are neither recognized by our own, nor even capable of being expressed in our languages. Although this is a rather extreme view, we will coninually be finding ourselves faced with it..." (The Search For the Perfect Language, by Unberto Echo).

Language is often one of the most clear and obvious actual dividing lines between people (geographical and national boundaries only exist on a map); and it is clearly one of the most distinguishing characteristics of the "nations" that emerged onto the scene of Western history between 1700 and 1950 (along with "race"). It is also inherently and inextricably bound to the basic and everyday culture, life and politics of a people. When I say this, I have in mind the differences between languages, and how those differences reflect the differences in a culture.

With that said, over the course of my studies, and especially recently in reading the above-quoted The Search for the Perfect Language, I am finding this truth that language demonstrates cultural differences manifested in the differences between the languages of the Hebrews and the Romans. This is directly related to the question as to why in America we often find "religion", but not God. American culture is, overwhelmingly, by far, more influenced by its Roman roots than by its Hebrew ones. This is no-where more telling than in our language. We speak "English", one of the "Latin tongues". Keep in mind, as mentioned, that our very language actually determines, in some sense, our world. You will see in a moment why the fact that our language is Roman is connected to the "religiosity" (as I've heard it described) of our church-world.

Lets examine the Latin language for a moment. In every language, on the first conditions that has to exist is that there be an established relationship between, from the Latin side of things, what is called "sign and signified." A word is a sign of some signified. The word "table" is a signifier for an actual table. One of the first things that happened in the Bible was Adam's naming of all the beasts of the field. How could beasts be a part of his world, how could he interact with them in any way, until they had names (until they had a significance)? Much less, how could he speak about them?

One corresponding parallel to the relation between signifier and signified is the relation between Form and Content. In everthing we say, we are saying something, there is a content in what we are saying. Also that content takes Form in our actual saying of "what we are saying", that being the "content".

In Latin, there was a clear and conscious distinction between and system of relating signifier and signified. In Hebrew, that was not so much the case. In Hebrew, signifier and signifed takes a back seat to Form and Content. Both Form and content and signifier and signified are about the question of, "OK, so, when we speak, what are we saying?" But with sign and signified, in Latin (and the Pagan tongues in general), you end up with more of a self-referential system that, in the end, points to the limits of the physical world and spends all of its time trying to use that limited language to describe what is outside of those limits. Just do a brief study of the early history of Western Philosophy to see the clear and obvious truth of that statement.

With Form and Content as our starting point, however, the question does not begin with how the sign of our word relates to some image in the mind or to some physical reality; but the question begins with the content of what's being said and who it is saying it. And in the Hebrew tradition, clearly, the beginning of all that is God Himself. "In the beginning God said..." But it is not just a chronological thing going back to the beginning of time. That beginning of Time is present in everything we say, because God is here. Therefore, with Hebrew, language becomes, rather than language being something that essentially limits our world that we then try to use to reach beyond those limits, something that naturally points to God that we can use to bring Him here, praise Him and worship Him. The primary content of all speech, in Hebrew, is God's saying "I love you." "One Early mystic said that, "Man was created out of the laughter of the Trinity."

Now, here's the funny part. It's an astonishingly ground-breaking, and yet ever-so-simple historical fact. Let's re-set the scene first for a brief moment. We are talking about questions of "religion witout God" in America. You have the Hebrews, who speak a language whose basic nature is to naturally point to and praise God (they are the "chosen ones"). You have the Romans, who speak a language that seems to be as much a curse of limits, a closed maze, as much as a blessing, a way to express something. Here's the astonishing fact, which we will see demonstrated in the language of the two cultures in a moment: the ancient Hebrews had no "religion" at all in the first place!

What!? No religion. But that's what they are known for! Uuhh, eerr, I am saying that it's simply not true. Let's go back for a moment to the fact that language is actually the creation of a world, and thereby the defining character trait of a culture. After all, when we look back to the Hebrews, in question as to whether they had such a thing as a "religion", we are looking back to their culture. When we ask about why in America now we often find religion, but not God, we are asking a question of culture. What I am leading to is this: language is not some separate reality from culture or the world. Language is a manifestation of God's creative activity heading toward the eventually-Formed world, and language is also, therefore, a parallel world to the actual one. Language doesn't just describe the world, it both makes the world and is a world.

The reason I am explaining this is because the reason that in America you find religion but not God points to the ancient languages of the Hebrews and Romans. The reason it is true that there was no such thing as "religion" for the Hebrews points to their language. The reason that is a good place to look, if you are engaged in a questioning of culture (the world you live in), is because language actually makes that world!

So, what have I been leading to all this time? What is it about the Roman or Hebrew languages, one or the other, that reveals both that the Hebrews didn't even have such a thing as religion, or why we now often in our culture, more influenced by the Romans, find religion but not God? Well, as discussed earlier, the primary and first relationship in language is either one of "sign and signifed", or "Form and Content"; and they correspond to each other, because they both address the question of "What are we saying when we speak?" That means that there must be some way to actually describe that relationship between signified and signifier or Form and Content, right? Well, that is in fact the case. You would never know this unless you dove a bit into a linguistic study, however, because we take these relationships for granted as "just the way it is." This is why all this came to me in my reading of Umberto Echo's semiological book, The Search For the Perfect Language.

There are two primary ways to describe the relation in Latin between sign and signified in the speaking of a sentence. Both are very telling. One is that the relation is established solely on convention, rather than on nature. Latin is an "artificial language", whereas Hebrew, I think, is more like or more akin to a "natural language." The relationship between sign and signified in Latin is solely determined by a set of rules, determined by arbitrary convention. That's rather hollow, don't you think?! And, coincidence, that's the primary complaint of both the "religios" and the "non-religios" toward the church in which you often find "religion but not God". That all they do over there in that religion is follow a bunch of arbitrary rules. Hmm, coincidence, I think not. Our culture and our language is handed to us mostly by the Romans, and then the biggest complaint of our culture describes the basic essence of Roman language, which is the most defining and creative aspect of culture. Hmm.

The other primary way to describe the relation between signified and signifier in Latin, and actually more primary and important than the above, is the Latin word "religio"! Coincidence? I think not! The word "religio" means "to appeal, to make an earnest plea", and it is often used in reference to judicial "pleas" or to political "appeals" or "pleas". One of the primary ways that the word is used in Latin is to describe the "bind" that a Roman political official has to his office. In those times, the holding of office was seen as a burden, to which you were "bound". This is a perfect description of the relationship the Pagans needed to maintain between their signifiers and their signified. "Bound"!

Their world was governed by a fear that it would at any moemnt fall apart! What would happen if "table" were suddenly no longer related by arbitrary conventional rules to the actual table? So, what is the response? "To bind". "I, the Pagan Emperor of my own world, hereby bind the word "table" to the actual thing-table!" Which translates as the word "religion"!!!!! "I, the Pagan Roman-Catholic Pope of my own world, hereby bind my sign of a relationship with God to the actual relationship with God inherent in my heart that he made in the first place!" See the irony, the problem, the goofyness?

That is in contrast to the tradition of the chosen ones whose world was governed by the God who created and upholds the universe in the first place! There is no need for artificial binding with arbitrary rules! We are made in His image, and our language is a manifestation, a "taking Form" of that image (when we speak, we are speaking "ideas", or "images" that are prestent in the mind), which is the ultimate "content" of all that could ever possibly be said. The world will not fall apart. Don't worry. God made it. That's "finding God", without religion!

In religion is reaching. In God is finding.


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