Wednesday, December 07, 2005

More on Language and Meaning

On Toward2015 Eric Turner wrote:

The challenge that I see is daunting indeed. When the meaning of language is in the hands of the hearer (or reader), then I don't even know how to have a conversation. I cannot count on my words meaning anything resembling what I intend them to mean, nor can I be confident that what I hear another saying is vaguely like the idea in their mind that they are attempting to transmit to me. Without shared language, relationship, even at the most rudimentary level, is impossible, reconciliation is meaningless and as a society we would be doomed to anarchy.

You are right, Eric. It is no accident that postmodernism traces its roots to the anarchism that prevailed in France in the 1960s, and its product is intellectual, linguistic, theological, philosophical, etc., anarchy. The problem is that anarchists when they take control, as they have done in the Episcopal Church, become unyielding tyrants.

Stanley Grenz pointed out, "the postmodern ethos is centerless. No clear focus unites the diverse and divergent elements of postmodern society into a single whole. There are no longer any common standards to which people can appeal in their efforts to measure, judge, or value ideas, opinions or lifestyle choices" (Grenz: A Primer of Postmodernism, page 19).

Language is, we are told, socially structured, and those on the anarchist end of the spectrum believe that they are doing us a service is loosening the deadening social holds from the past that limit the capacity of language, and then beginning the process of reconstructing it. The words become more fluid because the whole worldview behind them is no longer tied to yesterday's objectivities. Language, they believe, is one of the instruments that detains us within an outmoded mindset, but the truth is that as we loosen our grip upon language as we have received it we find ourselves moving away from notions of objective reality.

The difference between an orthodox Christian and a revisionist Christian when it comes to the manner in which we handle the text of Scripture is that those of us who are orthodox seek to unlock its meaning using objective, scientific, and empathetic tools to interpret what the author intended. The postmodernist believes text and interpreter must engage in dialogue as equals, or even with the text subservient to the reader, so that there can be an intersection between the horizon of the author
and the horizon of the interpreter.

The truth is that this creates exactly our environment, for as the Windsor Report put it, we begin to handle the text in such a manner that it echoes our predispositions rather than informing and shaping them from the mind of the author. The postmodern deconstructionist goes as far as saying that the text's meaning cannot be confined to the author's intention or even the reader's understanding and that it is meaningless to claim that any one interpretion of a text is necessarily correct in itself. As I engage with revisionist theology I am constantly coming
face to face with such anarchy.

The outcome is an approach to living, speaking, and believing that is highly speculative and totaly inconsistent. It leads to such thinking as what is right in one environment or setting may not be right in another (The Presiding Bishop's heresy). The problem with this is that the postmodernist cannot be consistent, and attempts to steal orthodox clothing, assuming that there is such a thing as right and wrong. If we are going to be truly contemporary in our thinking then we must
effectively say that something that is right for me, that self-actualizes me, is not going to necessarily be right for someone else. Furthermore, because it is right in this particular instance, need it always be right?

One of the best things I have learned from this postmodern melange is that there is no such thing as a totally independent, objective observer, and that we all stand and interpret from within the continuum of time and history. This inevitably colors my response to truth, text, God's revelation, whatever. Thus, in a way when I engage the text my horizon does intersect with the author's horizon and I am bound in some ways to understand the author through my own set of presuppositions.

This means that I must, among other things when reading and interpreting, be always checking to see how much of myself is getting in the way of what I am interpreting. However, I also have to challenge postmodernists to ask how much of themselves is getting in the way of the text, and whether their resort to relativism is not itself an attempt to castrate what words might say in order to ease my own discomfort as I encounter those words.

This time last year my brother was in Dubai in the Persian Gulf, where he had worked for several years in the late 1970s. At that time he build a 38-storey building that rested on compressed sand. The question I kept asking was what would happen to that building when the compression finally gave out. My brother was never able to find out because while he was there that structure was dynamited in order to make
way for something new and improved.

It is my assertion that postmodern thinking and its concomitant deconstructionism is like that building in Dubai, standing for the moment on a bed of compressed sand. In due course the inconsistencies and irrationalities that are the sand on which it is build are going to come to the fore, and the whole thing will come tumbling down -- but not before it has done a dreadful lot of damage. When this happens, however, this is not to say that we will return to Enlightenment rationalism.

Frankly, I believe that the revisionist theologies that have done such terrible damage to the mainline churches, particularly ECUSA, are far closer to their "sell by" date than most of their adherents are willing to accept. Yet while they are still around we find ourselves having to engage them, flaws and all, while all the time finding orthodox and biblical ways of engaging the culture which they reflect.


Ian Montgomery said...

Thank you Richard.

The danger of trying to be culturally relevant is that the culture can take over as has happened to the revisionists. The better alternative is to see orthodox Christianity as essentially counter cultural and then find ways to understand and communicate the gospel to the culture. Sadly it is in part the heritage of "christendom" to assume that the culture and Christianity are tied together. For some of us this is the new apostolic age as christendom is past and we return to the counter cultural witness of the early church.

To pick up on another point I have had precisely the discussion on meaning when talking of reconciliation. For the orthodox this is quintessentially found in the Atonement while for the revisionists this is simply a search for commonality that is degraded too often into "why can't we just all get along."

Thank You

FrMD said...

"The challenge that I see is daunting indeed. When the meaning of language is in the hands of the hearer (or reader), then I don't even know how to have a conversation."

This is an over-reaction, surely. Words do mean different things in different contexts, by different speakers... Here's an example from C.S. Lewis, Studies in Words, p. 14, "When I spoke of supper after the theatre, I meant by supper a biscuit and a cup of cocoa. But my friend meant by supper something like a cold bird and a bottle of wine." He goes on, "In this situation both parties might well have agreed on the lexical (or "dictionary") meaning of supper; perhaps "a supernumerary meal which, if taken at all, is the last meal before bed." In another way they "meant" different things by it.""

But it isn't really a problem... and many times that happens we can straighten it out by saying what we mean.