Category Archives: theology

reflections on the nature of God and religion

St. Anselm and the Blackbird


2017-05-23 15.17.35


Its eye a dark pool
in which Sirius glitters
and never goes out.
Its melody husky
as though with suppressed tears.
Its bill is the gold
one quarries for amid
evening shadows. Do not despair
at the stars’ distance. Listening
to blackbird music is
to bridge in a moment chasms
of space-time, is to know
that beyond the silence
which terrified Pascal
there is a presence whose language
is not our language, but who has chosen
with peculiar clarity the feathered
creatures to convey the austerity
of his thought in song.

– R.S. Thomas

St Anselm was Archbishop of Canterbury and lived from 1033 to 1109 at the start of the intellectual renaissance that the High Middle Ages brought to Western Europe. It was a period of great intellectual ferment, an Age of both Faith and Reason, when the best minds of the day applied with passionate curiosity the learning they were rediscovering to the big topic of the day: God.

It takes some effort of the imagination in this secular age to realise that for the mediaeval mind, Theology was the Queen of Sciences, as exciting in its day as quantum physics is now. ‘What is God?’ is the question that the greatest of the mediaevals – one of the greatest intellects ever, Thomas Aquinas – asked at an early age and pursued the rest of his life.

The learning they were rediscovering had two principal strands, both of which had been kept alive elsewhere, since the Eastern Empire, centred on Constantinople, continued after the Western one, centred on Rome, had fallen, though increasingly encroached upon latterly by a new intellectual and religious power to the East and South: Islam.

The most immediately accessible strand, because it was written in Latin, was the neoPlatonism of the late Roman period, whose most notable exponent was Augustine of Hippo. Platonism, with its notion of a transcendent Reality composed of eternal, immutable Forms and a vision of Truth as a brilliant sun that is the source of all wisdom, is a good fit for Christianity – so little is needed to reconcile them that Plato (with the Christ-like Socrates as his literary mouthpiece) can seem almost a pagan prophet of Christianity.

The second strand was more difficult, because it took a circuitous route from the Greek-speaking Eastern empire through the Arabic of Islamic scholars (Avicenna and Averroes, principally) before being translated into Latin where the two cultures met in Spain. This second strand centred chiefly on the writings of Plato’s pupil, one of the greatest minds of any age, Aristotle.

It was Aquinas who met the challenge of reconciling this new influx of pagan (and heretic) thought into catholic teaching and did so with such effect that he remains to this day the chief philosopher of the catholic church, with his Summa Theologica his principal work*.

This period marks the second beginning of Western thought; its first beginning had been some thirteen centuries previously with the Classical Age of Greece, and the two giants, Plato and Aristotle. It is important to realise that what might seem at first glance a recovery of ancient wisdom was in reality nothing of the sort: it was the rediscovery of a new and startling way of looking at things, one that displaced and subjugated the traditionally accepted way of understanding our relation to the world that had held since time immemorial.

What made this new way of thought possible was the written word. For the first time, it was possible to separate one of the elements of human expression, speech, from the larger activity of which it was part, and give it what appeared to be an independent and objective form. This did not happen at once; indeed, it took about three thousand years from the invention of writing, around 5500 years ago, to the realisation of its potential in Classical Greece.

The word written on the page is the precondition of the relocation of meaning: from being a property of situations, inseparable from human activity and conveyed by a variety of methods, such as facial expression, gesture, bodily posture, with speech playing a minor role, meaning now becomes the property of words, and is deemed, by implication, to exist independently and objectively, and to be more or less fixed.

This one change is the foundation of modern thought: it is what allows Plato, with breathtaking audacity, to reverse the relation between the intellect and the senses and proclaim that what the senses tell us is mere Appearance, and that Reality is apprehended by the intellect – and consists of the world viewed from a general aspect: effectively, through the medium of language. It is the beginning of a world-view that casts us as detached spectators of an independent objective reality, a world-view that cannot be acquired naturally and instinctively, but only through a prolonged process of education, based on literacy.

When, some thirteen centuries later, Anselm devises his ‘ontological proof’ for the existence of God, it is squarely within this intellectual framework erected by Plato and Aristotle:
[Even a] fool, when he hears of … a being than which nothing greater can be conceived … understands what he hears, and what he understands is in his understanding.… And assuredly that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist in the understanding alone. For suppose it exists in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater.… Therefore, if that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, exists in the understanding alone, the very being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, is one, than which a greater can be conceived. But obviously this is impossible. Hence, there is no doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.’

This is straightforward enough, if you take your time and attend to the punctuation: the expression ‘that than which nothing greater can be conceived’ is Anselm’s definition of God; and even a simpleton, he says, can understand it; but to exist in reality is better than to exist merely in the imagination, so a God that exists in reality is greater than one which exists only in the imagination, so if God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived, then God must exist in Reality (Because that leaves no room, as it were, to conceive of anything greater).

Much has been said and written about this argument since it was first made over 900 years ago, but I want to concentrate on a single aspect of it, which is the continuity it implies between the human understanding and reality. To use an image, if we conceive the intellect as a skyscraper, then by taking the lift to its utmost height and climbing, so to speak, onto the roof, we arrive at Reality, the only thing that is higher than the height of our understanding.

This is what leads us to suppose – via the notion that we are created in the image and likeness of God – that God must be the perfection of all that is best in us; and if we esteem our intellectual faculties above all else (as, in the ‘West’, we seem to do) then God must be the supreme intellect.

This presents a problem, one that has considerable force in arguments against the existence of God: though a lesser intellect cannot fully comprehend a greater one, they share a great deal of common ground, and the greater intellect can certainly attune itself to the capacity of the lesser: this is a familar case (though not always!) between adult and child, teacher and pupil. Why, then, does God not deal directly with us at our intellectual level? Why doesn’t God speak our language? He surely would, if he could; yet he must be able to, since he is God – so the fact that he does not makes him appear either perverse (like a parent playing a cruel sort of game where he pretends not to be there, and does not answer when his child calls out to him, though he may do something that indirectly suggests his presence, like throwing a ball or making the bushes move) or absent, since he would if he could, but does not.

Thomas’s poem is an answer to this conundrum, though it is not a comfortable one. Perhaps our assumption that reality is at the top of the skyscraper is an error: maybe it is outside, at ground level. Maybe God speaks to us all the time, but we do not recognise the fact, because ‘God’ is quite other than we suppose, and cannot be contained in the intellectual framework that Plato and Aristotle have bequeathed to us.

This would explain on the one hand why religion – in its broadest sense – is bound up with immemorial ritual (which belongs to the world before Plato and Aristotle) and on the other, why, in an age that puts it confidence in intellect and reason – the ‘new thinking’ that Plato and Aristotle invented, not so very long ago in terms of our earthly existence – God is proving increasingly difficult to find.

*in the context of this piece, it is worth recalling that Aquinas on his deathbed said that his work now seemed ‘all so much straw.’

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Expressing conviction


In an earlier piece (‘For us, there is only the trying‘) I observed that one of the insights that come with being a writer is the tentative nature of all writing, that it is always an attempt, and to that degree, never certain of success.

I have been considering the implications of this insight since. One way of looking at it is that whatever you may read has originated in the same way as what you are reading now – that is to say, at some point, someone has engaged in what Eliot terms ‘the intolerable wrestle with words and meanings’ in order to express some thought, idea, insight, revelation or vision.

In other words, whatever extraordinary experience may have led up to it, and however singular the mind seeking to express itself, the piece itself – the text, the writing that others read – passes through the same door, as it were, as every other text, however humble or exalted, to come into existence.

This has a particular bearing on what we call sacred texts, not least because a different account is often given of their authorship – they are said to have been ‘written by no human hand’ to emanate directly from God or from angels. It is important to see that such attributions are not descriptions but part of the attempt to express the fundamental importance that these texts are held to have: to put it succinctly, we do not value texts because they are sacred, we call them sacred because we value them.

That might seem at first sight no more than a playing with words, but it makes a crucial distinction which I will try to elucidate in the remainder of this piece – briefly, that sacredness is not an inherent quality, but a judgement we make by relating the thing in question to a wider narrative, fitting it into a story we already know.

Let us consider two scenarios. In the first, we are asked to represent (for a film, say) the creation of some sacred text. To avoid controversy, we can make it a fictional sacred text: let us suppose that it is a book said to have been written ‘without human agency’ and held to contain the guiding wisdom of a particular people or culture.

How this is represented will vary according to the skill and imagination of the film-maker: the end result might be ludicrous or awe-inspiring: we can picture shining figures or disembodied fiery hands that inscribe the text with a finger, or we might have the text appear letter by letter on the blank page, with or without an attendant laser-like ray of light; doubtless there will be sound effects or music to accompany the process.

All this, as I say, may be more or less well done: a real artist might have even unbelievers saying that they found the representation persuasive – ‘I don’t believe it, but if I did, I could picture it like this.’ (In this connection, we could consider Pasolini’s ‘Gospel According to St Matthew’ the work of a (presumed) atheist, yet praised by the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano as ‘the best film on Christ ever made’).

The second scenario is a real-life encounter with an incident such as the one discussed above: one day, by chance, we enter a room, let us say – or better still, come on a stone table in open moorland under a clear sky (so no scope for any concealed mechanism) and there (with others) we witness a text appearing in a mysterious way that seems to involve no human agency.

What are the similarities here, and what the differences? We have the same sort of event, but crucially there is a context for the first: it is part of a story we are already familiar with, and we are also familiar with the notion of sacred texts and divine messages (regardless of whether we actually accept the verity of them). By way of illumination, we can imagine someone without that background (from a non-literate culture, say) and ask how much (or how little) they would take from the same scene.

The fact that it is a fictional sacred text does not matter, either: we understand it as a sacred text in the story, because we know about actual texts that are regarded as sacred; we are familiar with the concept. If we did not have that concept, it would probably be puzzling, though we might gather that a marvel of some sort was intended (and the role of marvels, a staple of stories yet (by definition) seldom encountered in life, should be borne in mind here). In any case, as the film proceeded, we could see the role played by the text, and make inferences from that, though again they would draw on our familiarity with human culture and religious practices. In short, we would read the creation of the text as part of a story, one we were already familiar with: we would know where it fitted in.

In all of this, the content of the text would be taken for granted: we could suppose the kind of thing it might say, not least because the major human religions have a similar core, centred on compassion, seeing oneself in the other.

Now consider the ‘real-life’ incident. What inferences would we be prepared to draw solely from the manner of the text’s appearance? Certainly, our curiosity would be piqued: we had witnessed something marvellous, not easy to explain; doubtless we would be very keen to read the text and see what it contained.

However (and this is the crucial point) I think that whether we were sceptical or inclined to believe, we would agree that the actual content of the text was what mattered, rather than the manner of its appearing – its content is what we would use to form a judgement and reach a conclusion.

Now add a further refinement – let us suppose that the text is a bald and unequivocal instruction to slaughter all the members of some rival sect or group with which we have had uneasy relations in the past, occasionally spilling over into violence.

How would that be received?

Doubtless there would be the enthusiasts who are always keen to be licensed to do something terrible – that, I fear, is a strong streak in human nature. However, I like to think they would be in the minority, not least because this is not the sort of thing that sacred texts typically enjoin: it does not fit the familiar narrative. Interestingly, there is a ready-made counter, available from within the familiar narrative itself, to those who point to the marvellous circumstances of the text’s appearance as evidence of its divine origin – might it not be diabolical in origin instead?

And here, if you like, the devil comes into his own, or rather, we see the genuine usefulness of the concept of an enemy (which is all that ‘Satan’ means), a contriver of snares to lead us astray, one always seeking to turn our good to ill – within the narrative where God might speak to us directly through signs and marvels, it allows an escape clause; ‘The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose’ as Shakespeare reminds us – not every voice that impresses us as supernatural is divine.

My point is this: the marvellous circumstances, though they might impress us and incline us to a particular view, are not in themselves conclusive: no certain inference can be drawn from them – and that goes for any signs and wonders. Taken in themselves, they prove nothing; it is only as part of a greater narrative that they have meaning.

(Consider here Jesus’s response to the disciples of John (Luke Chapter 7, Matthew 11) who ask him, ‘are you the one who is to come, or are we to expect someone else?’ Jesus answers, ‘Go back and tell John what you hear and see; the blind see again, and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life and the good news is proclaimed to the poor’.

Though this might seem a mere catalogue of marvels – ‘look at the amazing things I have done! Is that not proof enough?’ that is not the point of it at all: rather, it is Jesus placing himself in context, connecting his actions to the earlier scriptural narrative, chiefly Isaiah, which would be well-known to John’s disciples and the whole community, in which the signs that will herald the messiah are described; it is not the marvels in themselves, but their connection to the story that matters, the fact that they can be seen as the fulfilment of scripture.)

The point is not ‘I am the messiah because I do miracles’ but ‘I am the messiah because I fit into the story’ – and implied in that, of course, is an acceptance of the story. It is similar to the two scenarios discussed above: the film representation is one that we can readily contextualise – even if it is presented as fiction – because we know the kind of thing it is, we are familiar with that sort of story; without that knowledge we are at a loss how to interpret it.

Another angle that might occur to us in the second ‘real-life’ scenario brings us back to my central point. We witness, on the open moorland under a clear sky, the mysterious writing of the text without human agency. A question that might reasonably be asked, once we have overcome our initial amazement, is why God would choose to communicate with us in this way. It seems a very human bit of stage-setting – like something out of a story, indeed. If God truly spoke to us, why not simply evince in us a firm conviction that something is the case?

Might I not – in a variant of the second scenario – go walking with a group of friends on a fine day and at a particular spot – an old stone table, say, on open moorland under a clear sky – be suddenly overwhelmed with a conviction of the unity and goodness of all things, that we are all united by a common humanity, that each of us is as the other, that you are me and I am you, and that all are part of the great scheme of things that we call Nature, the World or the Universe?

And all I would have to do then is cast about for suitable words or images to express this conviction, to convey what I feel to be its fundamental importance.

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The Opaque Window: a fable

People live beside an ancient wall. In the wall is an aperture, a window, which has great cultural significance for them. Many of them gather regularly to stare at the window, an odd practice, as all the panes are opaque; you can see nothing through it, though it does, to a very slight degree, admit light, at certain times.

These are the times when the people most like to gather at the window, because it glows dimly in a mysterious way which they find profoundly moving – they tell themselves and each other that this is why the window is revered as the foundation of their culture.

A strong tradition has grown up of drawing life-lessons from the window in the form of stories or sayings; they are the sort of thing the people take comfort from when they are troubled or perplexed or grieved.

The window itself is sacred: you have to be specially ordained to be allowed to touch it, and even then it must be done with the utmost reverence – this applies particularly to the glass panes. The frame, which is said ‘once upon a time’ to have been very plain, has over the years, as an expression of people’s piety and reverence, become increasingly ornate, decorated with carvings and gilded with real gold leaf.

(This practice occasionally causes friction among the faithful, and from time to time a puritan party holds sway, and they insist on getting everything back to its original unadorned plainness, though this only lasts for a time before it begins to accrete new ornament)

One night, when no-one is around, a young child rubs one of the sacred panes with a wet finger and creates a streak in the age-old layers of dirt. Through the streak he glimpses a sliver of light. Fascinated, he carries on till every pane is clear as crystal and he sees through them against a background of velvet darkness the slender crescent of the moon and a myriad stars.

He gazes in wonder till he feels sleepy and goes off to his bed.

Next morning, the people gather and gaze through the window in utter astonishment at the sun rising on a beautiful landscape. Their understanding of the window and their culture is transformed.


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No abiding city


Things take odd turns sometimes. After my Byzantine Epiphany I felt sure I was on the track of something, yet it proved elusive: after a lot of writing I felt I was still circling round it, unable to pin it down.

Then this morning I woke to the news that (with the General Election just over a week away) David Cameron was pledging, if re-elected, to pass a law that would prevent his government from raising the level of a range of taxes for the duration of the next parliament.

I have to say that this struck me at once as absurd, the notion of a government passing a law to prevent itself doing something: why go to all that trouble? why not just say, ‘we won’t do that’?

There’s the rub, of course – election promises are famously falser than dicers’ oaths; against that background, Mr Cameron feels the need to offer something stronger – no mere manifesto promise, but an actual law! – what could be a stronger guarantee than that?

There’s a paradox here, of course – because politicians’ promises are notoriously unreliable, Mr Cameron says he will pass a law to ensure that he will not go back on his word – and that’s a promise. The whole elaborate structure is built on the same uncertain foundation.

I am reminded of advice from a more reputable source, the Sermon on the Mount:

‘Again, you have heard how it was said to our ancestors, you must not break your oath…
But I say this to you, do not swear at all… all you need say is “Yes” if you mean yes, “No” if you mean no; anything more than this comes from the Evil One.’

You are no better than your word: if that is worth nothing, no amount of shoring-up will rectify the matter; and if it is good, what more do you need?

But there is something deeper here: the key, I think, to the very matter I had been trying to resolve.

Let us start with Mr Cameron’s utterance: it is perhaps best understood as a theatrical gesture. The actor on stage, conscious of the audience’s attention (and also of his distance from them, compared, say, to the huge close-up of the cinema screen) may feel the need to make a gesture which in everyday life would strike us as exaggerated and – well – theatrical. So Mr Cameron, in the feverish atmosphere of an election campaign, feels the need to outbid his opponents – ‘they say they’ll do something? well, I’ll pass a law that will make me do as I say!’

I have to say that even in context it sounds rather silly, but it would be even sillier outside it – so that is the first point, the importance of context to understanding.

The second is this business of making a law and the appearance it offers of transferring the responsibility from the person to something independent and objective – ‘don’t just take my word for it – it’ll be the law!’ It overlooks the fact that legislation is a convention that requires our consent to operate: the laws of the land are not like the laws of physics – they do not compel us in any way; we obey them through choice, not necessity.

(And of course the existence of a range of penalties and agencies of enforcement like the police and the courts are proof of this – you do not need any of that to make things obey the Law of Gravity; you only need threat and compulsion where there is the possibility that people might do otherwise)

These two things – the importance of context to meaning and the attempt to transfer responsibility from the person to something apparently objective and independent – chimed with what I had been struggling to express before.
I had been focusing on the effect that the introduction of writing has on language, and through that, on our whole way of seeing the world.

The gist of my argument was this: from time immemorial, we have had Speech, which is our version of something we observe throughout the animal kingdom – bird song, whale song, the noises of beasts. Then, relatively recently – between five and six thousand years ago – we invent something unique: Writing.


At first it is used for relatively low-grade menial (indeed, prosaic) tasks, such as making lists and records; it is a good thousand years before anyone thinks to employ it for anything we might call ‘literature’. That should be no surprise: where Speech is natural and instinctive, the product of millions of years’ development, writing is awkward and cumbersome, a skill (along with reading) that must be learned, and one not everyone can master.

Speech has all the advantages that go with sound: it has rhythm, rhyme, musicality, pattern; Writing has none of these. But it does have one thing: where speech exists in time and is fleeting, ephemeral, Writing exists in space and has duration; it is objective; it exists in its own right, apart from any context or speaker.

My speech dies with me: when my voice is stilled, it is gone (though it may linger in the memory of others); but my written words will outlast not only me but a hundred generations – they could be around long after any trace or memory of their author is wholly erased.

Thus, from Speech we move to Language – by which I mean the complex thing that arises after Writing is invented. The important thing about Language is its dual nature, and the interaction and tension between its two forms, the written and the spoken. These are (as I discussed before) in many respects antithetical – where Speech is necessarily bound up with a speaker and so with a context – it is always part of some larger human activity – Writing stands on its own, apart from any context, independent of its author, with its own (apparently) objective existence.

(and the differences go deeper – where speech draws on a rich range of devices to overcome its ephemeral character and make itself memorable – rhyme, rhythm, vivid imagery etc – writing (though it can borrow all of them) has no need of any of these, having permanence; the problem it must overcome is lack of context – it cannot rely on what is going on round about to clarify its meaning; it must stand on its own two feet, and aim to be clear, concise, unambiguous, logical.)

What Mr Cameron’s absurd utterance brought home to me was the deceptive nature of Writing’s independence and objectivity, which is more apparent than real. Just as the law he holds out as having some objective, compelling force that is greater than his word is only so because we (as a society) agree to assign that power to it (in this connection, see my earlier post, ‘bounded by consent’) – and ultimately has no greater strength than the original word that promises it – so the objectivity and independence of the written word are not inherent properties but rather qualities we have conferred on it.

The independence and objectivity we assign to language is a kind of trick we play on ourselves, and it is bound up with the matter I discussed in my earlier posts (here, here and here) concerning the ‘carapace’ that we erect between ourselves and Reality – a carapace of ideas on which we confer the title ‘reality’ even though it is a construct of our own.

(It was interesting to realise that my philosophical hero Ludwiig Wittgenstein had made this journey before me: in his early work, e.g. the Tractatus, he is much concerned with his ‘picture theory’ of language, in which a proposition is seen as picturing reality, by having its elements related to one another in a way that corresponds to how the elements of the reality it pictures are related:
‘2.12 A picture is a model of reality.
2.13 In a picture objects have the elements of the picture corresponding to them.
2.14 In a picture the elements of the picture are the representatives of objects.

2.1511 That is how a picture is attached to reality; it reaches right out to it.

2.223 In order to tell whether a picture is true or false we must compare it with reality.’

This model takes for granted the objective nature of language: it is the words, the proposition, that is true or false, and that is established by comparison with the world; we do not seem to play much part.

However, in his later work, Wittgenstein moves to a different position: he now speaks of ‘language games’ and ‘forms of life’; it is only as part of a language game or a form of life – i.e. some human activity – that words have meaning; and indeed, as a general rule, the meaning of a word is its use in the language. He emphatically rejects the idea of a ‘private language’ in which our thinking is done before being translated into words: all that is available to us is the unwieldy, untidy agglomeration that is Language, a public thing that everyone shares and shapes but no-one controls or commands – despite the best efforts of organisations such as L’Academie Francaise)

As is typical of Wittgenstein, this modest-seeming manoeuvre effectively demolishes an edifice of thought that has stood for millennia: its implications are profounder than might at first appear.

If we go back to Plato and his fellow Greeks, we find a horror of mutability (‘change and decay in all around I see’, as the hymn has it) and a yearning for Truth to be something fixed and immutable – hence Plato’s world of Ideas, the unchanging reality that can be apprehended only by the intellect and lies beyond the veil of Appearance which so beguiles our poor, deluded senses.

Language – the complex thing that arises after the invention of the written form – is central to establishing this Platonic world, whose influence has lasted down to the present day, in particular its elevation of the intellect over the senses and its separation of Appearance and Reality.

The quality of Language on which all this hinges is the illusion it gives of being something that exists in its own right: words have meanings and can be used to describe the world; if only we tidied up language, rid it of its anomalies, used it more carefully and logically – freed it from the abusage of everyday speech – made it, in a word, more literate, truer to its written form – then we would be able to express the Truth accurately and without ambiguity, and permanently.

This is the edifice that Wittgenstein shows to be no more than a castle in the air: if meaning exists only in context, as part of some human activity, then all meaning is provisional; nothing is fixed (an idea I have discussed before). Language can never be tidied up and purified, cleansed of its faults, because language is ultimately derived from Speech, which is a living, dynamic thing, constantly changing with the forms of life of those who speak it, and the new ‘language games’ they invent.

The truth of what I have just said is by no means universally accepted; indeed, we have made some pretty determined attempts to contradict it: the first was the use of Latin as a scholarly language after it had ceased to be a living tongue (having transmuted, in the course of time, into the various romance languages – Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian). Latin was the vehicle of academic discourse from the foundation of the first European universities in the eleventh century down to the time of Newton and beyond, a span of some five centuries; it remains the official language of the Roman Catholic church (although mass in the vernacular was introduced with the refoms of Vatican 2 in the early sixties, the Latin mass was not ‘banned’ as popularly supposed – only a specific form, the Tridentine rite, was discontinued; mass is still said in Latin to this day in various places).

It is no surprise to find that the Church – very much bound to the notion of an unchanging Truth – should be one of the last bastions of a purely literate language. In the academic and particularly the scientific world, the role formerly played by Latin has to a large extent been taken over by English, and ‘Academic English’ as a form is diverging from the living language, which in turn is diversifying (with the disappearance of the British Empire and the emergence of former colonies as countries in their own right) in much the same way as Latin transformed into various tongues after Rome fell.

I am sure that there are many today who will view my assertion that all meaning is necessarily provisional with the same horror that the Greeks contemplated the mutability of things, but I think if you consider it steadily, you will see that it is both liberating and refreshing.

In my previous piece I began by talking about the perils of building in stone – namely, that what you make will outlive its capacity to be understood, because although it does not change, the people considering it do. I think this happens all the time with ideas, and especially the ‘big’ ideas, about ‘Life, the Universe and Everything’ – because they are important, we try to fix them for all time, but we overlook the fact that they are the product of a particular time, expressed in the language of that time, and that succeeding generations will see and understand things differently.

Of course the change of outlook and the decay of understanding is never sudden and can be delayed, and that is exactly what written texts do: they give a particular version of something an authority and a form that can last for generations, and which may block any development for a long time.

(That, broadly, is what happened with Scholasticism: the influx (via the Islamic world) of ancient Greek learning – chiefly Aristotle – into mediaeval Europe provided a huge intellectual stimulus initially, as great minds like Thomas Aquinas came to terms with it and assimilated it into the thinking of the day; but so comprehensive did it seem that there was no impulse to move beyond it, so that it began to ossify – the object of university study became to master Aristotle’s works, and the ‘argument from authority’ came into vogue – to settle any dispute it sufficed to quote what Aristotle (often called  simply ‘The Philosopher’) said on the matter – there was no going beyond that. This situation lasted till the Renaissance shook things up once more )

So am I, then, making a straightforward pitch for Relativism and denying the possibility of an Absolute Truth?

Not quite. Rather, this is an argument for ineffability, the idea that ‘Great Truths’ cannot be expressed in words. It is not so much that language is not equal to the job (but might be improved till it was), rather that the greatness of these ‘Great Truths’ (that label is of course inadequate) is such that it necessarily exceeds our ability to comprehend them, so limiting our capacity to express them; though poetry can get closer than prose:

‘Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?’

and Art in general – music, painting, sculpture, dance, poetry – offers a more fruitful approach than philosophy – not to success, but a more rewarding kind of failure; or, as Mr Eliot so aptly expresses it,

‘but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.’

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‘Is there light in Gorias?’ – reflections on metaphor and truth


‘Metaphor: a figure of speech by which a thing is spoken of as being that which it only resembles, as when a ferocious person is called a tiger‘

Chambers Dictionary

Saddling metaphor with a definition like that (which is typical, even down to the threadbare example) is akin to giving it a criminal record – wherever it goes, it will never be trusted: what this definition says is that metaphor is essentially dishonest, at best an exaggeration, at worst a downright lie.

The crucial fault of this definition is that it prejudges the issue: the writer has already decided that a ferocious person is not and cannot be a tiger – he wants to insist on a world where tigers and people are separate and distinct, where that distinction between one thing and another is crucial, a matter of logic: A = A; B = B; therefore A does not and cannot ever equal B.

What metaphor points to is a world where tigers and people can overlap and merge, a world where resemblance and connection is more important than distinction and separation, where A and B can be the same. In other words – and this is a point of fundamental importance – metaphor indicates that logic does not furnish a complete or adequate description of the world.

(This might be likened to people who live in a city and have no understanding of country ways, or people who mistake their own land and culture for the entire world and think that ‘we don’t do that’ means ‘that isn’t done.’)

2006ah4175_tipus_tigerWhat is needed is a new definition, one that is not intrinsically hostile – I would suggest

‘Metaphor: a linguistic device which invites us to consider one thing in terms of another, to clarify or deepen our understanding; one of the key instruments of thought.’
(and for ‘simile’ I would simply say ‘a variety of metaphor’ because there is no importance in the difference between them)

What this definition makes clear is that metaphor is not only an honest enterprise, but an aid and a benefit to thought, something that improves our understanding; but it does more than that – by a slight shift in perspective, this definition does away with a world of mischief.

It prevents the grave error of supposing that the terms ‘symbolic’ and ‘metaphorical’ are opposed to ‘literal’, to their detriment – in other words, that only what is literal is true, and anything else is not – it is mere symbol, just metaphor. My definition does away with the fear that by describing something as ‘metaphorical’ or ‘symbolic’ we are denying that it is true – as such, it should be of great service to theologians.

There is such a thing as literal truth, but like logic, it deals with only one aspect of the world, and quite a small part of it. To have literal truth you must first have letters. By that, I mean that you must have the notion of language existing independently of speech. Speech is particular: the words spoken are mine, yours, someone’s. It is only when we make the great leap of giving speech permanent form through letters that the notion of language as something independent of individual speakers arises, and from that, the concept of literal truth.

Literal truth is not a property of the world, but of words – and strictly speaking, of written words, though in any literate society the spoken language is informed and mediated by its written form. Thus a written account, or a spoken account that can be transcribed (consider why we use court reporters to transcribe all that is said in a court of law) can be literally true, if there is a correspondence between what it says and what happened. If there is a disparity between the account and the event, then the account is judged to be false or untrue.

It should be clear from this that only a limited range of things can be true in this way – descriptions of events that set out to give an accurate account of what happened, such as we might find from a witness in a courtroom, or a reporter at the scene, or a description of an experiment in chemistry. (Other accounts – such as the report of a football match – may consist of a mixture of material, only some of which can be literally true – the score, the time of the goals, the names of the scorers, the teams – while the rest is judgement and opinion. One man’s gripping contest might be another man’s dour tussle; the fact that one team enjoyed seventy percent possession does not contradict the assertion that the other team dominated the game and played the better football – the fact about percentage possession may be literally true, but that the other team dominated the game is a matter of judgement)

Where such descriptions are untrue, some might be false while others might be inaccurate or mistaken – falsehood implies deliberate intent on the part of the reporter, who knows the true state of affairs but chooses to give an inaccurate account for some reason; on the other hand, a careless, inobservant or inexperienced reporter might simply be inaccurate – he failed to see all that was happening, or misinterpreted it; there was no intention to deceive.

‘Facts are chiels that winna ding an downa be disputit’ as Burns wrote; but the point I want to make here is that the realm of the factual is only a small part of our experience – opinion, thought and feeling cover a great deal more, and in that realm ‘truth’ has a different meaning that should not be confused with the correspondence between words and facts that is the definition of ‘literal truth’. There we speak of things ‘ringing true’ and apprehend truth as a quality found in a painting, a story, a piece of music, a poem; and having found it, we do not persuade others of its truth by argument, we simply point and ask ‘do you get it?’.

Verification is fine as far as it goes, but it does not go very far: there is no process for verifying the truth of King Lear or a Beethoven quartet. These are things that are understood in a different way; ‘truth’ means something else here. That is what makes disputes between science and religion so arid and pointless.

(in writing that, and casting about for a suitable analogy, I was reminded of Alan Garner’s story ‘Elidor’ which supplies the title to this piece – in it, the sacred objects that the children bring back with them – cauldron, sacred stone and spear – assume the mundane appearance of a broken teacup, a bit of rock and an iron railing. Concepts of great importance in one realm lose their significance when transported to the other)

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Can you be offside in chess?

the-football-players-1908(The Football Players by Henri Rousseau)

Two people are arguing; one insists that you can score a drop goal in football, the other that you can’t. Eventually it emerges that the first is talking about rugby football, gaelic football and Australian rules; but the other means only association football.

So who is right? Once we know the context, that question no longer makes sense – we can say that if by ‘football’ you mean these particular codes, then it is right to say that you can score a drop goal; but if you mean only association football, then that is not the case. So what about the original question – can you or can’t you score a drop goal in football?

There is no absolute sense of ‘football’ in which the question makes sense, though it can at least be resolved; but if you asked ‘can you score a drop goal in chess?’ or ‘can you be offside in chess?’ it would be clear that you didn’t know anything about chess (you might be a foreigner who knows it is the name of a game and is trying to work out what kind of game it is).

Wittgenstein uses the terms ‘game’ and ‘way of life’ a lot in his discussion of language, and in particular of meaning. His central contention is that words have meaning only in context, only as part of a larger whole in which they stand in relation to other things; hence his dictum that ‘in most cases, the meaning of a word is its use in the language’.

To get the full force of what Wittgenstein is saying, you need to consider the position he is arguing against, which is that ‘meaning’ is something which the speaker imparts to a word by some kind of mental process, that when I make an utterance like ‘it is raining heavily’ there is some sort of parallel mental process that accompanies (and possibly precedes) my words. I suppose this arises from the idea that language is the expression of thought, which conjures an image of my thoughts forming a sort of mental cloud inside my head and my words having some correspondence to them, as if a line ran from each word to something in my mind.

(It is interesting, in passing, to see the spectre of Cartesian Dualism haunting that particular image)

But Wittgenstein’s argument is that this picture is simply mistaken and misleading and in fact unnecessary – we can explain how words mean perfectly well, indeed rather better, without having recourse to it. Meaning is a property, not of individual words, but of language, and not of some single over-arching language (an absolute ‘football’ in the terms of the argument above) but of a language made up of many different ‘codes’ or ‘games’ or ‘ways of life’.

A good dictionary illustrates this point, though at first sight it might seem to support the idea that words have fixed meanings in themselves. While a cheap dictionary will simply cite a single meaning, or a range of meanings if you are lucky, a dictionary like the OED will furnish a dated quotation to illustrate the earliest known occurrence of each particular meaning in use.

One of the earliest things you learn in studying philosophy is to define your terms; and this generally takes the form of the philosopher’s favourite statement, ‘it depends what you mean by…’ . Thus, in the argument above, one could say ‘It depends what you mean by ‘football’’ and that could quickly bring the argument to a happy resolution – but not necessarily.

This is where another of Wittgenstein’s ideas comes into play. If I was asked what makes Wittgenstein a philosopher of the first rank, I would point to his wonderful ability for quietly upsetting apple-carts – in other words, his breathtaking capacity for demolishing received ideas of central importance without making any fuss about it. In this case, the received idea is the notion of ‘essence’, which goes back to Aristotle.

Again, this is something you learn early in philosophy, and it can be a powerful tool in argument: that whatever is called by a particular name has an essence, some quality or set of qualities that makes it what it is, a defining character which entitles it to that name, and excludes other things from having the same name applied to them.

The whole system of classification from general to specific, which we also owe to Aristotle, depends on this concept: that all the members of a particular class have something in common that makes them members of that class. This is such a powerful and useful tool, with such a wide application, that we can overlook the fact that it is only a tool and (mis)take it for an actual description.

Wittgenstein, without the least fuss, demolishes the concept of essences, offering instead two other ways of looking at it: family resemblances, and strands in a thread. He uses the first in relation to games, then the second as a development of that, in relation to number:

‘Consider for example the proceedings that we call “games”… what is common to them all? – Don’t say: ‘there must be something in common, or they would not be called “games”’ but look and see whether there is anything common to all.

[he cites board games, card-games (including patience), ball games (including a child throwing a ball against a wall) and even ring-a-ring-a-roses, then concludes]

And the result of this examination is: we see a  complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail.

I can think of no better expression to characterise these similarities than “family resemblances”; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way. – And I shall say: ‘games’ form a family.

And for instance the kinds of number form a family in the same way. Why do we call something a “number”? well, perhaps because it has a – direct – relationship with several things that have hitherto been called number; and this can be said to give it an indirect relationship to other things we call the same name. And we extend our concept of number as in spinning a thread we twist fibre on fibre. And the strength of the thread does not reside in the fact that some one fibre runs through its whole length, but in the overlapping of many fibres.’

(Philosophical Investigations I,  nos 66 & 67)

This for me is a very liberating step, though perhaps that is only for those who have been in thrall to philosophy in the first place, in particular philosophy descended from Aristotle and Plato. It seems to me that as long as you have the concept of essence you are driven to the chimerical notion of some single order of reality at the back of everything which it then becomes the task of the philosopher to discover: the equivalent, in the argument we open with, of trying to find a single definition of ‘football’.

To dispense with, at a stroke, a single scheme of things into which everything must fit and replace it with a whole family of such schemes none of which can make an overarching claim seems to me a very healthy development and one that defuses a great deal of argument and eases a lot of tension. And there is another aspect of Wittgenstein’s concept of meaning that strikes me as potent and fruitful.

It occurs to me that there is a strong parallel between the concept of meaning defined by context and that of a character in a story, and that the two point to a third thing about our own ‘meaning’  as individuals in the world.

Meaning is not the property of a word; it is something that a word derives from the context in which it occurs, the language-game of which it forms a part, the way of life in which it is used, to use the Wittgensteinian terms. Similarly, a character in a story does not have a separate existence in his (or her) own right, but is defined in relation to the other characters and the action of the story – the story is the thing, if you like; the character is only a part.

(Of course you can play literary games and have Hamlet put in an appearance as Bertie Wooster’s house guest, but all you are really doing is inventing another form of football, as it were – you now have a third story, which features one character also found in Shakespere and another in Wodehouse; but you don’t reason from that that Hamlet and Bertie exist independently apart from the places where we find them)

Is it too bold a step to see ourselves in the same light? That our ‘meaning’ is derived from being part of a greater whole, rather than something we possess absolutely as of right? How compatible or incompatible would such a position be with other world-views, religious and otherwise? (I sense that the most strenuous objection would come from those who make a cult of individualism and advocate extreme self-reliance; from the wide range of others, not so much)

An interesting consideration, not least for the prospect it opens on the subject of personal boundaries and the limits of the self.

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Means and ends, motes and beams

‘O wad some power the giftie gie us

tae see oursels as ithers see us!

it wad frae mony a blunder free us,

an foolish notion.’

– Burns, ‘to a Louse’

The end does not justify the means: you may not do evil that good might come; you may not violate your principles in defence of them. If I had to select a single axiom that we in the ‘West’ would do well to think deeply about, it would be this, because it is under attack from every side. It is not an easy principle – profound truths rarely are – but it is a vital one, in the precise meaning of that term – our very lives depend on it.

Terrorism, of course, rests on the inversion of this principle: for the terrorist, the end does justify the means; he (or she) may do anything, commit any atrocity, to further the cause; for the terrorist, the cause – whether that is national freedom, a political or religious ideology – justifies any act done to further it. In short, it is the essence of terrorism to believe that you may do anything to achieve your end, that the end justifies the means.

In other words, it is this principle that distinguishes us from terrorists.

That is a crucial point: it is not that the terrorists are wrong and wicked and we are right and good. Terrorists are not comic-book villains who do evil for the sake of it: no-one fights for a cause believing it to be wrong or wicked; on the contrary, it is because they are convinced of the justice of their cause that they are prepared to do anything to further it (it was Martin Scorsese, I think, who remarked, talking of the Mafia, ‘they call themselves the good people’ – everyone thinks of himself as one of the good guys).

This morning on the news we hear that the agents of a foreign power have seized a citizen by force in his own country in broad daylight, kidnapped him, and taken him out of his country. The state responsible, far from denying it, makes a boast of it, and justifies the breach of national and international law and the violation of individual rights on the grounds that this man is a terrorist and was guilty of acts which showed no regard for the law, national or international, or individual human rights. In other words, he’s a bad guy; we’re the good guys; that makes it ok.

Last night I watched a new British TV series called ‘By Any Means’ which centres on a special unit operating independently within the police force to bring wrongdoers to book ‘by any means’. Whenever the chief character is asked ‘are you police?’ he responds with what the writers doubtless hope to make a catch-phrase, ‘it’s a grey area.’ The programme is a species of comedy drama, very much along the lines of ‘Hustle’, in which a lovable band of con-artists used their remarkable talents in Robin Hood fashion to give villains their comeuppance. Now ‘Hustle’ was fine entertainment and this new version shows signs of being the same, but the premise on which it is founded is disturbing.

In ‘Hustle’ there is no question that our heroes are operating outside the law; they fall into the category of ‘lovable rogues’ and reflect that curious ambivalence that we have in our attitude to criminals, especially those that are audacious and intelligent; but that is matter for another day. In ‘By Any Means’, however, the heroes are an irregular unit of the police force operating with official sanction, not from their senior officers (to whom they are invisible) but from that mysterious place, ‘higher up.’

It is all very high-minded, of course: their targets are invariably villains of the deepest dye whose guilt is unquestionable but who have somehow evaded justice; the justice system, it is implied, is not fit for purpose – smart lawyers exploit well-intentioned but ill-considered legislation to ensure that criminals walk free. This is by no means a new theme; it is certainly present in Dirty Harry, where Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan is ranged against a City Hall that is seen as self-serving, corrupt and weak, hindered by political correctness; though the second in the series, Magnum Force, does go some way to examine the dangers of vigilante policing implied in the first.

There have been real-life irregular police units that operated independently of the main force with sanction from ‘higher up’, but they were not lovable high-minded fellows with a twinkle in their eye: the reality of ‘By Any Means’ is the Esquadrão da Morte or ‘Death Squad’ of Brazil, off-duty policemen funded by business interests who ‘cleaned up’ criminal activity by extra-judicial killings (of street children among others) with the support of some members of the judiciary and some politicians.

On Saturday night I watched ‘Taken’ in which Liam Neeson plays a man whose daughter is kidnapped in Paris by Albanian sex-traffickers; but he also happens to be a retired ‘black-ops’ agent, effectively a one-man army trained in every lethal art. Having spoken to his daughter’s kidnappers on the phone (and we of course have witnessed her kidnap in harrowing detail as she is dragged from her hiding place under the bed) and told them that he will hunt them down and kill them, he proceeds to do just that, leaving a trail of carnage and destruction as he chops, stabs, shoots and tortures his way across Paris. At one point he kidnaps one of the gang and wires him up to the mains electricity, explaining that he used to do this ‘professionally’ as it were, though that tended to be in countries where the power supply was unreliable, which here in France it is not. Having broken the man’s resistance by a few applications of current he then leaves, but not before switching the current on again to ensure his slow and agonising death – because his crimes merit that, of course: he is a bad man, and Liam Neeson’s character’s cause is just.

The French police are of no use in the matter, and would sooner deport Neeson than attempt to save his daughter; in fact, they are worse than useless, they are actually corrupt, and turn a blind eye to the traffickers in exchange for cash. Though this film is French in origin (directed by Pierre Morel, produced and co-written by Luc Besson) and police corruption is a staple of French movies, it is notable that it dates from a period of US disenchantment with the French government over the Iraq war, when a US politician famously branded the French ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’ and patriotic American restaurateurs were renaming ‘French Fries’ ‘Freedom Fries’.

And the nationality of the villains is interesting – the Albanian sex-traffickers sell the daughter on, because she is a virgin, and in the subsequent auction which Neeson’s character gatecrashes, the successful bidder is an Arab sheikh. In the short-hand of Hollywood cinema, Albanians – like Eastern Europeans generally – are ruthless criminals, while Arabs (especially wealthy ones) have been a by-word for concupiscence since Rudolph Valentino first donned a burnous in The Sheik.

After driving at high speed the wrong way along that road by the Seine that all the foreign agents drive along the wrong way at high speed, Neeson’s character leaps from a bridge onto the sheikh’s barge and proceeds to slaughter everyone on board, aided by the fact that his enemies have – in the usual Hollywood manner – inexplicably loaded their machine-pistols with special ‘no-hit’ bullets, while Neeson’s deadly-accurate gun has the usual inexhaustible magazine, in the great tradition of white-hatted cowboys whose six-shooters went on shooting well into double figures without being reloaded.

And the justification for all this? well, of course, it is to save his daughter – his virgin daughter – from ‘a fate worse than death’: what man who calls himself a man would do otherwise? In presenting it in these personal terms, as a man fighting to save his family, the film recalls the classic question that was put to conscientious objectors in the First World War – ‘and what would you do, if a German soldier was ravishing your sister?’ – in other words, if the national conflict could be recast as a personal one, wouldn’t you see it as justified then? 

Are there not some things that every one of us would be prepared to do anything to protect?

In other words, is there not for all of us some particular end that justifies the means?

That is a hard question, because perhaps everyone can imagine being in a situation where someone we love is threatened and we like to think that we would do all that we could to protect and save them, regardless; and that is why we do well to be deeply suspicious of anyone who attempts to recast the actions of a state in such personal terms – ‘we are doing this to defend your homes and families and all you hold most dear.’ ‘Taken’ can certainly be seen as a metaphor for a particular strand of American foreign policy, whether or not that was its makers’ primary intention.

Why do we have judicial processes? Why do we not allow the police to be also, like Judge Dredd, judge, jury and executioner? It is because, down the centuries, we have acquired some small wisdom with regard to the limitations of our human nature: things are not always what they seem; it is wise to have a presentation of evidence, and a consideration of it by disinterested parties, who have no stake in the outcome; it is wise to have a balance between expert knowledge and the common sense of the community, so that a verdict, when it is arrived at, has public confidence. And we do things this way not because it is infallible – it certainly is not – nor because it is efficient – it is laborious and time consuming and costly – but because it the best and fairest way we have been able to evolve. As such, it has become part of our way of life: this is how we do things.

And an important part of that way of life is that we stick to our principles: we do not violate them out of fear or from political expediency. Again, this is hard-learned wisdom about human nature – once you start making exceptions, once you allow the law to be bent ‘in certain circumstances’, you play into the hands of the rich and powerful, who will always be more persuasive than the poor and weak. Being fair to everyone, in practice, does not mean treating everyone equally – it means taking special care to protect those who cannot stand up for themselves, those whose weakness leaves them prey to the strong – ‘the widow and the orphan’, if you like.

Something that has a bearing here – perhaps an unexpected one – is the parable of the mote and the beam. It presents, in vivid and comical terms, a particular human failing – our tendency in judging to magnify the faults of others while diminishing our own: we draw our brother’s attention to the speck of dust in his eye, while ignoring the dirty great plank that is in ours.

The parables, for all their apparent simplicity, are very subtle forms of story telling; a key feature of many of them is their tendency to wrong-foot the listener. There are generally two parties – which do we identify with? Is it the prodigal son who wastes all his substance on liquor and women, or his hard-working brother who did all the right things? Is it the labourers in the vineyard who toiled all day in the heat, or the johnny-come-latelies who were hired at the eleventh hour? is it the Pharisee or the publican?

The invitation is to identify ourselves with the sinner; our tendency is to sympathise with the righteous. You could say that the message of the parables is that ‘the danger starts with seeing yourself as the good guy’. We see the beam in the other’s eye readily enough, though this is actually the opposite of what the parable tells us.

Just so with the terrorist: the beam in his eye is that he is willing to inflict appalling atrocities on the innocent, do monstrous injustice to further the cause that he thinks just and right – and by doing that, he surely undermines any rightness or justice his cause may have had; we see that plainly enough though he does not perceive it.

But what is the beam that the terrorist sees in our eye? Is it not something surprisingly similar? That for all our talk of fairness, justice, democracy and the rest, our way of life rests, not on these fine principles, but on our capability and willingness, if challenged, to defend it with overwhelming force? That our pre-eminent position in the world is not owing to our virtue but our might?

Of course, that’s not how we see it. These occasional blemishes – like inventing special categories of prisoner to get round the Geneva Convention, like ‘special rendition’, like farming out torture to folks who do that kind of thing, like maintaining at colossal expense a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying all human life – these are just specks. What we stand for, that’s the important thing. Our cause really is just. After all, we’re the good guys, aren’t we?

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