Sunday, May 07, 2017

Seminary CM2: The Making of Meaning

This is the second post on the Contexts of Ministry  in my Seminary in a Nutshell series. See the bottom for the previous posts in this unit, "The Person and Contexts of a Minister." I have completed one other unit in this series, The Pastor as Leader.
1. It is natural for us as humans to assume that the meaning of things is generally intrinsic to both words and the world. Of course these meanings are not obvious to a child. A child is constantly learning the meanings that their context assigns to words and things. By the time we reach a certain point of maturity, we know these meanings and eventually assume that they are obvious and innately attached to words and things.

What has really happened, though, is that we have become more or less unreflective about the meaning of things. [1] The assigning of meaning to words, to things, and to events is a similar process with some differences. In each case, these meanings are largely assigned by our contexts. To a great extent they are not "in" the words or things themselves.

A red light means to stop not because there is something intrinsic to the color red that means stop but because our context has assigned that meaning to the color. Now, there is no doubt a history here. We can imagine that the background here is the fact that our blood is red and that bleeding signifies potential danger to our health. Thus red means stop or red means danger.

But it would not have to be that way. I have never had the thought of the previous paragraph my whole life of fifty years until this morning. There are probably cultures where red is just another color. There could be a culture where red could mean "go" for some reason. And in any case, while history often leaves traces, it plays no determinative role in what things mean today. Past meaning does not determine present meaning. To say otherwise is to commit the etymological fallacy.

So meaning in the present is always "synchronic" (a matter of today and the interrelations of current meaning), even though current meaning developed "diachronically" (that is, over time from the past).

2. There can of course be a basis for meaning in the world itself. Blood is an aspect of the world, and it absorbs certain light frequencies by nature. The use of red to signify a danger thus has a basis in the world itself even though the meaning of the word "red" and the significance of a red light are in no way fixed by that real world origin.

Words may have originated in human culture as pictures of sorts, as we see with Egyptian hieroglyphics. There may originally have been a resemblance between words and the things to which they referred. However, language has become far richer than mere references to things, as we will mention below.

There do seem to be some basic categories of reality that suggest common items of interest for any culture or language. Aristotle suggested ten such categories. To give my own modified list, these include:
  • quantity (how much)
  • objective characteristics (shape, color, hardness, etc)
  • location in space (where)
  • location in time (when)
  • relationship (to environment)
In addition, we can give a number of possible relationships between a thing and its context or between one thought and another:
  • recurrence (the same thing again)
  • sameness
  • difference
  • general followed by particulars
  • particulars ending with general
  • preparation
  • conclusion
  • cause to effect
  • effect to an explanation or substantiation of cause 
This small number of categories and relationships do seem to be intrinsic to the world and thus give an objective basis for language and the assignment of meaning by culture. However, the ways in which human beings create language and assign such meanings varies widely from people group to people group. They provide a certain objective framework for reality, within which individual and group subjectivity reign supreme.

3. The meaning of words is overwhelmingly a matter of use in a context. [2] Words are not mere referents to things. To what thing does the word is refer? What about righteousness? Words change meaning over time as contexts begin to use them in new ways and stop using them in old ways.

Even when words do point to things, they do so according to the meanings assigned to those things by the culture in question. The word dog may refer to a certain objective species in the world, but the significance of a dog can vary widely between Malibu, California, sub-Saharan Africa, and China.

Words do things. [3] They do not merely inform. They also command, promise, warn, marry people, make you a minister, and many many more things. These functions of words are assigned by contexts. They always have some basis in history, but their present meaning is entirely a matter of how words are being used now.

This understanding of the meaning of words obviously has great significance for our understanding of the Bible. The Bible does not have one meaning from God to all times and all places. That is just not how words work. Anyone who thinks this way mistakenly is assuming that people in all other contexts have understood the same meaning to words, things, and events as they understand. This is not only mistaken but is ludicrous to the highest level of cultural ignorance.

There are meanings to words, events, and things that at least approach universal significance (e.g., love) but even here there would be significant difference in how love plays out. A key is to recognize that universal meaning, to the extent that it exists, exists because of commonality between contexts, not because any meaning transcends context. That is to say, context is still determinative of meaning in such cases. Universal meaning results only from the fact that something means the same thing in all contexts.

4. You can see that the distinction between "denotation" and "connotation" is blurred once language is more accurately understood. There is no clear line between "what a word means" and "the overtones a word has in a particular context." There is really only "what a word means in a context." Nevertheless, when words do refer to things (e.g., dog), we can make a rough distinction between the denotation of the word (its objective referent) and its connotations.

Metaphor opens up the door for a seemingly limitless possible number of new meanings that take place as we compare two things that are not the same. Paul Ricoeur (1913-2005) spoke of the dual "is" and "is not" nature of metaphors. By comparing a person to an island, I suggest new ways of thinking about a person by comparing him or her to something quite different.

Because metaphor and figurative language opens up worlds of meaning that move beyond the literal, they are incredibly appropriate for God, who cannot be captured in literal language. He is, at least in some ways, unfathomable because he is infinite. We can much more easily speak of what he is like than of what he is. Even to use the word "he" is to use an analogy to understand him. He has no genitalia, male or female.

We are thus seeing some principles. The Bible must be incarnated revelation. Since words only have clear meanings in contexts, the Bible must be a collection of instances of God meeting specific people in specific contexts. Yes, the Bible gives us understandings that are common to all human contexts, but the more we understand context, the smaller this set of understandings becomes. All of Scripture is cultural because all meaning is contextual.

Second, we best understand God when we move beyond the literal to the figurative, analogical, and metaphorical. To have the opposite focus is the path to conceptual idolatry, where we mistake our literal sense of God for the God who is beyond finding out. Many a theological misstep comes when we mistake what is anthropomorphic in Scripture for the literal. Similarly, theology is most accurately found in the synthesis of revelation, not in individual instances of revelation. We inevitably construct our theology in the interstices of individual revelations.

4. Cultures not only assign meanings to words. Cultures also assign meanings to things, events, and actions. Again, there are some universal categories and relationships, as mentioned above. But within this framework, there is great variety. So time is common to all cultures, but how time is understood varies. There is nothing intrinsic to reality that says "coming at the precisely set time is virtuous." If everyone in a particular culture knows that 9 o'clock really means 10 o'clock-ish, then that is the proper understanding of time in that place. 10 o'clock-ish becomes "being on time." To think otherwise is simply to reveal that you have never really left your own cultural context. [4]

David Hume (1711-76) pointed out that there is often no intrinsic relationship between facts and values. The "morality" of a culture often varies from the morality of other cultures. In fact, the word morality comes from a Latin word that means "customs." [5] So it is wrong to eat cat in America, but it may not be wrong to eat cat somewhere else. You will look vainly to the Bible for a word from the Lord on this one. It is simply a matter of culture.

There are of course often explanations for why cultures develop certain moralities. It is my contention that animals that we humanize become "unclean" to eat. Westerners generally don't eat horses because they are our coworkers. Dogs and cats can almost be like children. Indians do not eat cow because they may be reincarnated relatives.

For ancient Israel, pigs were the animals of the Philistines and other enemies who served other gods. This fact is far more likely the reason for its prohibition than because of hygiene. Once these enemies no longer existed, the New Testament had no problem now allowing believers to eat pork. Paul himself gives the principle: "I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean" (Rom. 14:14, NIV).

There are of course universal rights and wrongs. Truthfulness is a universal value. Protecting life is a universal value. You can see that these values have their basis in the more fundamental law of love. The scope of this value is revealed in Scripture. It is universal. But the fundamental value of love is intrinsic to humanity. We are built to love our children and our group.

5. These thoughts should provide an adequate starting point for discussing ministry in contexts. The basic thrust is to realize that the meanings of words and things is much less fixed than we generally think at first. In reaction to this reality, the twentieth century saw some backlash. Predictably, "push-back scholarship" developed against the idea of "contextualization," the idea that we should present the message of the gospel in terms that fit the context in which we are presenting it.

For example, you may have heard rhetoric about absolutes and relativism. This rhetoric is usually ideologically sloppy in the extreme and basically serves to protect the default culture of whoever is speaking. It thus is self-serving and group-serving rather than God-serving. It is sloppy because it often confuses forms with substance, ideas with their application, and scope with existence.
  • So the claim that one item is relative does not imply that all items are relative.
  • Everyone is a "relativist" on some issues (e.g., how much you should eat) and even "nihilist" on some (what color jello should you get for lunch).
  • There can be exceptions to a rule without the rule ceasing to be universal.
  • Questions of absolute truth are different from questions of absolute ethics.
Let's just say that the rhetoric you sometimes hear on such issues is usually embarrassingly ignorant. In the end, some issues are relative (as Paul says in Romans 14) and some are not. We have to do the hard work of thinking and working together to figure out which is which. Dismissing something by slapping a label on something is a tool of the mindless looking for an excuse not to change.

Next Sunday: Contexts 3: Cultural Intelligence

[1] You might say that we have become "pre-moderns." This language has been used to assign meaning to history, considering the period before Descartes in the 1600s a pre-modern period. Then from the 1600s to the 1900s is the modernist period, followed by the post-modern era that began in the late 1900s. This is of course yet another attempt to assign meaning to things, in this case history. It is a gross oversimplification, even if loosely connected to people and events of the past and present.

[2] A key figure here is Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), who suggested that the meaning of a word depends on what "language game" we are playing in what "form of life."

[3] The key figure here, building on Wittgenstein, is J. L. Austin (1911-60).

[4] It is significant to realize that many missionaries of the past may never have fully left the United States culturally. I venture to say that there have been many missionaries who lived decades in a foreign country and even may have died on the mission field without ever really gaining true cultural understanding. The culture in which they worked remained a funny curiosity over which they were always superior and in which they never fully participated. What they took to be the Bible may have been little more than the cultural understanding of the Bible they had before they left America. They simply created a colony of their home culture in a different location.

Similarly, those who serve overseas in the military or who make frequent business trips overseas usually do not gain much of a cultural understanding of the locations they are in. They live in little islands of America, often do not learn the language, and may only interact with the surrounding culture on their own terms. Like those who go on short term mission trips, such individuals often think they now know another culture while in reality they never really left home culturally.

[5] The word morality certainly no longer means customs in my cultural context. Past meaning does not determine present meaning.

The Calling of a Minister
The Person of a Pastor
Contexts of Ministry

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