I found out today that I get to give two lectures to a hermeneutics class next week. I’m pretty stoked, but don’t have much time to prepare! So as I sit here in a Chapters Starbucks, waiting to shuttle students home, I wrote down some thoughts. It’s rough, but it’s what I’m thinking about for my first lecture on language groups before Gus takes over to talk about Lyotard. Perhaps you’ll find it helpful; as always, I write here to help myself work out thoughts, because I don’t really understand anything until it’s been put into words.
We’re all members of several communities. I’m a Christian in the broadest sense, united with people around the world by my confession of faith and some specific practices like Baptism and Communion; but I’m also a Pentecostal, united to a smaller pool of people around the world united by a certain expression of Christianity; and I’m also a member of Kleefeld Christian Community, my local congregation (which is technically Baptist). I’m a Canadian, and though I live in Manitoba I still identify mostly with BC where I was born and raised, and I still maintain connections to Toronto and have experienced life in Northern Alberta. Even being Canadian, my worldview is strongly influenced by America, since I take in so much American media; American culture permeates most of the world these days, and is unavoidable. I went to a Pentecostal Bible college, but now I live among Mennonites and Catholics and attend a non-denominational Evangelical seminary where I learn from Anglican, Baptist, Evangelical-Free, and Mennonite scholars, among others. This academic community is itself part of the larger community of “the academy”, the community of scholarship in its broadest sense, including all of the disciplines. Of all of the disciplines, I am part of the smaller community of Biblical and Theological Studies, and the subset of that community, Systematic Theology, and the subset of that community, Ethics, and the subset of that community, Political Theology; but I also dabble in Sociology, Economics, History, and Political Science. I’m also a member of the Green Party of Canada, a national party, and a member of the Green Party Provencher, the GPC’s local body. Though I haven’t worked as one for quite a while, I’m a trucker and the son of a trucker, and I still identify with other truckers. I’m male, one of the most basic communities in the world yet still with particular viewpoints not shared by females; yet many of my friends are feminists, and I live with a woman (my wife), and try really hard to understand how her perspective differs from my own due to our different social realities. And I’m human, sharing a common bond with other humans that does not extend to animals or plants. I’m not sure how much we can describe mammals as a community, or animals and plants as separate communities with shared viewpoints, but it’s easy to see how community and ecology are linked concepts!
But communities also extend through time, and interact with each other historically. Being Pentecostal, I trace my roots back through Wesleyan holiness movements, camp and revivalist movements, Protestantism, Anabaptism, and through the mystics of Catholic and Orthodox churches all the way back to Acts 2, and through Christ and John the Baptist back to the charismatic prophets of the Old Testament. In the same way, my Canadian culture and Western worldview can be traced back through England and France, through Germanic Christian empires, through Rome, to ancient Greece. This development of worldviews through time is called tradition, with each thread representing its own tradition, and each thread being connected to others or emerging from others.
Each of these communities is an expression of a shared tradition, complete with shared actions and ideas. What divides these groups into individual communities is, as much as anything else, language: each community is also a language-group, with shared terminology and understanding of words. Language itself is a system of symbols with agreed-upon meanings, but what those meanings are shift from group to group, sometimes in small ways, sometimes in huge ways. Different regions have specific terms (in Saskatchewan they call a hoodie a “bunnyhug”), different careers or disciplines have technical jargon (a trucker and a mathematician mean very different things by the term “differential”, which is a term that most of us never use at all), and different groups have different nuances, understandings of, or perspectives on the same terms (e.g., white, middle-class, Christian males in Canada have a very different understanding of the word “privilege” than, say, an Aboriginal woman who lives on the streets of Winnipeg; it evokes very different feelings for these different groups!). Not all of the features of these language groups plays a major role in their worldview or theology; I doubt that people from Saskatchewan have a different worldview based on their unique word “bunnyhug”. But the language we use does affect the way we see the world.
A friend of mine was recently telling me about an episode of Radiolab they heard recently about colour, and they mentioned that in the oldest epic poems the sea was often described as being red. It was suggested that this was because when these old epics were written, that language had not yet developed a word for “blue”, and that members of language groups that don’t have a word for blue would also describe the sky as being “white.” Red is apparently one of the first colour-words that a language develops, as it’s the easiest dye to make, while blue is one of the hardest dyes to make and thus usually enters languages last of all colour-words. I grew up close to a lake that we often describe as being green, but it’s actually more of a teal. We’ve invented words to describe shades of blue and green, and those words allow us to understand those distinctions more thoroughly. Then we can make even finer distinctions, and give those names. Inventing a word for something doesn’t invent the thing itself, but it does invent our concept of that thing, and it invents the possibility for us to understand and agree upon that concept or idea, and then take it further.
Helen Keller described her life before she had language as being animalistic. People with limited language are unable to understand higher concepts – not just that they can’t express them, but because they can’t express them, they actually can’t grasp them on a deep level. Because of this, recognizing the particularities of our language groups is essential to a self-aware and self-critical interpretive methodology.
I am a member of many different communities, and the way I read texts (whether actual texts, or the “texts” of the reality in which I live) is formed by all of them. When I read a story about the Canadian tarsands, for example, my understanding of it (and therefore my opinion about it) is shaped by many different words specific to different communities I have some membership in: the word “oiligarchy” is a political word that actually comes from environmental activists to describe a government corrupted by oil money, but the word “petro-state” is a political word that actually comes from economists to describe the same thing; my understanding of the concept is influenced by my time as a trucker in Fort McMurray, where I drove a “honey wagon” but the real shit was being dug out of the ground; “anthropogenic climate change” is a phrase used by scientists and politicians and activists alike to describe the results of burning fossil fuels, and “anthropocene” is a new word created by scientists and sociologists to describe a new era of history in which human beings are the cause of global ecological change; and while we’re talking about the issue on a global and historic scale, my reading of environmental news occurs within the tradition and narrative of Christian theology, in which human beings were created as stewards of the earth and all creation groans in anticipation of being set free and renewed.
I privilege some of these language groups over others without even thinking about it. I’m more involved in some of these communities than others, not by virtue of how completely I’m a part of that group, but by virtue of my language preferences. For example, I am most certainly a human being – 100%, unavoidable fact that I cannot change. Being a Christian, on the other hand, is much more tenuous: it is a chosen association rather than a fact of life (did I mention that I’m an Arminian, or perhaps an Open Theist, or something in between? More groups!), and there’s nothing physically true or apparent about it. But my dominant way of seeing the world as a human being is as a Christian, because Christianity is my dominant narrative and language group: it’s my community, and it’s from this community that I derive my self-understanding. Rather than my Christianity being defined by my humanity, my humanity is defined by my Christianity. Because of this, I’m more likely to describe environmental degradation in terms of creation, providence, and apocalypse, than I am to describe it in scientific terms, even though I’m familiar with scientific terms and they may be better suited to describing the environmental situation. My theological understanding of stewardship of creation has inspired me to environmental activism, so my activist terminology has a decidedly theological tone; and my environmental activism has prompted me to join the Green Party, giving my environmental jargon a political spin and bite. At the same time, my theological language has recently become more and more intertwined with political language, because I wrote my MA thesis on the concept of the Powers and Principalities as the spiritual aspect of social institutions. My vocabulary grew, and words took on new nuances, and political words became theological words. Because of this, I can no longer talk about politics without talking about theology. So I started with theology, moved through environmentalism, to activism, to politics, and back to theology. This mess of interacting language-groups is how I primarily read a story about the Canadian tarsands. My truck driver sensibilities are pretty forcefully pushed out of the conversation at times because most of my theo-politico-ecological jargon has no place in the language group of truckers; it’s just not on their radar, and further, my experience in the trucker community was characterized by concerns about security in an oil-based economy and diesel-driven jobs. These concerns compete with the concerns of my dominant communities, so they get pushed down. If I were still active in the trucking community, and if that were a primary community for me, I would understand the issue of tarsands expansion much differently!
The issue of language groups and the issue of social context are therefore completely linked and work together to form our perspective as we read, and this perspective has a major influence on our theology. This is why we have black theology, and feminist theology, and Latin-American theology, and why all of these are different variations of Liberation Theology, which is itself a theology of the oppressed and contrasts sharply with health-and-wealth theology and the “prosperity gospel” which represent a very different perspective on social inequality. It’s also why we have so many different Bibles: the women’s Bible, the men’s Bible, kids Bibles, youth Bibles, student Bibles, apologetics Bibles, green Bibles, golfers’ Bibles (yes, the Golfer’s Bible is a real thing); because each of them has notes and highlights metaphors that speak to their particular group or community’s perspective.
Each perspective has the ability to write a meta-narrative, or grand story, a way to explain life, the universe, and everything, all from that particular perspective. A communist metanarrative might be to look at all of life from the perspective of the proletariat, the class of people oppressed by the wealthy aristocratic capitalists; a Calvinist metanarrative interprets every event in history as God’s sovereign act as part of a huge and mysterious plan; an atheistic metanarrative would probably be primarily scientific, explaining everything in life as the result of physical, chemical, and biological processes; and so on. Not every perspective is capable of accurately describing everything though: communist metanarratives tend to be reductive in regard to the rich, assuming their thoughts and motivations; Calvinist metanarratives struggle to explain the existence of evil in a world in which God supposedly controls everything; and naturalistic atheists simply lack the conceptual tools to adequately understand or explain values, meaning, and the sublime.
No one perspective, then, is capable of giving us an accurate picture of the world. Thankfully, we’re all members of many different communities, and therefore our views always amalgamate the perspectives and vocabularies of those communities and help us to have deeper, more nuanced views. One of the features of the postmodern world is that we recognize the validity of these other perspectives more and more. This has a few different results: it makes us more accepting of other communities, and it also allows us to adopt their vocabularies and merge them with our own, which makes finer distinctions and deeper nuances possible. At the same time, it makes us suspicious of metanarratives, because we’re more aware of the perspectives that aren’t represented by a particular metanarrative.
So read your Bible as yourself, but recognize that “no man is an island”, and that you always read it as a member of many different communities. Recognize that you share some communities with the writers of Scripture through your shared tradition, but that you have many other communities from which you draw language and meanings. This is both good and bad, but awareness of it allows us to maximize the benefits and minimize the negative elements as we strive for a self-aware and critical interpretation.