Last week’s post discussed the quest for the Adamic language in the early modern period, understood as a language in which words correspond exactly to the things they represent. This post is Part 3 of a series. See Part 2 here and Part 1 here.
But was there ever a language in which the totality of a thing in its essence was communicated fully in words? James K.A. Smith, a Christian philosopher at Calvin College, says no. In his book The Fall of Interpretation, Smith argues that human beings were never intended to grasp the totality of the world instantaneously and without mediation – that the need to engage the world through thoughts and signs that grasp the world only partially is not a consequence of our fallenness but of our finitude; that God creates us not to know everything in the way that he knows everything but continually to learn, to grow, and to discover in ways that are appropriate to our status as finite creatures.1
Smith’s discussion steps behind language itself – his focus is on “interpretation”, that is, the mental processing of sensory experience prior to its expression in speech or writing, but his thoughts can be applied fairly closely to a theological reflection on the phenomenon of language. Smith observes that not only theologians but also philosophers such as Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida, who disavow any debt to Christian theology, talk about interpretation (the need for the conceptual mediation of the world) in terms of fallenness.
This is also the case in theories of language, where some theorists see language itself as in some sense a fallen phenomenon, speaking of a “fall into language”. This concept is present, for instance, in the work of the Bulgarian-French psychoanalytic theorist Julia Kristeva. Kristeva borrows from Plato the term chora – a term that Plato uses in the Timaeus to refer to the primeval chaos that forms the womb or receptacle for the cosmos. Kristeva uses chora to refer to the state of being in which infants exist immediately after birth. According to Kristeva, the infant experiences the world as a fluid, undifferentiated unity identified with the mother’s body and not separate from the self – he or she has no self-consciousness.2
For Kristeva, the child’s acquisition of self-consciousness as an individual corresponds with entry into the “symbolic order” of language. The self-awareness of the “I” that makes language possible entails recognising one’s surroundings, and especially the mother, as “not-I”. Language is thus a sign of a loss of innocence, a necessary but tragic alienation from the mother/world. Kristeva’s theory is not itself intended as an exposition of the biblical Fall, but literary critics, for instance, some Milton scholars, sometimes read into the theology of the Fall this idea that language is inherently fallen because it entails individuation, distinction from the whole.3
Kristeva’s thought melds empirical data from studies on the psycholinguistic development of children with a quasi-pantheistic or monistic vision of an ideal reality of undifferentiated oneness. This ideal reality is one that we cannot recall or hope to experience, since to be an “I” who has conscious experiences is already to have fallen from paradise. For Kristeva, language is thus a mark of violation, of separation, of having been cut adrift to work out our own destiny in a fragmented world. This underlying view of the world is not in accord with the biblical understanding. Biblically speaking, individuation, the conceiving of one thing as distinct from another, is not inherently fallen, but rather is part of perceiving the order of God’s creation (hence the distinctions in the creation account of sea and sky, land and sea, male and female). Hence language is not a product of the Fall, but of God’s good creation.
However, it might at first seem biblically problematic to see the diversity of languages now in existence as a good thing, since Genesis suggests that the multiplicity of languages was brought about as a divine punishment at the tower of Babel. In Genesis 11, the people begin in apparent harmony – verse 1 reads “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words”. As a result of the people’s pride in seeking to build a tower and make a name for themselves apart from God, the Lord responds as follows:
And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” (Genesis 11:6-7)
Because the languages are confused, the people can no longer understand one another, and so their grand project is unfinished and they scatter over the face of the earth. The confusion of languages here certainly seems like a punishment.
But James K.A. Smith offers an alternative reading of the Babel narrative:
A second reading of the Babel story, however, points to unity as the original sin and impetus for violence that Yahweh prevents precisely by multiplication of languages, a restoration of plurality. On this reading, it was a lack of difference that occasioned Yahweh’s intervention in what was destined to be a violent story of oppression in the name of unity.4
Likewise, Miroslav Volf sees the unity of the people at Babel as a totalitarian unity that excludes the diversity and cultural difference that God intends.5 Walter Brueggemann notes that God had already commanded the human race after the flood to fill the whole earth, and so for them to concentrate themselves in one place is an act of disobedience.6 Hence the scattering of human beings across the world and the consequent cultural and linguistic diversity that would result was God’s original plan, and God’s confusion of the languages is a way of forcing humans to do what he had intended in the first place.
But whether we are persuaded by Smith and Volf’s reading of the Babel narrative in which linguistic diversity is God’s original intention or stick with the widespread understanding that the diversity of languages was originally a curse, reading the rest of the Bible should persuade us that linguistic diversity is taken up by God into his good purposes for restoring creation.
This is shown by what happens on the day of Pentecost, as recorded in Acts 2. Pentecost has often been read as the reversal of Babel. At Babel understanding turns to confusion as God’s linguistic intervention divides humanity into competing nations; at Pentecost, initial confusion turns into understanding as God’s linguistic intervention brings people of many nations into the one new humanity in Christ. But Pentecost is not a reversal in the sense that the many languages become one.7 In his wonderfully accessible book Café Theology, Michael Lloyd, principal of Wycliffe Hall (an Anglican seminary within Oxford University), notes that the praises of God are heard “Not in Greek, the lingua franca of the ancient world, not in some spiritual Esperanto, but in our own languages – which is a massive affirmation of who we are, and where we come from, and the cultural diversity we represent.”8 The many languages remain many, yet the multiplicity of languages is no longer a barrier to understanding. This is an enacted sign of what God is doing spiritually in the present through the church, and a foretaste of life in the new heavens and new earth where cultural diversity will be affirmed, but the hostilities and distrust attached to diversity in a fallen world will be removed.
This series will conclude next week with a reflection on how we can harness language in the service of interpersonal relationships, and how this reflects the interpersonal nature of God.
1 James K.A. Smith, The Fall of Interpretation: Philosophical Foundations for a Creational Hermeneutic (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2012). (First published by InterVarsity Press in 2000.)
2 See chapter 2, ‘The semiotic chora ordering the drives’, in Julia Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language, trans. Margaret Waller (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984), pp. 25–30. For a welcome attempt to summarise Kristeva’s slippery concept of the chora in an accessible manner, see Noëlle McAfee, Julia Kristeva (London: Routledge, 2003), pp. 18–23.
3 For example, Joan Malory Webber, Milton and the Epic Tradition (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979), p. 103.
4 Smith, The Fall of Interpretation, p. 58. Emphasis in original.
5 Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), pp. 226–28.
6 Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (in the Interpretation commentary series) (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), pp. 97–104.
7 Volf rejects the description of Pentecost as a reversal of Babel, since he sees the stories of Babel and Pentecost as continuous, not as opposites – in both stories, God’s desire is for humanity to be culturally diverse but unified in love under God’s loving reign (Exclusion and Embrace, pp. 226–31).
8 Michael Lloyd, Café Theology: Exploring Love, the Universe and Everything (3rd ed., London: St Paul’s Theological Centre/Alpha International, 2012), p. 264. (First published in 2005.) Emphasis in original.
Image: First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, CA. Pentecost art work, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54211 [retrieved September 21, 2015]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/raymondyee/160345434/.