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Classical Christian Movement

Words and Things

By November 1, 2012January 27th, 2023No Comments

As a theologian, I observe that God has prohibited images in His worship; in large measure because they are non-linguistic. Only language has even a fighting chance of facilitating a correspondence between word and world; image simply cannot do it because images contain no verbs and therefore cannot predicate anything (representative images merely represent what they represent, in varying degrees of precision; they do not and cannot predicate anything about what they represent; a hundred photographs of the Grand Canyon can only approximate, visually, what it looks like when one is present there; they cannot say a word about what they represent).

The digital revolution continues to move from language to image. The original “command line” computers were incapable of image and entirely language- based; later they became semi-capable, and the first GUIs didn’t appear until the mid-1980s, and color editions of these were around by the late 80s/early 90s, after which many “advances” became “advances” in imaging. Almost all (even Kindle, ostensibly a language-intensive device) of the newer digital devices boast improvements in imaging technologies, cameras, and imaging apps. Even cloud computing is largely intended to provide the large amounts of storage that are simply not possible on the devices as the devices themselves become smaller and smaller while the video and photography files become larger and larger. We don’t send a postcard or handwritten note from Scotland, saying, “We had a wonderful evening in the Royal and Ancient with four delightful gentlemen tonight;” we take four or five photos, Tweet or Text them, and expect people to figure out for themselves what happened. So,
at precisely the time when the relation between word and world has become largely dissolved, our technologies also contribute to the same dissolution, by encouraging image and discouraging language (and churches, ordinarily clueless about culture analysis, follow the cultural pattern by expanding their budgets for and uses of, such digital technologies).

Churches (or academic institutions) fairly commonly attempt to “reach the youth” by doing the exact opposite of what they ought to do in our cultural moment. In a moment where there is already a tenuous relation between words and the realities to which they refer, we compose hymns and choruses that ascribe almost nothing to anything else, but merely express how the (so-called) worshiper feels about worshiping. Language is frequently employed in such settings not to say something about Reality, but to say something about how the singer feels. I observed this recently when I evaluated the well-known “In Christ Alone,” which is often regarded as one of the better of the contemporary hymns. When I observed it casually I concurred in the judgment, happy that a hymn had been written about “Christ alone.” On closer reading, I have abandoned my earlier judgment. The hymn is not about “Christ alone;” it is about my being “In Christ Alone.” I had originally thought “what heights of love” referred to Christ’s redemptive love for me, until I read the words that follow: “What heights of love, what depths of peace, when fears are stilled, when strivings cease…” It isn’t Christ’s peace, fears or strivings that are referred to; it is mine.

And therefore, the first expression “what heights of love” probably refers to the love I feel for Christ, not Christ’s love for me. The next three stanzas of the hymn do indeed refer to three important “moments” in the actual life of the Incarnate Christ, summarized by “who took on flesh…‘Til on that cross…bursting forth on glorious day…” But note how rapidly they do so. Previous hymnwriters would have written an entire hymn, with six or seven stanzas about either the Incarnation, or the Passion, or the Resurrection; here, we get just four lines for each. After this, we’re right back to talking about me: “For I am His…bought…No guilt…no fear…This is the power of Christ in me…” The hymn does not sustain any concentrated attention to the work of Christ outside of me; its focus is on my being “In Christ.” The hymn is not heterodox; it says nothing untrue. But, as is true of the culture that produced it, it employs language to talk about subjective feelings rather than to talk about (much) objective reality.

To use medieval language, we have all become “nominalists,” whose words have little to do with world. The theistic refutation of Nominalism is even more important now than ever. Christian Theism is vigorously Realist, and that is so from the very first page of the Bible. Christians refer to Reality as “creation,” reflecting our belief in an intelligent Creator; for us, Reality/Creation reflects or displays the intelligent intention or purpose or meaning of the One who made it: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psa. 19:1).

Further, in some prominent biblical texts that describe the process of creation, this Creator is referred to as Logos (“reason,” “meaning,” “word,” “language”): In the beginning was the Word (ὁ λόγος), and
the Word was with God, and the Word was God (θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος). He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him (πάντα δι ̓ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο), and without him was not any thing (οὐδὲ ἕν) made that was made. (John 1:1-3).

The statement is comprehensive, both positively (πάντα, “all things”) and negatively (οὐδὲ ἕν, literally, “without him, not even one thing was made”). Thus, all that is has been made; and all that has been made, without one exception (οὐδὲ ἕν), is made by this God who, in his Second Person, is entitled ὁ λόγος.

This Creator, who makes all of reality that exists outside of Himself, perceives and names the reality he makes: “And God saw that the light was good…. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night” (v. 5, cf. also vv. 8 and 10). In perceiving and naming what he makes, God recognizes and confirms his creational intent, or meaning. God perceived/saw that “the light was good” before he “called the light Day.” What was (in this case light) preceded his naming it; the reality existed before the name. For the creature made in God’s image, then, the goal of all human perceiving and naming is to approximate, as closely as is humanly possible, the divine perceiving and naming of what is actually there. That is, we are not free to misconstrue God’s creation; to perceive it differently than God does or to name it differently than God does. We are not morally free, for instance, to perceive the darkness as light, or to call it “light.”

We also note that, in the case of God, naming precedes creating; meaning precedes reality: “And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light” (and this pattern recurs through the rest of the creation narrative). Meaning/definition/naming actually precedes the existence of the created thing itself; it is not a mere interpretation after-the-fact. Before a particular aspect of what we call created reality exists, it exists in the mind and speech of God; what it is (light) precedes that it is. Note then the four-part progression: naming–creating–perceiving– naming: “And God said, ‘Let light be’…and there was light…and God saw that the light was good…and God called the light Day.” The meaning-ascribing language brackets the creation of reality itself. Before making, God expresses (verbally/linguistically) what he will make; he then makes it; he perceives that it is “good” (i.e. that it corresponds to his creational purpose), and he calls it what he originally intended it to be (in this case, “light”).

Nominalism reduces this four-part progression to two parts: the existence of something and the naming of it; but Nominalism denies that any meaning precedes existence, and therefore denies any objective truthfulness to the naming that is attached to reality. It is “mere” naming that we attribute to reality; but such naming cannot make any claims of correspondence to the actual nature of reality. For Christian Theistic Realism, by contrast, there is naming/meaning before there is created reality, and naming/meaning after there is created reality; and, in the case of God, the two namings, and the reality they name, correspond. There is a true correspondence, Realism would say, between naming and nature, between language and reality, between word and world. The truthfulness, then, of all human naming/meaning, is dependent on, reflective of, and responsible to, the divine naming/meaning. If God names/describes his creation as orderly, we are not free to name/describe it as disorderly; if God names/describes his creation as harmonious, we are not free to name/describe it as dis-harmonious.

The Christian church could (if she were perceptive enough to do so) provide an alternative view of reality by her liturgy and by the lives of individual disciples. Her liturgy contains lectio continuo, for instance, in which large portions of (linguistic) Scripture are read in consecutive order in the service. The (linguistic) Scriptures are also proclaimed in Word, and in the liturgy of the Eucharist. Her prayers and hymns provide linguistic means by which the congregation replies to God’s offering of Himself in Word and Sacrament. The whole event is highly linguistic, and in the process of being so, the event implicitly declares its confidence in language to address reality (indeed, to address Reality).

Individual disciples of Christ also express confidence in language’s relation to reality when they commit themselves to a lifelong task of understanding and obeying the will of God as disclosed in Holy Scripture. They regard as true even the abstract language communicated by Christ’s apostles, such as in Philippians 4:8, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there
is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” How could we “think about” (λογίζεσθε) things that have no existence or reality? But, for Christ’s apostle, some things really are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, or worthy of praise, and Christ’s disciples concur with Paul’s judgment.

In liturgy, education, and individual life, then, Christians should continue to regard and employ language as a reliable (though often imperfect) guide to reality outside of the subjective experience thereof. We continue, despite all the mystery associated with it, to serve the “true and living God,” who has disclosed Himself supremely when his “Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” Language can indeed be employed to talk about feelings; but in a culture that does little more than this, we are hardly counter-cultural if that is all we employ it for.

God is a “fortress,” regardless of how we feel about His being one (Psa. 46). He created the heavens and the earth, regardless of how we feel about His having done so. He is so holy that only saying it three times catches the weight (Isa. 6), regardless of how we feel about His holiness. His Son will deliver us from the coming wrath (1 Thes. 1:10), regardless of how we feel about that coming wrath or our deliverance therefrom.

For educators, especially, our moment requires a resistance to the various fads, trends, or technologies that obscure the relationship between word and world, between words and things: There are really no “visual learners” or “auditory learners;” there are linguistic learners, who employ all five of their God-given senses, aided by language, to name and perceive reality around them. Images, and the digital technologies that display them, can make no propositional statements about reality; only language can do so. Images may dazzle our students; images may amuse our students; but images simply make no statements about what is real or not, what is virtuous or not; what is beautiful or not; what is worthy of praise or not. “Reflection papers,” that describe a student’s feelings about a matter, cannot rightly replace descriptive or evaluative papers that describe the thing itself and/or evaluate it within a theistic framework.

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