Thursday, December 20, 2012

How Language Works...

I was thinking this morning that the most transformative moment in my understanding of meaning took place when I finally understood Wittgenstein, helped my my philosopher friend David Mossley in England.  I continue to be amazed at even Bible scholars, people with PhDs in Old or New Testament, who don't get how meaning works.  In my mind, it is so incontestable that to disagree with it means you don't understand it.

And it's very simple.  "If a lion could speak, would we understand it?"  There's the famous dictum in a nutshell.  It's not enough to know the words someone is speaking.  It's not enough simply to translate the Bible into English.  If you do not know a lion's socio-cultural world, the world that gives us the "forms of life" of a lion.  If you do not know the "language games" lions play with their words, then you won't understand the lion.

The bottom line is that you and I can read the word "sacrifice" in the Bible, but few of us will understand it, because we don't have a form of life in our world where they offer sacrifices as they did in the Ancient Near East.  Meaning is always now.

That means that meaning changes.  I was reminded last week of how the meaning of the phrase "social justice" has changed in the last ten years.  Last week, some professors debated whether this phrase was appropriate at IWU.  Of course that's Glenn Beck's fault a few years back.  Anyone who thinks it isn't doesn't understand Wesleyan.

Before Glenn, the phrase social justice was standard lingo for the use of the word "justice" in the prophets of the Old Testament.  It is an overwhelmingly biblical concept without variation throughout the biblical texts (which is saying something). We had an assignment on it first semester in the seminary, and it was a pretty boring assignment.

Then Beck told his audience that they should leave any church that used the phrase.  He associated it with liberalism and it stuck. The phrase is the same. The background for the phrase is the same. But it now has a different meaning in a lot of circles.  We may have to start using a different phrase because it may be ruined.

Meaning is a function of how words are used and the use of the phrase has changed in many places.  That's why you can't judge meaning by current connotations.  The Germans could translate the response to their demand for surrender at the Battle of the Bulge--"Nuts."  But they didn't understand it because they didn't know the language game of the word in English.

It's not enough to know the English words of the Bible. Frankly, it's not enough to know the Greek and Hebrew behind the Bible. We will not understand the original Bible if we don't know the language games and forms of life in which those words were first written.  And unfortunately, we will never have full access to that ancient world.

And the Spirit often speaks directly to us because those words can take on different nuances in our language games and our forms of life.  We can hear God speak in new ways without even knowing they are new ways. But the "God said it, I believe it" mentality doesn't even know how different he or she is reading the Bible from what it meant to them even ten years ago.

It is usually completely unaware at the historical forces on its own interpretations.

5 comments:

Mr. Mcgranor said...

Social Justice was understood and rejected by more extreme factions (paleoconservatives and old line Protestants) within politics and religion; more sincerely and precisely as Glenn Beck.

Ken Schenck said...

The older phrase was "social gospel," a phrase I have generally avoided for those reasons. It came to mean a gospel devoid of belief that Jesus was God, died for sins, etc. Social justice has only more recently become a pariah, I believe. It was largely unknown on a popular level until Beck, in my understanding, although it was known obviously in certain circles.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

You speak of experience, when you speak of contexts...and contexts in our society are not socially conditioned as much as they were in the ancient world....

The problem with giving a universal "new meaning" to the ancient text, is one that dissolves what Americans have believed about themselves....that we are independent as to our commitments, and we are not socially defined by Institutions....That means that individuals are not determined, except by their innate interests and gifts...

Christopher C. Schrock said...

Dr. Schenck,
Are you aware of any resources following the 'language-game' vein of thought from a Trinitarian/doctrine of the knowledge of God as the basis/ground for language?

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Language games are ways of making meaning, which also has to do with one's past, as much as one's present....two people can experience similar situations and interpret them differently because of the differences of "memory" recorded in the brain, and how family has given a context for the experience to be interpreted....Much has to do with how we perceive ourselves. Family systems are often dysfunctions/dysfunctional, as groups/organizations/State are the "frames" of "becoming evil" for the individual for the organizational goals/vision/purpose....such leaves the commitment to negative liberty and is justified for "the greater good", instead of personal/negative liberties...

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