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.


I found your blog while checking to see who else listed Discreet Charm of the Bourgoisie among their favorite movies. There are only three of us on all of blogspot. I love what you said about the ancient Hebrews having no religion -- something I was discussing just recently with my brother, who is a fairly serious amateur scholar of these things. Until the laws laid down for the construction of the ark, and the dietary codes, and the rules for ethical behavior, which happened during the wanderings in the desert, many many generations of Hebrews were held together by a belief in a common ancestor, Abraham (through Joseph), and by Abraham's belief in single God. And that was it--no ritual, no hierarchy, nothing we would call a religion, as you so convincingly stated.

The odd things is, I haven't seen Discreet Charm for twenty years, maybe longer. I have no idea whether or not it would still hold up for me. I just know that in college it was a universe I kept wanting to go back to and never forgot.

I've just started my blog tonight, just dipping into this new universe.



Thank you for reading my blog. That in itself is more than I usually expect from most people, to be honest. I hope it wasn't too long ago that you posted this commnet. I haven't been keeping up much with my blog site lately.

Anyway, I wanted to respond to your comment. I'd be curious to hear more of what moves you to be interested in the first place in the idea of the ancient Hebrews having no religion. I mean, after I wrote this blog, I became afraid that I had possibly given an idea that I didn't really intend, one that is difficult for me to put into words.

I, for one, am a "Christian". I am not against ritual (especially, I practice the ritual of communion sometimes), nor going to church. The rituals that the Hebrews DID eventually practice came out of STORIES of God's relation with us. The rituals that I practiced came out of that lineage of stories. I consider myself a part of that story, and a part of a community of people who are COMMITTED to following God as best they know and are able and willing.

To clarify, what I took a stand against in this blog was the arbitrary binding that we ourselves initiate and hold to as if our lives depended on it. A closed system of self-referencing; a system handed down to us primarily by the Romans (rather than the Hebrews or Christ himself), which even the church seems to have adopted as its own in many ways. At the very least, many in the church don't seem to know the difference between the system they've adopted and any other "options", if that could be the correct word for what it is that does hold the world together (that being God Himself, the Rock, the Word).

I know that many "religous" people in general, and especially my fellow "Christians", like to "argue" about these things while being less than well-educated on the matters at hand. That is understandable, since the "matter at hand" (the Prime Substance, if you will, or even history, the two of which of course, go together) is rather difficult to sort through. I mean, my life is difficult enough to understand.

I would like to clarify something else, however. When I say I "practice rituals", I don't mean that those rituals are what "bind" me to the One that holds the world together however He sees "fit". When I say I practice ritual, I think of a few things that help me to understand what ritual is. I think of the Neoplatonic doctrine of emmanation. Ritual is a likeness of physis. Ritual comes out of belief in the same way that physis comes out of "The One". And if my "belief" is in "The Almighty" (One), then my ritual is almost no different whatsoever from Plotinus's immanence.

Another thing I think of when I think of ritual is what it means to DWELL on earth. Earlier tonight I read read "Building, Dwelling, Thinking", by Martin Heiddegher. I am an Architect, so I think about this a lot. It's been said my many that Architecture is human ritual taking form. Ritual places us, it orients us. It's like a pattern, like the sun rising every day. I mean, the Aztec's used to line up in the THOUSANDS - EVERY DAY, to have their head chopped off to assure themselves that the sun god wasn't too angry at them not to send the Light of the world out again the next day. A human's gaze upon each next moment is like Euridyce's gaze upon Orpheus just before he looks back at her. We can't look back, but to practice a ritual does not mean that we look back.

To keep our eyes in the front of our head, where God put them, to accept the human limits of our vision the way God ordered it, and to seek "after" He who made us this way, is not to look back upon the enclosure of Plato's cave. Because God is the Sun. But He is also the Rock upon which we stand - and take a step foward.

Our own systems of bidning ourselves to the world, to physical objects, to our perceptions or even worse, our own systems of binding language to reality (how absurd!) - they are not solid ground. That's what I was trying to say.

But I do believe that there IS a solid ground. It's "immanence" here in this place looks SOMEWHAT like what most people think of as "religion", maybe even one PARTICULAR "religion". But only somewhat, really, especially in America (I, for example, am currently reading "The American Religion", by Harold Bloom, which argues that most Americans who claim to be Christian are really more some uniquely American combination of Gnosticism (primarily), Orphism and Enthusiasm - to me he seems to be pretty much right on the money).

I meant to add one more thing. The fact that one of the earliest stories of the story of "God's people" (starting with Abraham) is a story of the almost-sacrafice of his son seems rather clearly to indicate some relation to previously existing ritual sacrafices practiced by just about ALL ancient people's (including, probably, Abraham and his entourage before this particular story). To find ANY ancient peoples who did not practice some form of ritual, probably even specifically ritual SACRAFICE, would be quite the challenge. Abraham's model, or precursor, probably came from the Babylonians, or the "land of Ur" from which he came. There are other stories of sacrafice in the Bible even before this one involving Abraham. See Cain and Abel, for example. Thanks again.

Concerning hierarchy - the whole point of what I was saying is that God is king. I pray often for the coming of the "kingdom of God". The difference between what you are seeing, which I think is the Truth, and not-that, is the difference between the idea of the Pharoh ACTUALLY BEING the "image of God" on earth, recieving special revelation from Rah, and ALL OF US ACTUALLY BEING the "image of God" here on earth. This is why God din't want to give Isreal a king when they first requested it. When we live by our own systems, the necessary precondition is our own conception of ourselves as holding some kingship. The nature and range of that kingship depends upon the nature and range of the system.
I've always said religions were created by the guys who didn't understand what the spiritual dudes were talking about...otherwise we'd just have a whole bunch of spiritual dudes walking around.
Hearing and listening are not the same thing. Listening implies action.
My defintion of 'ORIGINAL SIN' is "Not Listening".
your humble servant,
Ancient Clown
Ancient Clown,

This might sound like a dumb and obvious question, but how many religous dudes do you know who claim not to be spiritual? As a mirror, therefore, there aren't any "just religous" folks running around. So why bother with the statement that, "otherwise there would just be a bunch of spiritual dudes running around"? When I mentioned in my blog the idea of finding religion, but not God, I don't think this was what I meant. You seem to me to be making a point that is either arbitrary or from a different source.
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