Monday, April 12, 2010

Basic Ideas Post 3: Words

You may have noticed that when we talk about basic ideas, we’re using words. You may also have noticed that in talking about the Bible as a source of fundamental knowledge, this also involves words since the Bible is a book written using words. Furthermore, we called it God’s words. If you haven’t noticed, the God of the Bible is a very verbal being. In creation, many of God’s acts of creation are described as speaking. God spoke the world into existence. He spoke something out of nothing. The Hebrew tradition concerning the Ten Commandments isn’t to call them the Ten Commandments; it’s to call them the ten words. In the scriptural account, it appears that God created Adam and Eve with knowledge of language. They didn’t invent language or discover it; they simply awoke talking and thinking in words. They were able to communicate with God and each other in words. Of course, Genesis also explains at the Tower of Babel, the Divine origin of the confusion and multiplicity of languages. Throughout the Bible, God seems quite unconcerned with the fact that language is a useful medium for his revelation. It appears that he takes it quite for granted that while words might have some ambiguity in the fallen human mind, they are more than an effective way to communicate. God also describes Jesus as the Word of God or the Divine Logos, a word that means more than word, also logic, reason, argument, order etc. But it does also mean word. When the prophets speak in the Bible, they often say “the word of the LORD” or “the word of the LORD came to so and so” or “proclaim the word of the LORD” and such phrases. There is constantly an emphasis on word, or words, or messages from God in human language.

The postmodern person who thinks that language is a human invention, or the nominalist, a person who doesn’t believe that universals exist, all this reliance on language as a way of trying to communicate truths that are allegedly objective could be a bit troubling. But it really shouldn’t be. I believe the traditional answer of Christian theologians and Augustine in particular suffices. God created human beings in His image. Part of this creation of humans in His image is that, like him, human beings are verbal beings. We are able to understand language and express ourselves in language. Furthermore, the language that we understand is not purely referential. We don’t merely have words for things we can point to and see. We also have words for things we can’t ever see but yet we know what they mean. Words like justice, freedom, unity, truth, beauty, property, negligence, agreement, consideration, law, justification, mercy, tenderness. All these words are what we call universals, that is, words that everyone seems to know and understand the meaning of but that no one has ever seen in their pure form, that is, unless perhaps you have seen God. It is also the tradition of Augustine and many other Christian theologians that the positive universals are embodied in God himself. As Plato said, and we’ve mentioned before, God is preeminently the measure of all things. He is the origin of language and the origin of the meaning of the universals. The positive universals in one way or another describe aspects of God. For this reason, while they each have a distinctive core meaning, the meaning of positive universals tends to get fuzzy the more broadly you examine them. It’s difficult to tell the difference sometimes between righteousness and justice, or beauty and goodness and while each of them is distinctive, they tend to blend together at the edges. This is because God is one and you can’t really divide Him up into pieces or sections. And yet, all of these words find their referential in God’s character, personality, and nature. Negative universals are those things that find their opposite or find their meaning by being unlike God such as evil, hatred, bitterness, envy, and other sins and destructive impulses, emotions, and ideas.

Now, in saying this, we’re not saying that human’s understanding of language is perfect. Our understanding and use of language was affected by our fall into sin, just like every other aspect of our personalities. But language is still practical for working purposes. While it may take a lot of discussion for us to come to an agreement about justice, we all, more or less, know it when we see it, provided that we’re honest with ourselves and others. We often times want to redefine justice in order to justify ourselves or to make a complicated concept simpler than it really is. While there have been many attempts by philosophers to define words like justice, they fail. It simply isn’t possible to provide a perfect definition of any universal in words, deeds, examples, or concrete reference other than by reference to God himself. And yet we can talk about what those universals mean in various aspects. So, while many definitions of justice may tell us something about justice itself – Socrates idea that justice is doing your work excellently and minding your own business – Plato’s idea that justice is living by what we know of the divine – Aristotle’s idea that justice is giving to everyone according to their deserve – or Justinian’s three fold concept of justice that includes hurting no one and rendering to everyone his due – are all good, but are not the last word in Justice. For the last word on Justice we have to look to the Word of God Himself.

No comments: