Put Your Words With the Word On the Cross

Put Your Words With the Word On the Cross January 13, 2009

The Oracle at Delphi famously had the phrase “know thyself” written down and recorded for all visitors to see. St Clement of Alexandria placed Greek philosophy next to Hebrew prophecy, saying God gave one to each people as a guide; but here, we must question the merit of his view – Greek philosophy had much of its roots in oracles, indicating that God might have spoken to the Greeks not just through philosophy but through prophets whose words led to philosophy.[1] Following the example of the philosophers, Christians took this imperative to heart; indeed, for many, such as St Anthony the Great, authentic spirituality began here. “My beloved in the Lord, know yourselves. For they who know themselves, know their time: and they who know their time, are able to stand firm, and not be moved by divers tongues.”[2] Heresy, false opinion, divides one from the church since it is a claim of truth spoken in ignorance, and therefore, in pride. Because Arius did not properly know who he was, he sinned, and declared that which should never have been said. “For if such a one had known himself, his tongue would not have spoken that of which he had no knowledge.”[3] To know oneself is to know one’s place in the world, to know one’s strengths and weaknesses, one’s knowledge and one’s ignorance.

Socrates was a great philosopher because he knew enough about himself to know that he did not have any real comprehension, any real knowledge, of the world; what he had was a lot of questions with hypothetical solutions. He understood the importance of epistemology and why it is difficult to produce any sound answers to philosophical questions with the intellectual tools humans possess. Even when one finds some universal truth, when one proclaims it, it becomes a particular presentation of that truth, and so requires an understanding of the context in which it was proclaimed to be properly understood. When this does not happen, as is normally the case, use of such a proclamation makes for a falsehood via equivocation. Modern hermeneutics has helped lead us to recognize this fact, but it has not helped us find a way to truly engage a philosophical text within their original and proper context (all we have is the tool of historical reconstruction, which, while helpful, fails to produce what it is called to do, that is, a full recreation of the past in the present).

Philip K. Dick in his novel, The Galactic Pot-Healer, presented a game in which the participants would take the name of a book, say that title to a computer which translate it into another language, have that translation translated back into the original language in the same fashion, and then have people test each other to see if they can determine what the original name of the book was. Since the context of the title is lost, the computer produced strange (and humorous) results. Dick showed us the reasoning skills needed in order to recreate the title, the process which is analogous to the process one must undergo to engage historical reconstruction (with the difference, of course, is that a title can exist by itself, while the past must be seen as an organic whole, and any presentation of it is but a limited slice of it):

Ignoring the question, Gauk read from the slip of paper. “The Lattice-work Gun-stinging Insect.”

“Gun-slinging?” Joe asked.

“No. Gun-stinging.”

“Lattice-work,” Joe said, pondering. “Network. ‘Stinging Insect.’ Wasp?” He scratched with his pen, stumped. “And you got this from the translation computer at Kobe? Bee,” he decided. ” ‘Gun,’ so Gun-bee. Heater-bee. Laser-bee. Rod-bee. Gat.” He swiftly wrote that down. “Gat-wasp, gat-bee. Gatsby. ‘Lattice-work.’ That would be a grating. Grate.” He had it now. “The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald.” He tossed down his pen in triumph.[4]

In truth, the problem is not only in dealing with philosophical ideas expressed in the past, but even with those ideas being discussed today. Being contemporary with another does not mean one engages the world the same way with them; context is more than mere locality in time or space, but also one’s use of language, one’s grasp of language, and one’s intent and purposes with the words one speaks. No matter how much one would like to use language as a tool for communio (and certainly it can be, should be, and will be – through the Logos), we must remember there is another side to language, that the use of words to objectify the world constructs a way in which the world can be, and is, destroyed. While language should be used as a tool for life, the violent undertones of its use, when neglected, become a thing of death. Human language as it is employed in the world is a human construct tainted by sin. “As Hegel was already well aware, there is something violent in the very symbolisation of a thing, which equals its mortification. This violence operates at multiple levels. Language simplifies a designated thing, reducing it to a single feature. It dismembers a thing, destroying its organic unity, treating its parts and properties as autonomous. It inserts the thing into a field of meaning which is ultimately external to it.”[5] Language, to be sure is a good tool, an important one, but one with severe limitations, and those limitations, when neglected, turn the tool (intentionally or not) into a weapon that takes more than it gives – that is, as long as one is bound to it in a legalistic manner, it limits one’s knowledge to a few trinkets of fact, to information, hiding the real which lies behind facts.

We are all socialized with a common worldview, one which imputes common words to particular objects, distinguishing such objects according to the way we distinguish words. In this way, we must see how the word produces the world, and what is wordless is incapable of being factualized (and so seen, if it is seen at all by someone, as a non-thing). Socialization produces a common bond, with some commonly believed facts (common sense) which becomes the hermeneutical lens which a given person in given society normally uses to understand his or her place in the world. Philosophical investigation, according to Vladimir Solovyov, happens when one begins to question one’s background and its social structure – that is, when one finds what one has been led to believe to be untenable. “The intellectual activity of individuals is wholly determined by national beliefs. This is clear a priori and is historically unquestionable. Thus, philosophy arises only when, for thinking individuals, the faith of the nation ceases to be their own faith, loses for them the significance of an inner unconscious conviction, and instead of a principle of life, becomes merely an object of thought. Philosophy begins when thinking individuals separate their thought from the common faith, oppose it to this faith as to something external.“[6] No wonder philosophy proper begins (and possibly ends) with the questioning of the self – for only when one begins to see oneself in a new light, and reflect upon society in relation to that new light, one begins to question society and its assumptions as well. “Philosophy as a certain rational (reflective) knowledge is always a matter of personal reason.”[7] In some respects, all philosophical progression will be hyper-contextualized, making it so that philosophical insight is private and never to be shared; yet, it is personal, it is social, it is a reflection upon oneself in relation to society and social norms, and in that reflection, one shares one’s response to society and, if one is heard, helps to reshape it, creating a new construct, which, while useful, will one day need to be deconstructed as well.[8]

No matter what relationship one sees between philosophy and theology, be it that philosophy is the handmaiden to theology, or that theology is the true philosophy, the implications of what has been said affects the theological enterprise. Even when theology deals with universal truths, proclaiming revelation which transcends normal human understanding, that revelation consistently needs to be readdressed from age to age, in order to properly engage the context it finds itself in, and to properly express its positions within new contexts. Spirituality, with expressions which in part come out of such theological reflection, obviously serves to help a given people, at a given time and a given place, and so is also contextual. However, as Gutierrez points out, contextualization of spirituality (and so, also theology) should not lead us to believe it is directly caused by the context; rather, it is the penetration of truth (with grace) at a given time and place to engage the people living within that context so they can realize the truth and all its expectations upon people: “Every great spirituality is connected with the great historical movement of the age in which it was formulated. This linkage is not to be understood in the sense of mechanical dependence, but the following of Jesus is something that penetrates deeply into the course of human history.”[9] Spirituality is not the mere intellectual reflection of truth, it the experience of truth. It is the fruit of a particular experience, to particular people, at a particular time and place, which leads to an insight that can be shared (in part) with others. Such experiences do not have to be described by words, and can be shared without them, but, it must be sure, any reflection will end up encased in words. When an experience is shared, it opens up a point of contact, a well (so to speak) from which people can draw upon. If authentic, it can help form a great movement within the church, reviving the faith of many people. “At the root of every spirituality there is a particular experience that is had by concrete persons living at a particular time. The experience is both proper to them and yet communicable to others. I cited earlier the passage in St. Bernard of Clairvaux in which he says that in these matters all people should drink from their own well. The great spiritualities in the life of the church continue to exist because they keep sending their followers back to the sources.”[10]

Equivocation is just as much a problem in theology as it is in philosophy, indeed, its dangers are greater because the matters under discussion are greater. Theologians throughout the centuries have recognized this fact (to one extent or another) – thus one can find the tradition of apophatic theology with its “way of negation” as being seen as the primary means of talking about God in the East, or analogical theology being the theological enterprise par excellence of the West. We must never confuse our declarations of truth for more than what they are; literalism (and the fundamentalism which comes out of it) always evolves into error as contexts change. The violent underpinnings of such ideology, one which tries to construct truth in words and to eliminate all that cannot be presented in such words, often ends up in act as it is in ontology, explaining why many forms of fundamentalism tend to spread themselves with physical violence.

A great spiritual truth is, ironically enough, proclaimed by the words, “Preach the Gospel, use words if necessary.”[11] The truth transcends words. If we want people to experience it, to drink from the well of truth, we must find a way to transcend the human word so that one can find the divine Word. Humanly made words are valuable, but they always come with a price. As time goes by, they become cancerous in their old age, and must surrender themselves to The Word on the Cross, so that their truth might live again. “For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt 16:25). If we cannot let go, and let God’s truth prevail beyond our human constructs, then all we will have is that which is human, that which is fallen, that which cannot produce grace in and of itself. If our word is not sacrificed, then the price is life in death, and hell on earth.


[1] Does not the Dies Irae suggest the same?
[2] St Antony of Egypt, Letter IV, pgs. 12-13 in The Letters of Saint Antony the Great. Trans. Derwas J. Chitty (Oxford, SLG Press, 1991): 12
[3] Ibid., 13.
[4] Philip K. Dick, Galactic Pot-Healer (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), 8.
[5] Slavoj Žižek, Violence (New York: Picador, 2008), 61.
[6] Vladimir Solovyov, The Crisis of Western Philosophy. Trans. Boris Jakim (Husdon, NY: Lindisfarne Press, 1996), 13.
[7] Ibid., 12.
[8] The renaissance of Russian philosophy, which inspired Solovyov and his reflections on philosophy, can be traced to Peter Chaadaev, whose ideas were so radical that he was once put away for insanity – as his “Apology of a Madman” points out, he could not accept Russia as it was in his day. His “madness” came as a rejection of social mores, of “common sense,” which, however, led others to become reflective and agree with the need for change (not, necessarily, along the lines Chaadaev wanted). “I have never put much stock in the populace; I have never had democratic tastes; I have never courted popular ovations nor esteemed the judgments of the crowd. I have always thought that humanity could advance only by following its elite, by following those who have the mission of leading it; that universal opinion is not absolute reason as a great writer of our times believed, that the instincts of the majorities are necessarily more egotistical, more emotional, more narrow than those of the solitary man; that what men call the common sense of the people is not good sense at all; that truth cannot be represented by a number; finally that human intelligence always manifest itself most powerfully only in the solitary mind, center and sun of its sphere.” Peter Chaadaev, “Apologia of a Madman,” pgs. 199 – 218 in Major Works of Peter Chaadaev. Trans. Raymond T. McNally (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1969):201.

[9] Gustavo Gutierrez, We Drink From Our Own Wells. Trans. Matthew J. O’Connell (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001), 26.
[10] Ibid., 37.
[11] While attributed to St Francis, we do not have it in any of his writings. We have something similar when he wrote, “Let all the brothers, however, preach by their deeds.” St Francis of Assisi, “The Earlier Rule,” pgs. 63 – 86 in Francis of Assisi: The Saint. Ed, Regis J. Armstrong, J.A. Wayne Hellmann, and William J. Short (New York: New City Press, 1999): 75

Browse Our Archives

Close Ad