Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Language and Faith

1.       Let us look at the different specialisations that we find around us. There is specialisation in science—like the science of monitoring the weather. There is science of medicine. If we listen to people in these sciences talk and give information we will notice that they speak in particular languages. Well, there are specialists in fields like classical music and sports science. A concert musician can have a very technical language too and we can notice this in the music sheet. A sports expert has a specific language too including anatomy and nutrition. Ok, so maybe we understand some of what they say, but they still have complex words and phrases that belong to their fields of expertise. So when doctors consult each other regarding a patient, they speak in medical language that they understand well…while the patient may have to rely on vague understanding.
2.       Specialists develop their vocabularies and technical phrases to talk about things that concern them. This holds for many things that we probably do not notice. For example if we go a government office and fill in papers, we see how many technical terms to deal with. A document can be filled with technical terms. Maybe when it gets too technical we may need the help of someone—like an accountant or a lawyer.
3.       Well, if there is technical language, there is also romantic language. Look at lovers talking to each other…their eyes glittering with sparks. At some point in their relationship both lovers develop a language of their own—and much of that is private to just the two of them.
4.       Poetry is another form of language. It has its own way of expressing. It can have analogies and images. What is ordinary in daily life may be so emotional in poetry. There are times when we ourselves may be using poetry in our conversations. When we e-mail to a dear friend, we might be adding poetic language too. When we talk of a difficult time in our lives we might use poetic language too.
5.       Language can also mean gestures. We raise our voices, we clench our fists, we move our eyebrows, we shift our stand, we shake our heads…etc. These are not exactly words but they say something. They communicate in a language of gestures.
6.       What do we do with language? Well, we try to understand our experiences and we try to express them in adequate ways. Sometimes we need to be technical, romantic or poetic. If we go deeper and deeper in an experience, we sense the need to express ourselves in a more particular way. We feel that the usual words and phrases of daily life are not enough…so we go into another level of language.
7.       Now, let us talk of the language of faith. If we read books written by spiritual authors, we read a specific language. It is that of faith. Founders and foundresses of religious congregations may have written texts and we see how their writings are marked by a special language—the language of faith.
8.       The language of faith is different from, say, a language of medicine. The language of faith expresses an experience of relating with God. Look at the Bible. It is one big brick filled with the language of faith. We read about the relationship of Israel with God…and the relationship of disciples with Christ. Maybe we note poetry in some parts of the Bible—like the book of psalms. But we notice that there is something more than poetry.
9.       So let us say that the language of faith is the language that talks about God and our relationship with God. Let us check this out.
10.   Some people might say, “God is good”. What might they mean? They might want to say that God does no harm. They might want to say that God provides for their needs. Just look closely, our experience of “good” is really our experience of people doing good. What about God? How accurate do we get when we say “God is good”? Faith language admits that “God is good” but not exactly in the same way that my friend is good. God is good in a way that is beyond the goodness that we see around us. Faith language admits that what is said implies something beyond. Human goodness—like the goodness of my friend—is still a weak image compared to the absolute goodness of God.
11.   Already from long ago, theologians would say that faith language is a “negative way” of speaking. It is a negation. So when we say “God is good” we say that God is good similar to good people. Yet we negate this. We say “God is good” unlike the goodness of people because God’s goodness is absolute. Note: God is ___ yet more than. It is in the “more than” where we apply negation.
12.   There is a challenge here. If we apply negation to mean that “God is more than___”, how sure are we that we are correct? How true is our statement?
13.   Language is limited. Our words, phrases and gestures do not fully grasp and capture reality. We might be approaching reality but we cannot fully capture it with what we say. There is something more than what we say. We may have things to say about our dear friends, and we know that what we say are not enough to fully describe them.
14.   We say that the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening. This is true. But it is also true that the earth revolves around the sun—so it is not the sun rising and setting. See the limits? See the degrees of truth?
15.   Faith language has its different degrees of approaching truth too. In fact in faith language we realize that we approach and not capture a reality—the reality of God.
16.   Faith language can use myths. Myths are not the same as information that we read in historical books. Myths are not necessarily fictions. A myth does not function like a photograph or a video clip. A myth has its own truth. Look at fables. Consider the story of boys throwing stones at frogs in a river. The boys kept throwing stones and some frogs died. One frog raised his head and said, “What is play for you is death to us”. Of course frogs do not speak. But this fable has truth in it. One person’s pleasure can be another person’s pain—this is true.
17.   In faith we have the same. Faith can have something “mythical” in it, but it has its own truths.
18.   The Bible has many myths. The big story we know is the Creation story. It is put in very mythical language. But notice it has truths in it. There is the truth that the world exists and this existence did not arise on its own. The Creation story also tells us that we start from dust and we end in dust. This is true.
19.   Myths express truth in a symbolic way. But faith language also has theophany. (“Theo” means God and “phany” means meanifestation.) In the Old Testament we notice that God entered the lives of Israel by words and action. He entered by “theophany”—by manifestation. Some manifestations are thunder and lightning. It can be a gentle wind or an earthquake. One theophany is the tearing of the Temple veil.
20.   A theophany is a form of language. It is about the experience of something Absolute  that has entered in people’s lives. The truth about a theophany is in the fact that there is an experience. It is an experience of mystery that both fascinates and elicits fear. The experience is undeniable.
21.   Let us look at the stories about the disciples seeing the risen Lord. In the stories the disciples were like “sleeping” before the resurrection. When they saw Jesus risen and alive they “woke up”. They realized all that Jesus was telling them before. In the experience of meeting the risen Jesus, the disciples had to explain. They needed expression to describe the experience of meeting the risen Lord. How was the experience described? It was describe in theophany.
22.   Look at the way the theophany was described: angels in the empty tomb…the different apparitions of Jesus…etc. Jesus is a very special theophany, for Christians. “Who has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn.14/9). God has manifested in Jesus.
Some Challenges of Modernity
1.       Let us take, first, from a German philosopher named Kant. He can be shaking and challenging us. Kant wrote about what he called as “principles of understanding”. He said that we claim to have understanding of things. There is understanding based on experiences. We have had an experience of things and we know them. Kant called this knowledge as “phenomenon” knowledge. But are we sure of this? Maybe there is something out there which is beyond our understanding…beyond our experience….beyond what we know. Kant called it the “noumenon”. Too often, wrote Kant, our understanding does not notice its own limits. We claim to have knowledge of what may outside our experiences. We have no access to that reality outside—yet we claim to know it. All we have in the level of the “phenomenon” but never do we have access to the level of the noumenon.
2.       Because that reality is out there, outside, in the noumenon, we cannot really say if it is true or not true. We cannot say if it exists or does not exit. So when we talk about it and say we are telling the truth…we may only be in illusion!
3.       Let us apply this challenge to faith language. Faith language has ways of talking about God. “God is good” or “God is great” or “God is love”. We might apply the negative approach and say “God is good but not in the same goodness that we find in life. God is absolutely good”. “God is great but not in the same greatness that we find in life. God is absolutely great”. “God is love but not in the same love that we find in life. God is absolute love”.
4.       What would Kant say to all that? Are we really talking truthfully…or are we in illusion?
5.       Spinoza rejects the idea of “mystery”. It is something we can never understand, he says. No matter how hard we try to think, a mystery stays as a mystery. It is beyond our access of understanding. If we say that God manifests, we are not making sense in what we say. Why? Well, God is a mystery—someone beyond us.
6.       What about the Bible? The Bible, for Spinoza, is composed of rational truths. These are truths discovered by reason—by our capacity to think well. There were wise and deep people who used their thinking capacity a lot. They may have put their ideas in writing. If we want to understand them, we can look at their deep thoughts. Their deep thoughts are reflected in what they wrote. We may not understand them so well because they are so wise. But we believe in what they say. The basis of this belief is the fact that the wise authors wrote from the depths of human understanding.
7.       Whatever it is that we read in the Bible is a result of deep thinking of very wise authors. What about the realities they wrote about—like angels and God and the resurrection? We cannot say if they are really true or not but…they make us think. They “give to thoughts”. When we say “resurrection of Jesus” we are not sure if it really happened. But the idea of resurrection makes us think about life and makes us think that in life we are not always stuck in defeat.
8.       Remember that God is a mystery and for Spinoza we have no direct access to this mystery. Whatever religion and the Bible give us, it is simply a deep rational teaching.
9.       Lessing said that the things that happened in the past belong to the past. If they were true in the past, they do not have to be true now. The truth of the past cannot be permanent. Now the Bible tells us that God manifested in history. God’s communication was done in the past.
10.   It will be wrong to accept the truth of the past, for Lessing. If we will use our capacity to think well, we will not allow the past to have authority over us. The past will tell us what to think and even how to think. We will follow what the past had said. But, for Lessing, we must think and think for ourselves. We should not let anybody else or any past idea to tell us what to think.
11.   If there is anything true it will have to come from us. Notice that for Lessing the Bible loses its authority. The Bible is something of the past. It is finished business. So there is no need to let the Bible influence us and say how we must live. For Lessing, we must think for ourselves now. Drop the past, drop the meaning given by the Bible. We need not invest effort there.
Common to all
12.   Notice that there is something common to all three, Kant, Spinoza and Lessing. They all belong to the modern period. They all emphasize the capacity to think. They emphasize reason. What is important is what we see, what we think and what we decide. Beyond this is not important.
13.   In modernity what is important and central is the human reason—the human capacity to think. All truth is what human reason can discover and see. Anything beyond reason is not very important because we never know what is beyond.
14.   Religion and the Bible are all products of human reasoning. It is not wise to speak of what comes from God. Why? We have no access to God. We are not sure if we can know God and if we can know what God is saying. But we know what our thinking processes say. Faith is a psychological act, it is not really about “reality out there”.

15.   If we accept the stands of the three—Kant, Spinoza and Lessing—then we might have to drop our Christian faith. We believe in God and we believe in the reality of God out there. Are we ready to drop this? We cannot ignore what modern thinkers say. They can be correct in many ways. What we need to ask is this: what is the basis of our faith? Try answering this. 

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