1. Introduction: the tip of a very large iceberg
Studies in linguistics and semiotics have become increasingly prominent within contemporary philosophical circles. Modern technological advances, particularly in the realm of communications, have profoundly impacted the nature and power of knowledge. As communication has gained increasing prominence in Western societies, language has assumed an increasing importance. Yet the explosion of information that has accompanied this has also contributed to a contemporary crisis in relation to questions of meaning, truth, and significance. Consequently, postmodernity is defined by a “nihilism of meaning” and “the anxiety of truthlessness”. We are increasingly able to communicate for pragmatic purposes, but increasingly unsure if the content conveyed has any truth-value.
However, the study of these topics is not new. Greek philosophers like Hippocrates, Aristotle, and the Stoics were studying the nature of words, signs, communication, truth, and meaning, long before scholars like Wittgenstein, Derrida, Chomsky, Peirce, Saussure, Todorov, Levi-Strauss, or Greimas. Similarly, Christian theology has always had a vested interest in these topics, as evidenced by such theologians as Augustine, Aquinas, Barth, de Lubac, and, more recently, James K.A. Smith. It quickly becomes evident to anybody exploring this topic that there is a vast amount of literature to be explored. Therefore, given spatial limitations, this paper will simply explore how three recent scholars have addressed these topics (Section 2) before comparing these approaches and drawing some tentative conclusions (Section 3).
2. George Lindbeck, Martin Heidegger, and Umberto Eco
Because linguistics, meaning, and communication are urgent and essential topics for so many different contemporary scholars this paper will survey the views of a theologian, a philosopher, and a literary theorist. This section will survey The Nature of Doctrine by G. Lindbeck, The Way to Language by M. Heidegger, and Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language by U. Eco.
In The Nature of Doctrine, Lindbeck introduces a “postliberal” theology, which views religion from a cultural-linguistic perspective. Over against the cognitive-propositional approach of traditional orthodoxy (which understands doctrines as truth claims about objective realities), and the dominant experiential-expressive approach of liberalism (which understands doctrines as expressive symbols of subjective feelings, orientations and practices), Lindbeck argues that doctrines function as authoritative rules of discourse within a faith community. Thus religion is a cultural-linguistic framework that shapes the entirety of one's life and thought — like a culture it is a communal phenomenon that shapes the subjectivities of individuals, and like a language it evokes the actions it recommends. Thus, doctrine is a grammar that posits intrasystematic truths, not ontological truths; it is the lens through which a faith community views the world. According to this view meaning is constituted by the uses of a specific language and it is immanent to religious texts, which evoke a paradigmatic domain of meaning that shapes the world of the reader, in the context of their faith community. Communication happens through skilful performance; faith is not translated but its language and practices are taught to others.
In The Way to Language, Heidegger focuses specifically upon a philosophy of language, noting that this is not a detached exercise, but one that takes place within an hermeneutical circle. To study language is “bringing language as language to language”. Heidegger asserts that language is a showing, it “brings something to appear, lets what appears be apprehended, and enables what is apprehended to be thoroughly discussed”. This showing is a mutual presencing — the topic of speech is made present, and the speaker is also presenced to the wherewithal of their speech. Therefore, what essentially unfolds in language is saying as pointing, but this pointing is itself preceded by the object allowing itself to be shown. Thus, speech requires a hearing in advance (we must have first seen that to which we point) as the Object first allows itself to be told (i.e. shown) to us, before we reiterate this to others. Therefore, in order to speak, our essence must be granted entry into the saying. Language can therefore be understood as owning, or as a mutual propriating, as humans propriate the saying, and are also propriated by the saying. Therefore, all saying is relational.
Eco is concerned with linguistic semiotics. Within Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, he argues that the two objects generally posited by scholars to be the central object of semiotics (the sign/sign-function and semiosis) are not, as commonly supposed, mutually incompatible because the semiosic process of interpretation is also at the core of the concept of sign. He notes that contemporary theories of interpretation can be mapped on a continuum where those on one extreme (traditionalists) see only one possible way of interpreting a text, and those on the other extreme (deconstructionists) see an infinite number of meanings in a text; Eco is interested in finding a valid continuum of intermediate positions between these two points. In order to do this, he notes how the deconstructionists have not actually caused a crisis for the notion of the sign per se, but only for the sign understood as a model of equivalency which posits meaning as synonymy. He proposes an instructional model of sign that operates through an inferential process, within which the sign only exists as it is constructed by a culturally determined code. According to this approach definition/meaning is not explicated by a dictionary model but by an encyclopedic model. The supposed finitude and objectivity of the dictionary, which posits predicables and clusters of essential attributes following the model of the Porphyrian tree, is problematic because such clusters are arbitrary divisions of differentiae, and the tree can, therefore, be reelaborated and rearranged indefinitely. Thus, a dictionary is merely a disguised encyclopedia, containing the (ever expanding) sum of a culture's world knowledge, and meaning is found when something is inserted in the proper series of contexts within that encyclopedia. The encyclopedia has no hierarchy of knowledge, but resembles a web-like labyrinth in which all points can be connected infinitely to all other points. Codes are the open rules that function as a cultural way of modeling the world, thereby guiding how a culture accesses its encyclopedia. Therefore, the encyclopedia is the semantic concept, and the dictionary functions as an ad hoc pragmatic tool that relies on co-texts and isotopy in order to convey a particular meaning. Thus, communication is for pragmatic purposes, and there is no discernible universal truth-value to any statement outside of a particular cultural setting.
There are some significant similarities between these three approaches. Lindbeck's notion of intrasystematic truth, correlates well with Eco's model of encyclopedic definition. This position is further supported by Heidegger's notion of propriation, which asserts that one must have a genuine relationship with the Object of which one speaks if one is to be able to then say, or rather, presence, that Object. In this regard, we must be clear that Heidegger does not make the mistake of following the equivalency model of semiotics that Eco so soundly refutes. For Heidegger, the signifier is not equivalent to that which is signified, rather the signifier (i.e. the words/language) are that which point to that which is signified, which, in turn, has already permitted itself to be shown. Thus, an inferential semiosic process is still being enacted. Therefore, all three of these positions make it clear that communication is possible within a particular faith-community, or culture. When this is accepted, we can also conclude that only Christians can do Christian theology. One must be propriated by the living Word of God, be a part of a living community of faith, and allow the encyclopedia of that community to dictate meaning, in order to speak the language of Christianity.
However, this conclusion leads to a dilemma of communication. If all truths are contextually understood, how can any communication occur between communities? It seems as though we are forced to accept the postmodern conclusion, so strongly supported by the likes of Eco, that communication is limited to pragmatic purposes and no real or universal truth-value can be expressed across community boundaries.
However, such a conclusion does not sit comfortably with the traditions of the Christian Church or with the character of the Christian God, as that God is revealed in the Christian Scriptures. This is why Lindbeck's emphasis upon Christian living and the skilful performances of the Christian language are so significant. Although Christian language may be completely foreign to members of other communities apart from the Church, that language must not be translated in order to be made intelligible. Indeed, such language cannot be translated and still mean the same thing. As Lindbeck says, “[t]o the degree that religions are like languages and cultures, they can no more be taught by means of translation than can Chinese or French”. If we follow the framework established by Eco, translation would mean abandoning the Christian encyclopedia in order to fit the object of Christian communication into another encyclopedia. But, when this occurs, what is communicated ceases to be Christian, and cannot mean the same thing that it means within the Christian community. Christian language causes something radically new to be presenced, it points to something that does not fit within the bounds of any other encylopedia, and when theologians resort to translations they reduce the living Word to lifeless information. If the Word is to be communicated it must not be distorted. This is why skilful performance is essential. Performance becomes the means by which the audience can complete the inferential process required for understanding. The faith-community embodies the message it proclaims and thereby quite literally presences the gospel proclamation in an intelligible (and perhaps even attractive) manner. Following Heidegger, it could be said that Christians, having been granted entry into the Word, ensure that that entryway stays open to others by living in a manner that reveals how they have been propriated by that Word. As Jacques Ellul notes, significance and meaning are lost, when the word is dissociated from the person, when “[the word] is no longer the person in action… no longer a commitment and a disclosure of oneself”. Such words are pure sound, useful perhaps for pragmatic purposes (and even for deception), but not for conveying meaning.
However, skilful performance is only one half of the Christian resolution to the contemporary crisis involving the communication of meaning. The other half of the Christian response is found in Jesus' assertion that he is the truth. Jesus is the Word. This brings a new significance to the relationality that Heidegger argues is at the root of all language. Christian language is premised upon a relationship with Jesus. It is possible because Jesus chooses to make himself present, Jesus propriates believers (they are in Christ) and is propriated by believers (Christ is in them). However, Jesus chooses to reveal himself not only to those who are already members of his Church but also to those who are members of other communities. Indeed, the whole story of Christianity is premised upon the notion that God continually breaks into the world in radically new ways. Therefore, even apart from the living embodiment of the word in the faith community, Christian truth can be conveyed because Jesus himself is the Word. Certainly God works primarily through his Church, but God is not limited to his Church. Of course, as writers like Eco make clear, this assertion cannot be declared in any convincing (or even sensible) manner to those who have not yet encountered the Word made flesh. Yet the inability of all communities to agree upon a universal truth does not mean there is no universal truth, and, as God has made clear over and over again, the inability of communities to agree upon a universal truth does not mean that truth cannot be communicated (through language) across community lines. The word does not gain power through translation, the word already has power through Jesus Christ, and the Church must resist the temptation to do what only God can do — create understanding, transform hearts of stone into hearts of flesh, propriate and be propriated. As it was at Pentecost, so it is now; the Spirit makes the Church's proclamation intelligible to members of all the communities of the world.
4. Conclusion: language, power, and salvation
The postmodern crisis is not just a crisis of communication, and linguistics. The postmodern crisis is fundamentally soteriological. Contemporary “language games” are not abstract aesthetical exercises limited to the academy. Language games are played for the sake of power, and when meaning and truth are expelled from the discussion, so is the possibility of salvation. Humanity remains enslaved to violence, solitude, and meaninglessness. Thus, as Jacques Ellul argues, “Anyone wishing to save humanity must first of all save the word”. Of course, as this paper has argued, to save the word, one must first be saved by the Word that is Jesus Christ. By proclaiming, and living within, the Word, Christians offer a truth to the world that transcends all community boundaries. Like those who use sign language and dance to describe music to the deaf, the Christian communities signs and dances, resting in the assurance that the Christian God is a God of miracles — a God who opens deaf ears, gives sight to the blind, and brings freedom to the captives.
Eco, Umberto. Seimiotics and the Philosophy of Language. Indiana University Press: Bloomington, 1984.
Ellul, Jacques. The Subversion of Christianity. Trans. Geoffrey W. Bromily. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1986.
Ellul, Jacques. The Humiliation of the Word. Trans. Joyce Main Hanks. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1985.
Ellul, Jacques. Hope in Time of Abandonment. Trans. C. Edward Hopkin. Seabury Press: New York, 1977.
Heidegger, Martin. “The Way to Language” in Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings. Ed. David Farrell Krell. HarpersCollins: New York, 1977.
Lindbeck, George A. The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age. WJKP: Louisville, 1984.
Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Theory and History of Literature, Volume 10. University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, 1984.
Postman, Neil. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. Vintage Books: New York, 1992.
Vanhoozer, Kevin J. The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology. WJKP: Louisville, 2005.
1. Introduction: the tip of a very large iceberg