06 July 2008

The Importance of Language to a Believer

The importance of language to the believer is overwhelming. First and foremost our medium to God through Christ is by the word both in the scriptures and when the word came down to us in flesh. We were not given the capacity to see God so we must learn to encourage the proper use of language in our society in order to not lose this path of communication to God. Second, language is the key to understanding many of the doctrines we adhere to, such as the doctrine of creation, the doctrine of justification, and the doctrine of sanctification. Third, language is what God has given to us so that we can know who we are. He gave us language as the tool to indentify ourselves.
Martin Luther said over five hundred years ago, “We must learn to see with our ears.” He later refers to God as a deus loquens or a “speaking God.” I understand Luther’s statements to be entreating us to take a break from our image saturated society and concentrate on what we can hear. In this way Luther thinks we can maintain the relationship with God, with ourselves, and with one another the way God intended us to. This is an exhortation to Luther’s fellow men to learn to not rely on images to convey truth, but rather to use language in order to convey truth in a dialogical form and to stand behind what we say.
If Luther could see a pulling away from language and reliance on what one can see within the culture he was writing in, then how much more so would he see it now? In our technological age, information and images are crucial. We see images everyday in television, on the internet, on billboards, and in advertisements. Our generation has been born into the world of images and a faith that they hold some truth value. We do have some words around us as well, but they are not for dialogue. They are just noise surrounding us and distracting us from the truth value words have the potential to contain. There are words around us used primarily to school us. These are lists of information that suppress the individual and focus solely on what is deemed important – the information. There are words around us used primarily to get what we want or what someone wants from us. These are words of manipulation that not only deny but reject the individual and only use him or her in order to achieve goals.
But Luther was aware of the importance of language to Christians and to society as a whole. After all, this is the primary source of our communication with God. Luther stressed the importance of what has been identified as dialogue, two way communication in which the personhood of each participant and identity of each participant is recognized and respected. This is the type of communication we have with God, and Luther encourages us to cultivate this type of communication in our society.
The scriptures tell us, “No man has seen God and lived,” (1John 4:12) yet God still communicates with us through his word. Our ability to have communion with God is through His word – the scriptures. The importance of the word is stressed over and over in the Bible from Genesis where the simultaneous doubting of the word of God and the fall are no mere coincidence, to the New Testament and the gospel of John where we are told “the world became flesh and dwelt among us.”
From the beginning the only relationship we have had with God was through dialogue. God spoke the world into being. Whatever is going on now and whatever will happen in the past is not only contingent on what God says to us, but also on how we respond. Over and over again the word of God and our response to it is stressed in the scriptures, “The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.” (Psalm 119:130); “man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” (Duet, 8:3); and “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” (Rev. 3:20) From these scripture passages we can gather how important listening for and responding to the voice of God is.
It is important to note as well that the first time language began to be doubted was at the time of the fall when Eve questioned what God had told her and the serpent introduced monologue or manipulative speech into the world. This was the first time man actually hid from the voice of God. The first time man disregarded this intimate connection God had established.
God created us as responsive human beings when he spoke us into being. He spoke, and we responded by living. When God sent his son into the world, it is not a mere coincidence that Christ was called, “the word.” Christ was God’s word coming to us in the flesh. And even though Christ was tangible and his followers could see him with their eyes, he still exhorted them not to have faith by merely seeing, “Then Jesus told him, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." (John 20: 29) These words were spoken to Thomas who refused to believe the words of the women who were at the tomb and of the other followers of Christ, but only believed when he himself had seen Jesus’s hands and put his hand in Jesus’s side. This is exactly what Martin Luther is talking about in his statement. It is important that we see with our ears. It is important that we do not rely solely on image, because that is not the way of communication God has established.
Not only is language important for knowing God and walking with him, but it is a key component of the doctrine of creation. It dismisses the concept of primal language that evolved over time. Emile Beneviste’s in his essay Subjectivity in Language states, “We are always inclined to that na├»ve concept of a primordial period in which a complete man discovered another one, equally complete, and between the two of them language was worked out little by little. This is pure fiction. We can never get back to man separated from language and we shall never see him inventing it.”[1] God, in speaking man into life as a responsive human being created someone He would say “I” to and whom He would call, “you.” In order for this dialogue to happen the words “I” and “you” must be involved, and the very concept of “I” is a subjective linguistic concept. It cannot be had without dialogue and it cannot be understood on its own. It can only be understood through dialogue.
Language is also key to understanding the doctrine of justification and the doctrine of sanctification. Without the word becoming flesh and dying on the cross for our sins, we would never be justified in the sight of the Lord. Without his intercession through Christ to the Father using words our justification would be impossible. And without language we could no longer speak to God. Our walk with him through words would be hindered and we could never grow as Christians. Our sanctification would not happen. We would not be able to grow in our relationship with God.
Another important aspect of language to a Christian is the fact that we know who we are by speaking to others and to God. Emile Benveniste’s argument can be used to underscore this concept as well. Benveniste believed language is only takes place when person designating him or herself as “I” speaking to another person designated as “you” and becoming “I” when it is his or her time to speak. So when we are speaking to the Lord, we are finding ourselves and recognizing who we are. Language, Benveniste argues, is impossible without dialogue. Dialogue involves the speakers “I” and “you” but it is also important that the personhood of each of the speakers is recognized. Benveniste doesn’t even recognize information listing or the use of speech to manipulate others and get them to do what you want without recognizing their personhood as language. The thrust of Benveniste’s argument is, “Language is possible only because each speaker sets himself up as a subject by referring to himself as I in his discourse….This polarity of persons in is the fundamental condition in language, of which the process of communication, in which we share, is only a mere pragmatic consequence.”[2] In this way God establishes his own identity through the word. He speaks to us and we call ourselves “I” and Him, “you.” We acknowledge his being as separate from ours.
In order to cultivate this seeing with our ears, we must begin with each other. If we lose track of dialogue with one another, we will no longer be able to have dialogue with God. With the breakdown of language today through the relativity of post-modernists like Jacques Derrida and Haydn White who leave us questioning like Eve in the garden, "Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?" (Gen. 3:1), and those like Peter Ramus use the word merely to impart impersonal information, thus stripping the word of any individualism, comes a mistrust of the word as a whole. This unfortunate breakdown of language has not only caused us to distrust the words of others, but it has introduced a distrust of the only medium we have to our Lord and Savior.
Martin Luther’s words spoken so long ago still ring true today. We do need to step back from images and start taking our words and the words of others seriously. We must cultivate dialogue in our relationships with others. When we speak we must speak truth or at least as sincerely as we can, making sure to watch what we say because as Matthew 12:36-37 clearly states, “But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” This convicting passage is a powerful reminder of the power of our words and the respect necessary for us to have in any interaction with language. We must also work hard not to become cynical about the word. We must continue to sincerely believe in the truth value of dialogue. No matter how many times we are let down by the untruthful words of others we must continue to believe in this powerful medium God has given to us. We must never turn to images as truth containers for as Jacques Ellul so plainly states in his work The Humiliation of the Word “Images never reinforce anything but conformity to the dominant doxa (opinion).”[3] We must speak the truth and stand behind it in order to resurrect a faith in the spoken word. We must not lose touch with this important means of communication nor reject it in favor of images which merely are a representation of reality formed by our words. We must reject the use of words as mere information conveyers and the impersonalization this creates. We must reject the use of words to get what we want or the use of words by others to get from us what they want and the de-personalization that comes with that. We must learn to see with our ears.




[1] Benveniste, Emile Subjectivity in Language translated by Mary Elizabeth Meek, in Philosophy of Language: The Big Questions edited by Andrea Nye (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998) pp. 47
[2] Benveniste, Emile Subjectivity in Language translated by Mary Elizabeth Meek, in Philosophy of Language: The Big Questions edited by Andrea Nye (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998) pp. 48
[3] Jacques Ellul The Humiliation of the Word (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1985) pg. 26

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