Beyond the Limits of Language


In his paper to the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion in Nashville, TN, on November 22, 2000, Neil Douglas-Klotz drew attention to the limits of language when it comes to describing the modern discoveries science, a matter of great relevance for this site. For instance, he pointed out that the split between religion and science in Western culture is attributable to the history of hermeneutics (interpretation theory) in the West. In other words, if we hold that science and religion belong to separate domains then because of an unacknowledged language problem. This arises because behind the words we use lie unstated Western presumptions about the nature of reality that are not universally held.

This observation is not new. Scientists and theologians have long been aware of the limits of Western language and interpretation. For instance, since Newton’s physics we have understood the cosmos in terms of Newton’s mechanics which led to unfortunate distortions as the physicist Brian Swimme and the theologian Thomas Berry have observed. In their New Universe Story (1992) they note that we may not yet have the language that describes properly the origin and development of the cosmos as discovered:

To articulate anew our orientation in the universe requires the use of language which does not yet exist, for extant language harbours its own attitudes, its own assumptions, its own cosmology . . . Any cosmology whose language can be completely understood by using one of the standard dictionaries belongs to a former era (p. 24).

While, with the advent of science, we have repudiated the ancient view of the cosmos that behaves like a human being, our language errs even more when it seeks to describe the universe in terms of a machine.

Naturally, the machine model also affected the work of Bible translation that led to an overreliance on literal meanings. Since the text was presumed to be literally “God’s word” to and from which nothing could be added or deleted, we buried the nuanced and varying meanings of the original text—still highly visible in Hebrew and Aramaic versions of the Bible—under the new worldview. Moreover, this divided mind impacted all other ways of our knowing just the same (for an exemplar see my post from March 29).

As Douglas-Klotz points out, returning to a more unified view of reality will be far from easy. It will demand of us a far greater reliance on nonordinary states of awareness known from the mystical path. Here we are invited to learn how to orient ourselves toward the unfamiliar presence of the Divine Breath (a.k.a. the Holy Spirit) as we will need a view of reality that is equally unfamiliar.

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