Sunday, July 02, 2006

Two Kinds of Language

Literal and figurative!
"Proper language" and "poetry"

In college I studied Science, majoring in Biology and Chemistry. Then I spent a year in Medical School; later I worked for three years as a research chemist.

In seminary I found that language was used very differently.

Science used precise terms, each with one definite, exclusive meaning. In contrast religion used metaphors-- pointing toward the ineffable.

Among the characteristics of metaphors is that they often mean two (or more) things, sometimes directly opposite. Take fire for example: in the Bible we read about both divine and demonic fire. Another characteristic of metaphors is that they are in a sense optional: among the many connotations of fire very different metaphors may serve the same purpose.

"Everyone shall be salted with fire". When you read that, if you have any curiosity about what it might mean, you begin to try to interpret it, that is, you cast about in your mind other metaphors! that might serve to make the meaning clear.

Metaphors are allusive, suggestive; they imply rather than specify as scientific terms do.

In the seminary I soon learned that to attempt to describe spiritual values precisely was unrewarding, unless, that is, one lived with a purely material consciousness. In that case it was the only recourse.

Our culture has been deeply affected by scientific learning and influence. People in general (unfortunately) have an almost purely materialistic consciousness; few people are comfortable talking about spiritual categories, often because they just don't have the mental equipment).

So we have a materialistic culture: things that can be observed with the senses, measured, weighed, evaluated in physical terms; these are what people talk about almost exclusively.

This is unfortunately true of religious discourse. So we talk about abortion, gay marriage, flag burning, etc. etc. and never say a word about love or integrity or honor, much less about purity, meekness, gentleness, and faithfulness.

A purely literal interpretation of the Bible condemns one to a purely material viewpoint about God. But God is not matter; God is Spirit!

2 comments:

Meredith said...

Dear Larry,
You and I agree on this one. ;)

Poets seems to have an easier time with spiritual language than scientists. However, you write,

People in general (unfortunately) have an almost purely materialistic consciousness; few people are comfortable talking about spiritual categories, often because they just don't have the mental equipment).

I would reframe this by saying that many people have an underutilized ability to speak about "spiritual categories;" the capacity is likely there, just not utilized, excercised, or practiced. However, when someone with this underutilization has a moment of awakening, of seeing their true nature, or of a profound spiritual experience, the ability and words to express this experience begin to flow. We cast aside precise terms with definite and exclusive meanings. We can only move to metaphor, to speak of that which is oft times below our cognition, to describe that which touches our hearts rather than our minds.

Larry said...

I couldn't agree with you more, Meredith. My statement about some who "don't have the mental equipment" is to some degree unfounded, an unwarranted categorization. The "lack of mental equipment" is an unfortunate legacy of unnumbered millions, but I should hasten to add, as you have here, that the eternal spark is always there, often displayed in other than 'mental' ways. In any event we will all reach the common goal.