Sunday, February 05, 2006

The Theology of Language

In the previous two posts we reflected on some of the ways humans are beginning to resemble the beasts. It strikes me that another aspect of this shift can be seen in the disintegration of human language. Before seeing how this is so, however, we need to spend some time considering the theology of language.

We don’t often appreciate just how central language is to taking dominion as God’s image-bearers. To be human is to name the world, to speak about it, and to communicate about our world and experience in a way that animals cannot, though of course some animals do have a limited kind of communication. The first job Adam was given as he began to fulfil the dominion mandate was that of naming the different animals. Throughout the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, we see the importance of naming in relation to place, to persons and to time.

Part of what it means for man to have dominion is that man can actually affect his world through his authority to name. Whether an explorer is naming rivers on a map, or a poet is describing a place or experience in our world, or a scientist is giving classifications for future generations, or an historian is dividing human history into periods, how we define our would is bound up with how we experience it. That is why we find that today language is a key tool for our enemy as he too tries to take dominion of the earth. Though we laugh at the absurdities of the political correctness movement, it is an attempt use language as a tool for manipulation and control. It should come as no surprise that all totalitarian movements, from the French and Chinese revolutions to Marxism in Russia, seem to have an element of linguistic engineering at the heart of their agendas. Consider, for example, the way the French revolutionaries changed the way people were allowed to talk about history, instituting a new calendar where the year of the revolution became year one. The contemporary accounts of other revolutions furnish similar examples, and this must be seen in a broader context than merely being an assault on free speech. It is because language has power, so if you want to control the people you have to control the way they speak.

So important is language in God’s economy that the appropriate metaphor for Christ’s incarnation is that the Word becoming flesh. All this should cause us think carefully about the language we use, remembering its spiritual power for good or ill. Since language is at the heart of what it means to be a human being made in the image of God, we should expect that as human beings deny their image-bearing vocation and become less and less human, that their use of language will deconstruct. Jefferson Davis said that attacks on great cultures always begin with the disintegration of language. I want to argue that this is exactly what is happening now, but not in the way we would expect. Sure, there are people who use bad grammar all around (myself being no exception), or who construct sloppy sentences. But this is nothing new, and the real challenge to the human use of language is much more subtle.

Think of the way image is replacing language content as the constructor of people’s opinions. (I have developed this point in more detail HERE.) Think of the way the image a politician conveys is becoming increasingly more important than what the politician actually says. Think of advertising, how in the past newspaper advertisements relied on the content of the language to persuade people to buy a product, whereas now advertisers rely almost entirely on impressions and emotional images.

Language, by its very nature, necessitates linear thinking, which orients the brain towards rationality and sequence. That is why cultures where the primary communication medium is print, have always had a bias for linear, systematic reasoning (a point I have gone to some detail to prove in HERE) Emotional images have always been important for human communication when they are subservient to language content. But what we now have is that language content is becoming increasingly subservient to emotional images. (Neil Postman develops this point in his excellent book Amusing Ourselves to Death.) I find when I talk with people out in the world, even intellectual people, that their worldview is usually formed by a whole network of intuitions and images that become their only means for understanding reality. It was animals who were designed to live by a network of instinct, not humans, and when human beings abandon sequential cognition for instinctive images, they turn themselves into virtual beasts.

Related to this is the way people in Western culture are becoming increasingly unable to view things as a whole. Knowledge, conversation and language tends to be disconnected and fragmentary, rather than cohesive and integrated. There are many areas where we see this outworked: the obsession with specialization, the erosion of interdisciplinary study, the loss of social memory, the fragmented way of teaching history, postmodernism's assault on story and metanarrative.

A few words about the later may be helpful. It has been one of the hallmarks of postmodernism to consciously break up all metanarratives – to see them as inherently bad. As Jean-Fran├žois Lyotard said in the year 1984, "Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towards metanarratives…" According to the postmodernist, metanarratives are bad because they are thought to be controlling. Like systematic philosophical systems, metanarratives are believed to be “totalising” systems that force human existence into a mould that stifles freedom. Furthermore, metanarratives, like totalising philosophical and political systems, allegedly deny the naturally existing ambiguity, disorder and opaqueness of human experience. Postmodernism sees experience as fundamentally random, disorganized and ambiguous, while strongly resisting all influences that might threaten to bring order, continuity and explanation to bear on the particulars of our world.

In many nations now, we are seeing these principles reflected in a deliberate attempt to discourage any sense of national identity and culture – to suppress anything that makes us different from them. In art, we see this trend reflected in the collages that are becoming such a defining feature of the postmodern gallery. In these collages, the random juxtaposition of unrelated images is emphasized. There is no over-arching continuity, no larger themes that help the artwork make sense, because it doesn’t need to make sense; there doesn’t need to be any sense of continuity. Let things just be ambiguous, the postmodernist says, or you are forcing your own categories onto something and that is being oppressive.
We've wandered a bit from the title of this post - the theology of language - but not from the overall theme of this and the last two posts, which is the erosion of the antithesis between man and beast. Postmodernism warns us not to be too rational, too systematic, too cognitive - in other words, it warns us against being too human.
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