Tag Archives: semantics

Book Review: Philosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein

From a layman’s point of view, Wittgenstein has a fearsome reputation in the realm of modern philosophy. This is his best known work and contains the most extensive account of his thinking from his own hand. So one approaches it with a feeling that borders fear and respect. No one can expect a light read.

I picked this up the day after finishing Paul and the Faithfulness of God, but could only manage 2-3 pages on most days.

Before dealing with the substance of the book, a word first about the structure of the book. The whole book is divided into numbered paragraphs varying from just one or two lines to a page in length. On the left hand side is the German original text, on the right hand side is the English translation. The original translation was provided by G.E.M Anscombe (no relation, as far as I know) which has been then modified/corrected. The introduction is quite baffling. It seems designed for the purist who is very familiar with Wittgenstein’s work, as there is an in-depth discussion about various manuscripts which went towards making the final work. For the most part, I think this can be skipped over.

So what of the text then? We hit a problem with the first paragraph. The opening gambit is a quote from Augustine’s Confessions, only instead of providing a translation either into German or into English, it has been left untranslated in Latin. So unless you are fluent in Latin or have a copy of the Confessions to hand (thankfully I did) then you will be left none the wiser as to the starting point. In case you don’t have Augustine, the passage used is translated thus:

“When people gave a name to an object and when, following the sound, they moved their body towards that object, I would see and retain the fact that that object received from them this sound which they pronounced when they intended to draw attention to it. Moreover, their intention was evident from the gestures which are, as it were, the natural vocabulary of all races, and are made with the face and the inclination of the eyes and the movements of other parts of the body, and by the tone of voice which indicates whether the mind’s inward sentiments are to seek and possess or to reject and avoid. Accordingly, I gradually gathered the meaning of words, occurring in their places in different sentences and frequently heard; and already I learnt to articulate my wishes by training my mouth to use these signs.”

What we then get is really a philosophy of language. Through a number of examples, Wittgenstein explores what we might mean by the word ‘mean’. He refers back occasionally to an earlier work which I haven’t read which asserts that language is built on propositions like “[this is that]”. Given the intricate nature of his writings, it is quite hard to summarise.

If I were to attempt to do so, it would be that he gives us a philosophy of “ish”, a sort of getting the gist. His contention is that philosophers have made the mistake of trying to separate words from their meanings. Rather he contends that the meaning of a word is given by its usage. This is explored at some length with a number of examples, but for the purposes of this review I shan’t do a thorough critique. That would require far more space and time than I have for here.

What he doesn’t address adequately is what happens with misunderstandings. i.e. if I use a word and mean one thing when another uses the same word to mean a different thing, how might we resolve the misunderstanding that inevitably ensues?

The book isn’t divided into chapters, so the argument rather drifts from paragraph to paragraph. Because of this, there are no clear delineators between topics, yet one can clearly see that the subject drifts if one flicks through 5 pages at a time.

Another major topic that is covered is the issue of subjectivity. He does this via talking about pain. I couldn’t help but think of a recent show at the Edinburgh Fringe that a friend of mine did, called Ruminations on the Nature of Subjectivity, as that could well describe a good chunk of Philosophical Investigations. It’s noticeable that Wittgenstein chooses his examples very carefully, so as to emphasise the strength of his arguments, though I could readily think of other examples that would go someway to undermining his argument.

That said, he doesn’t really construct an argument as such. Where one might expect something akin to a proposition followed by a line of reasoning to demonstrate the truth of the proposition or to have a line of reasoning culminating in a conclusion, Wittgenstein’s meandering musings don’t really seem to go anywhere. At times it feels like he goes round in circles. So when we get to the end of the main part of the book there are no great theorems, it just ends rather abruptly.

We then have the philosophy of psychology which was previously known as Part 2. One can see why it has the two names, as it follows on very much in the same vein, talking around the nature of subjectivity, but here drifting into the realm of psychology. It is in this part that we get introduced to the famous duck-rabbit which serves as one of a few illustrations about what we “see”. This is all very fascinating stuff, even if the way it is approached is not exactly user-friendly.

So, reading this as someone who is not a Wittgenstein aficionado, much of it came across as rather obtusely put, even if the basic ideas were fairly easy to grasp. I already came across a summary of Wittgenstein’s work while I was reading this, in Plato and a Platypus. This rather backs up my review so far. This is not for the faint-hearted, but one shouldn’t be put off by that. There is much here to mull over, though I may need to read a bit more around Philosophical Investigations in order to fully get it.

The changing meanings of symbols & words – abandon or reclaim?

With my computer now dead, I am attempting to write this on my phone. I’ll try to get it drafted here and then edit it during my lunch break, but if I miss some autocorrect errors, please forgive me.

This afternoon (Sunday), after church, I found myself watching a documentary on the use of the swastika in Hinduism. In short, the programme looked at the symbols origins as a way to embody good fortune, and how that was then hijacked by the Nazis. The main focus was on the continued use of the symbol and how it is seen by modern Hindus and Jews.

It struck a chord with a thought I’ve had for some time, but which I don’t think I’ve explicitly blogged about before, though regular readers may recognise the thought in earlier allusions. Though the programme dealt with a symbol, my thought relates more to words. The thought relates to the question of how far meanings can be twisted from their original intention and still be of use.

The question implicit in the programme was whether the Nazis so damaged the symbol that it has become indelibly linked with evil and should be scrapped, or whether Hindus should ‘reclaim’ it and educate people into thinking of it primarily as a Hindu emblem.

In my opinion, there are a great number of words which have been similarly tainted, though maybe not to such a violent extent. I then wonder whether we need to make an effort to wrestle them out of the modern vernacular usage and restore them to their original meaning or whether they should be allowed to change, leaving us searching for new words to enunciate old ideas.

Of course, the notion of “original meaning” is a tricky one that may be hard to pin down, given the changing nature of language, particularly English. Most I know who have formally studied linguistics speak of languages as ever-changing. From my layman’s perspective, I’ve never been convinced by the arguments presented to me. Though I freely admit I am amateur in the field and open to correction (as in any matter!), I think of the English language as a cooling lava. Yes, there have been great changes, but there must come a point at which the spelling and meaning of a word must become set. Determining such a point may be difficult, though I don’t think it’s absurd to think that such a point exists.

Take, for example, the word ‘meek’. Today, it’s common usage is a synonym for ‘weak’. It is most often heard in the phrase “meek and mild” which seems to be used as a tautology, since they are meant to connote similar ideas. Yet in it’s original usage, it meant something more akin to “power under control”. In other words, it is a word denoting strength, the very opposite of how it is understood. So ought we to use the word as it was originally meant and risk being understood or do we abandon it and “go with the flow”?

Here, I must admit that in this respect, I am something of a contrarian. I do not think that every word that has had it’s meaning undergo a metamorphosis ought to be restored back to an antiquarian definition. Neither would I propose that we give up all hope. Instead, it’s a question of effort and how that compares to the value we put in words.

From a mathematical point of view, one word I am quite passionate about is ‘complex’. To me, this denotes a large set of numbers, made up of real and imaginary parts. Then again, ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’ mean very specific things to me that they probably don’t to most non-scientists. As a consequence of this, I am very careful to use the word ‘complicated’ to denote something that is tricky, intricate or entangled.

I would hope I’m not alone in having these thoughts. Maybe those words I am most passionate about are unique to me, but that’s ok.

  • Are there any words you think are regularly misused?
  • Have I used any words in a way you disapprove of?

On egalitarianism and feminism

Egalitarian and equality logo

I’ve pondered long and hard about whether to write on this subject. In fact, the first draft of this post was started in November 2011, but it got shelved, along with several others that I may dust off and heavily edit sometime. I do not write this to antagonise or offend, but rather to clarify my thinking, communicate that to you coherently and hopefully prompt you to think. I doubt all will agree with me and indeed, you are welcome to disagree with me in constructive debate in the comments if you so wish. In trying to be clear, I have not tried to keep this short, so I apologise that it is quite a long read. I hope you’ll find it worthwhile.

The problems in writing on the subject

Though I write this blog pseudonymously, it is no great secret that I am a man. So, the first problem then is ‘can and should a man write anything about feminism?’ I would give the answer, ‘yes’. If the answer were otherwise, then I would view that as sexist. No person should be discriminated on the grounds of their gender (indeed, I struggle to think of grounds whereby discrimination ought to be acceptable, though I am focusing here on one particular set of prejudices).

Even if we can agree that the answer is ‘yes’, can any aspect of feminism be critiqued without being dubbed “anti-feminist”, “sexist” or “misogynistic”? Again, I would say that the answer to this is ‘yes’ and indeed I shall be critiquing some aspects of feminism. I hope in so doing that I will not be considered to be any of those things just described, though I cannot but help think that given if this post gains a wide enough audience, that some might well think that of me. It was for fear of being verbally attacked that I postponed this, as it is a highly emotive topic to many.

I am also conscious of the need for precise wording. In the past, if entering into conversations, I have used slightly the wrong word which then becomes the sole focus of a verbal attack, losing all sight of the main topic of conversation. I have tried to be careful in my use of words and have proofread this a couple of times, though I cannot rule out the possibility of a misplaced word or two. If you think I have used an incorrect word in places, whereby its correction would not drastically alter the direction of my argument, then please let me know. If such a change would have a significant influence on the argument, then it is probably fair to assume that I have said what I mean. Probably, not certainly!

My position and semantics

I am not a feminist.

I support equal opportunities and equal representation of genders. I oppose discrimination on the basis of someone’s gender. I do not support sexism or anything that could reasonably be described as the denigration of one gender by another.

But this does not make me a feminist. I am egalitarian.

When it comes to determining matters of prejudice and privilege, I apply a “mirror test”. I.e. if you think something is not sexist, or not racist or not religiously discriminatory, then swap the genders, swap the races or swap the religions and then see if you still think it is not prejudiced. It is for this reason that I do not think that simply by being a male, that any opinions one might have on feminism are, a priori, worthless.

Though we have a few physiological differences which need to be mutually understood and respected, we have far more in common by virtue of our shared humanity which can and should be celebrated.

In stating my position of equality, I am sometimes told that I am a feminist because some dictionary definitions state that it is about equality. I have a Collins dictionary at home and it defines feminism as “doctrine or movement that advocates equal rights for women.”

The same dictionary also gives the following definition of an egalitarian: “a person who believes that all people should be equal.”

These two positions may not appear to be all that different. Indeed, I would say they are not. So even though I do not align myself with feminism, I am not wholly opposed to it.

In referring to dictionary definitions, one must also be careful to avoid taking them as complete and accurate. Those who tell me I am a feminist are often keen to point to the dictionary and state that I fit the bill. However, dictionaries are not the be all and end all of semantics. I assume most readers of this blog are either christians or take an interest in religion, so let’s go there for an example. The same dictionary from which I plucked the above has this to say about ‘faith’: “strong belief in something, especially without proof.” I don’t know of anyone of any religion who would say that that is a fair or true statement. It coincides very well (maybe even being derived from?) Richard Dawkins’ erroneous view, as espoused in The Selfish Gene. The fact is, it’s a lot more complicated than that. So it is with feminism and egalitarianism. To strip them down to one sentence summaries does both a great disservice and over-simplifies things.

Some qualms about feminism

In explaining why I am not a feminist, I must point out some issues I have with the movement. Here I will look at three, which seem to me to be common. Please continue to bear in mind, this is not a wholesale attack on feminism, I wouldn’t do that. These are just issues that I see present which sit uncomfortably with me.

Praise of the suffragettes

When looking at modern feminism, one can hardly escape the impression made on it by the suffragette movement. In some ways, this might be considered the heyday of feminism, when it was at its most radical. Yet the unreserved praise that is heaped on it makes me uncomfortable. Though I admire the guts and determination of the women of this movement, as an advocate of nonviolence, I cannot condone all of the actions that were carried out in the movement’s name. It was, at the time, considered a terrorist organisation, just as the IRA was in the 80s and 90s and as Al-Qaida are today. To label the movement as such is not an attempt at discreditation, but rather an accurate descriptor given the acts of arson carried out and other acts of violence.

Though we now have equal votings for men and women, I am not one to say that the means justified the end. So when I hear unfettered praise of the suffragettes, I cannot help but be unnerved by the advocacy of violence that is latent within. To my mind, it went a step beyond civil disobedience, which I personally view as a totally acceptable form of protest.

In any good movement, there are often unsavoury elements. But these need to be dealt with head-on rather than swept under the carpet. One of the issues that has stirred up much debate over recent months has been the replacement of Elizabeth Fry on the £5 bank note with Winston Churchill and the subsequent campaign to ensure female representation on at least one denomination of banknote (though, for the record, having been forced to read Pride and Prejudice at school, I am no fan of Jane Austen and thought that Beatrix Potter would have been a better choice). Often coming near the top of ‘Great Britons’ polls and the like, Churchill was not exactly a paragon of virtue. Anyone who has looked into his role in the suppression of the Mao Mao uprising can testify to this. For anyone interested in a critical look at Churchill, I would recommend Richard Toye’s book, Churchill’s Empire.

A word

If there is one word that riles feminists more than any other perhaps, it is the one about which this paragraph is concerned. It is a word that is sometimes too easily used in the accusative, when it ought not to be. With any feminists with whom I have had discussions which cover the territory with which this blog post is concerned, every one of them has reacted with fury at the mention of the word, adamant that all feminism is free from it. Yet the evidence of what I read and hear tells me that is not wholly untrue. By using it, I would expect this paragraph to be the source of the most disagreement and the focus of any attack on me, if it is forthcoming. Though many, indeed most, feminists that I know of could not fairly be described as having this trait, I could not claim for it to be absent from all without telling a lie. What is this word? If you guessed it was misandry, then that would seem to be an acknowledgement that what I have said is true. As stated earlier, I would ask anyone who contests this to apply the ‘mirror’ test to statements made by, and in favour of, feminists. Though the majority will not be sexist, I’d be surprised if an unbiased application of the test came up 100% sexism-free.

Representation of all women?

The third part is the question of “who is feminism for?” The easy answer is to say that feminism is for women. After all, isn’t that the dictionary definition given above? Again, though, this demonstrates the deficiency of the dictionary definition. Feminism often fails to come across as an empowerment of women; it comes across as an empowerment of feminists. Yet one has to recognise that not all women are feminists and that some actively are against it. Yet when I read, hear or see debates between feminists and non-feminists I am appalled by the level of patronisation (and yes, I am aware of the irony of the etymology of that word) shown to the non-feminists, which are often in the same “you silly woman” tone that is used by misogynists when denigrating women.

One must then face up to the legacy and ideas on one figure of modern history: the late Margaret Thatcher. Though she did not align herself with the feminist movement, she was in many ways the epitome of it. She showed that a woman could achieve the highest position of authority in the land not bestowed on them by birthright (though it’s worth noting that the monarch has been a woman for roughly 125 out of the last 176 years). Yet I am uncomfortable with otherwise reasonable, liberal feminists who speak out in praise of her. To me, as an egalitarian, no one should have their ideas and legacy attacked because of their gender, it should be an irrelevant factor. Yet I would maintain that anyone can and should have their ideas and legacy attacked if they are worthy of being so. And I would have little hesitation (though Cameron is starting to be a serious competitor) in saying that she was the worst prime minister in my lifetime; I was born after she came to power. I say that not as an attack on her because she was a woman but because of what she did. It is the defence of her, because she was a woman, that I find I cannot agree with. Again, applying a mirror test, it would be to defend Cameron’s legislative programme attacking the most vulnerable in society because he is a man. In my view, it is simply wrong. Admiring the strength of someone’s conviction regardless of where that conviction is pointed is not an admiration I could ever echo.

Consequently, we must be careful to discern, when someone is being verbally attacked, between whether they are being attacked because of their gender or because of what they have said and done. The former is sexism and is not, in my opinion, in any way acceptable. The latter, however, if done constructively and with due grace, may be justified. If anyone attempts to use anything like the phrase, “[because you are woman/man]” then their credibility may well be damaged. If their argument rests on such a clause, I would consider them to have lost that argument.

What about christianity?

If I am uncomfortable to wear the label ‘feminist’, given its negative connotations, one might fairly ask of me, “why, then, are you comfortable to be called a christian?” Indeed, there are a great many evils that have been committed in the name of the christian faith. I hope to look at this topic on the blog soon, as it’s another post I shelved a while ago. If you wish to read about these, just pick up any book on the Crusades, the Borgias or on abuse that was at first committed and then covered up. The crimes committed in the name of the church are far worse than those perpetrated in the name of feminism.

So why do I call myself a christian? It’s because there is no commonly used alternative which is well-understood. If I call myself a follower of The Way, then someone who has either been a christian for a little while or someone who is otherwise biblically literate will likely understand what I mean by that, but I doubt the rest of the population might. When I say I am a christian, I often have to spend some time giving a nuanced and suitably detailed answer to the question, “What kind: catholic or protestant?” It would take even longer if I omitted the word christian altogether. Even though many have a flawed understanding of what a christian is, the image conjured up is not wholly removed from reality.

Another factor is that of etymology. Even though most people aren’t quite as passionate as I am about word origins, the root words in our nouns and adjectives are noticed by most people. In calling myself a christian, I make it clear that my identity is found in Christ. If I call myself a feminist, then my identity is clearly something to do with femininity. If, however, I call myself an egalitarian, my identity is clearly something to do with equality.

So here comes the nub of my argument: feminism is but a means to an end; that end being egalitarianism. The promotion of women’s rights is not complete, but it has made great progress in the last hundred years. Though, as mentioned above, I do not approve of some of the means used to achieve this. No reasonable person could deny that western society has been male dominated for far too long. In reacting against this, some aspects of feminism attempt to swing the pendulum too far the other way. But over time, I think we will obtain a fair, egalitarian balance, although it would be too optimistic to expect the elimination of all forms of sexism in my lifetime.

Conclusion

I don’t think any reasonable person can deny the evidence that feminism has elements of sexism within it. These are by no means present in everyone who labels themselves as a feminist and I would not label anyone a sexist unless that exhibited some evidence of a prejudice against a gender. If one is passionate about promoting equal rights and representation, then you are welcome to call yourself a feminist, though you may wish to clarify your position, as I hope I have clarified my position here, even if you don’t agree with it.

But my lingering question has to be, given the negative connotations that feminism has, why not call yourself an egalitarian? To me, it lacks the connotations that detract people from supporting feminism. One could spend time and effort trying to ‘correct’ public perceptions of feminism so that it is distanced from its sexist elements and the violence in its history, or one could drop the term, as the ‘black power’ movement became the ‘civil rights’ movement.

I will oppose the denigration or prejudice of anyone on the grounds of their gender, whether they be male or female. I recognise that the majority of such sexism is directed against women and so that is where the bulk of our attention must be. The so-called “trolling” of prominent women speaking out is abhorrent and must be opposed. Not because the perpetrators are men, but because what they say is abominable. I recognise that in many areas, not least in business, there are glass ceilings, holding women back. I fully support identifying how these glass ceilings operate and how to overcome them so that the best person, irrespective of their gender, gets the right job.

That’s my position.

I am an egalitarian.

Can a christian be non-religious?

I started writing this post at the start of June and have been struggling with it for some time. What I’ve had to do is re-write from scratch as I have just run into too many problems which I shall elucidate upon below.

My initial aim was to ask whether or not it was possible for a christian to be non-religious. My Facebook profile, under the heading of “religion” states that I am a religionless christian. This, however, is highly dependent upon my particular interpretation of the word “religion. So my intention was to look at the different ways in which religion was defined (by the dictionary, by the majority of people in our westernised society and by what the bible had to say) and compare them to see if and how christianity really fitted the criteria.

The trouble came when I tried to write up the definition from ‘society’s’ view that wasn’t either too narrow-minded so as exclude many valid viewpoints or too vague so as to lose any and all significant meaning. Eventually, I worked out what the problem was: it was a question over whether religion was something someone believes or something someone does. I asked the following question on Twitter:

“Do you view religion as something someone does or something they believe? Or are the 2 inseparable?”

These are the responses I received:

“Does”

“Some believe, some ‘do’. I’ve met Christians who are devout & passionate about faith, & some who do it for the social life.”

“depends on the person – “religion” is a belief, “Religion” is an act. In my experience, they don’t always go together.”

“depends on the person. I know some who believe, some who do and some that go hand in hand.”

“when my human was non-religious she thought it was a story people believed. She didn’t know it was something people “do”.”

“Both. Without belief, actions are just rituals and without action, beliefs are just empty words.”

Possibly the last of the responses comes closest to my own view. I think of religion as being typified by ritual. But christianity need not be. Of course, some denominations do define themselves by such rituals, whether it be by liturgical chanting, having communion in a very rigid, set format or marching a cross around town on Good Friday. But none of these are specified in the bible as being necessary. On the contrary, the hallmark of christianity is faith, not works. But then we have to bear in mind the book of James where we find the closest thing to a christian definition of “religion”:

“If anyone thinks to be religious among you, yet not biding his tongue, but deceiving his heart, this one’s religion is in vain. Pure and undefiled religion before God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their afflictions, to keep oneself unspotted from the world.”

He goes on to say, famously:

“My brothers, what is the gain if anyone says he has faith but he does not have works? Is faith able to save him? But if a brother or sister is naked and may be lacking in daily food, and any one of you say to them, Go in peace; be warmed and filled – but does not give them the things the body needs – what gain is it? So also faith, if it does not have works, is dead by itself. But someone will say, you have faith, and I have works. Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”

In other words, a correct understanding of christian belief necessarily entails action. Christianity has no room for those who would like to consider themselves theorists only. But these actions are not rites and rituals. Rather, they are actions that help people practically, something no amount of chanting or crossing yourself will ever achieve.

So can a christian be non-religious? Absolutely. You can turn christianity into a religion, if you so choose, but to let become christianity is a not the best idea. I finish with the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

“To be a christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to make something of oneself (a sinner, a penitent, a saint) on the basis of some method or other, but to be a man – not a type of man, but the man that Christ creates in us.”

The language of christians

Having looked at the language of Jesus a couple of weeks ago, there ensued an interesting conversation on Twitter. If I can find the all the tweets in my history, I’ll try and transcribe it for you sometime. The verdict seemed to line up with my post, though it did get embellished with the grand title of ‘the educated Rabbi theory.’

What I want to do here is try to apply the principles drawn out of that. Specifically, the issue that motivated me in writing this couple of posts is clear communication. Regular readers will be aware that I often make grammatical errors, changing my sentence structure half way through, so I am as much chiding myself as anyone else.

If Jesus spoke in the everyday vernacular using down-to-earth examples, why shouldn’t we? As Kenneth Bailey puts it in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes:

Both Judaism and Islam have a sacred language. Christianity does not. This fact is of enormous significance.

Although different churches have their nuances, something I notice across denominations is that there is often a failure to use straightforward English.

To give a few examples:

1) High churches will often use the transliteration ‘Eucharist’ to describe a communion meal. Of course, ‘communion’ is not the most common of words, and there is a proliferation of other words used to describe the same meal. The lack of a straightforward word, commonly understood, can act as a barrier. Other words such as “mass” then carry connotations that not everyone finds helpful.

2) Lower churches will often throw around words like ‘salvation’ and ‘redemption’ without properly defining what they mean. As these words are in more common use, but with different connotations, there is a risk of being misunderstood. This can be a greater risk than the obfuscation mentioned above.

3) Some churches I have been to insist on using some translation of the bible whose language is no longer the lingua franca of today. The most common of these is the King James, though I find the language to now be archaic. As for the 9 appearances of unicorns…….

This is something I can get quite passionate about, as I think the church ought to make as much effort as possible to communicate the gospel as clearly as possible. While I choose to accept the gospel, as I understand it, I don’t force it on anyone else, but I do think that if someone is going to exercise their free will to reject it, that christians should do a good job of educating the world; so if the gospel is to be rejected (or accepted) then it should be done so for the right reasons.

So if we preach sermons, write articles or chat to friends using obscure or antiquated words, then we are asking them to use a dictionary just to understand us. This is the antithesis of good communication. Surely it’s better for us to be the ones putting in the efforts so that others can be in possession of the facts and ideas in as clear a manner as possible, so they can choose to make up their minds based on the best information.

Anything which separates people from God is a bad thing. I’m opposed to turning christianity into a religion, where ritual (which may have originated as trying to get close to God) is now a major turn-off or else the ritual is mistaken for being the entirety of the faith, rather than a symbol pointing to something greater.

One word that has crept into the vocabulary which describes the alienating words used by christians is “christianese.” Kristin Tennant has written a few really good pieces on this at her Half Way To Normal blog (Should all Christian jargon be taboo? & Trimming back the Christianese) and at the end I’ve included a video which tackles the issue in a very tongue-in-cheek way.

This is not a new issue. When Jerome produced the Latin Vulgate his aim was to make the bible understandable in the common tongue. Long after it became outdated, its continued use became more a tool of social and political control, since the ordinary person could no longer understand it and relied on their local priest to tell them what it meant.  William Tyndale translated into a more modern vernacular and was murdered for doing so.

I’d like to think that no one these days would kill one another for democratising faith, though use of ecclesiastic and religious terminology, which may have been useful in another era, now serves to distance people from God, rather than help bring the two together.

The idea of God coming to earth in human form (incarnational theology) has a strong emphasis of God meeting us where we are, which transformed the Jewish paradigm of ritual purity before approaching God.

So my proposition is that christians should extend this courtesy likewise. We need to be aware of the language that we use, recognise where definitions commonly interpreted by modern folk differ from the interpretation we have and also to refrain from using turns of phrase. The gospel may be hard to accept, but it shouldn’t be difficult to understand. Let’s not put any obstacles in another’s way by our use of language.

The language of Jesus

Of late, I have been slowly working my way through Kenneth Bailey’s work  ‘Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes’ which I so far am enjoying almost as much as I find it challenging. I have a lot of respect for Bailey & his work, but something in the introduction has been nagging at me, as it seems to contradict another biblical scholar for whom I have a lot of respect: Tom Wright. The question concerns what language Jesus spoke and therefore what is the ‘original’ language of the gospels. Bailey summaries thus:

“We are obliged to consider four stages through which our canonical Gospels have passed. These are:

  1. The life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth in Aramaic
  2. The Aramaic eyewitness testimony to that life and teaching
  3. The translation of that testimony into Greek
  4. The selection, arrangement and editing of the Greek texts into the Gospels”

So here Bailey seems to be assuming that all of the content of the gospels we have are translations from the Aramaic.

Wright presents a subtly different picture in the preface to his New Testament For Everyone (NTFE) where he writes:

“Much of the time, Jesus himself spoke Aramaic, an updated dialect of Hebrew, but the gospels are written in Greek. Greek was everybody’s second language at the time, a bit like English in many parts of our world today.”

At a talk I was at when he expanded on this recently he gave an example of a young boy who approached him in the streets of Jerusalem to try to sell him something. The boy tried several languages before finding out that Wright was English.

Simply because most of us who have English as our first language don’t have a second language, it is presumptuous and condescending to assume that others are monolingual.

One place in the gospels this be highlighted (though I failed entirely to notice until it was pointed out to me) is when Jesus is conversation with Pontius Pilate. In what language was the conversation conducted? Aramaic, Greek or did they have a translator present?

Of course, one may reasonably ask who was the eyewitness present who preserved the conversation for later use by the gospel writers, but I’ll leave that for you to consider.

One potential problem this leaves for the modern day reader is what happens if you try to reconstruct the Aramaic from the Greek. I am informed, though I lack the expertise to check, that some words used in the Greek have no Aramaic equivalent, or that if there is an appropriate match, that it would be more likely that a different Greek word may be used. How much this changes the theology, I don’t know, but I think it’s an interesting point.

There is an intriguing hint of the possibility of the existence of a new lost Aramaic gospel. In Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History he quotes an earlier writer name Papias, whose works now are only known to survive in fragments, usually quoted by others. The following is taken from Jesus and the Eyewitnesses by Richard Bauckham. In one passage, he makes this intriguing statement:

“Matthew put the logia in an ordered arrangement [sunetaxato] in the Hebrew language [hebraidi dialecto], but each person [heskastos] interpreted [hermeneusen] them as best he could.”

This is the translation used in Bauckham’s work. This raises the possibility that Matthew’s Greek gospel is a translation from an earlier version composed in either Hebrew or Aramaic. I ought to add that another view in this is that ‘hebraidi dialecto’ means ‘in a Hebrew style’ rather than strictly referring to the language of composition. I don’t know enough to be able to have a strong opinion on this, so I will let you consider which is more likely.

Aramaic was the language of the ‘common’ people that Jesus would have interacted with most days. Not only that, but in his use of parables he displays a very down-to-earth approach. His use of metaphor is always done in terms that would have been readily interpreted to the first century audience in that geographical area. This is something has a great eye for, having lived and worked in the Middle East for several decades.

At this juncture, I probably ought to point out that later in ‘Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes’ Bailey does correct himself a little, though it is more of a sidenote to the effect that Jesus probably could speak Greek as well as Aramaic.

If we accept that Jesus primarily used Aramaic, rather than Greek or Hebrew, what then? Well, my word limit is up for this post, so I’ll carry this on later.

How do you define a christian: Concluding remarks

This has been a brief overview of some of my thinking as to how we may define a christian. I’ve looked as self-definition, creeds & confessions, the sacraments as boundaries and a cocktail of beliefs.

Hopefully, if you’ve had the patience to read it all, you will have realised that I don’t have a definitive version of what defines a christian and what doesn’t. All I have done is looked at some of the ways in which christians have been defined and shown how they fall short of making a clear demarcation. What that leaves us with is a grey area, and quite a large one at that. Does that mean that there isn’t a definition? No; I don’t think so.

Lurking in the background to all this is of course, the No True Scotsman fallacy. For those unfamiliar with it, please follow the link above. To my mind, there is a difference between there not being a definition and for me as an individual being honest enough to say “I don’t know.”

The way I think of it is like this: The visible light portion of the electromagnetic spectrum is quite narrow, but we can perceive multiple colours within that narrow range. We might very clearly say that an atheist is a radio wave or a Muslim may be an X-ray, they clearly aren’t in the visible light spectrum. When we look at ourselves, we are more inclined to say those in our own nearby vicinity are christians, and perceive those as being far away as being at least questionable. So you might say that I sit at the orange end and am happy to worship alongside the reds and yellows, but I’m not so sure about the purple lot. Meanwhile, those that I perceive as being merely purple are having a fight over whether they’re indigo or violet, whilst viewing me as being a long way from their beliefs and practices. Simply because there is a spectrum of belief within christianity doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as a “true christian,” just as you can’t really uphold the idea that there’s no such thing as “visible light.”

Most importantly, I don’t think it is the job of any individual or any organisation to make a determination of who is and who isn’t a christian. The writer to the Hebrews said “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is also able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render account.” (Hebrews 4: 12,13). I’d rather let God decide. It’s a far better judge than I am. Each of the factors discussed in the parts of this series is, I think, a strong indicator, but any one of them alone is not sufficient to be able to tell apart who is a christian and who isn’t. Throughout this, I tried where possible (and probably failed) to distinguish between being discerning and being judgemental.

We are called to be discerning, but warned against judging others; it’s a fine line to tread and I know I get it wrong on plenty of occasions, just as I see others around me do the same (and yes, I will confess to judging people because they judge others).

I think I probably ought to call a halt to it there. So that’s an outline of my muddled thinking. Do you try and define who is and who isn’t a christian? Is it too thorny an issue? Do you think I’m a heretic that should be burned at the stake?

Paul: Disciple, apostle, both, neither?

About a month ago now, Gurdur delivered an interesting post on the ministry of Paul, and how it does or doesn’t relate to the ministry of Jesus. The idea that Paul was the real “inventor” of christianity who misinterpreted Jesus is a very old one, but one that has had something of a mini-revival of late.

As it references a couple of other blog posts, I would recommend you follow-up on those as well. I promised Gurdur a response, so here is mine. OK, it’s the start of mine. This has started to snowball, and I’m still trying to dig up some reliable evidence for the later parts. So this is going to be split across several posts, to avoid it becoming a thesis.

As it happens, I was given the book Did St Paul Get Jesus Right? by David Wenham for my birthday, after I made that promise. Though I had an outline of a response in mind after reading Gurdur’s original post, I have subsequently read Wenham’s book (and a review will follow later). So while the thrust of my discussion is unchanged, some of the fine details have been influenced by this subsequent reading.

The main point I wanted to pick up on here was this quote:

“it’s odd how much regard many Christians give Paul, given Paul never even was rumoured to have met Jesus. An experience, a vision along the road to Damascus? So what? Many of us have such things without getting adulated for it. Paul simply wasn’t one of the disciples.”

I’m not sure if Gurdur meant modern christians, early christians or both, though I think in terms of the modern christians, the dominant reasons are the fact that he is credited with writing the largest number of books of the New Testament (even though the writings of Luke actually account for a largest number of words) and also his great erudition in those writings.

I think Gurdur has made a very common mistake here that many christians still get confused about; that of equating the terms “apostle” and “disciple” and using them interchangeably. The Greek term translated as disciple is ‘mathetes’ which can also be translated (according to Strong’s) as ‘student’, ‘follower’ or ‘a committed learner and follower’. In this parlance, a disciple is a very wide group, in a similar way that the term ‘saint’ was originally meant to mean ‘a believer’ and was not reserved for any special set of individuals, which is why I refer to Paul rather than to St Paul. If Gurdur meant he wasn’t one of “The Twelve,” then this is, of course, correct.

On the other hand, the term translated as apostle is ‘apostolos’ derived from ‘apostello’ which means to send out. Etymologically, this is also where get the term apostate from, although in the former sense it is used to mean sent out in a more missionary-style meaning, whereas the latter has connotations of excommunication. Again, referring to Strong’s, one of the uses specifies “often used as in a technical sense for the divinely appointed founders of the church.”

To me, one of the key passages in understanding the difference is Matthew 10, when the gospel author begins by saying “And having called his twelve disciples, He gave them authority over unclean spirits, so as to throw them out, and to heal every disease and every weakness of the body. And the names of the twelve apostles were….”

I understand this as a demonstration that there is a difference between a disciple and an apostle, and that difference is the authority given to them by Jesus. A disciple is someone who follows a given leader, but an apostle is someone who is sent out with authority by a leader.

The split in the uses between apostle & disciple is very interesting. The term apostle is used only once in Matthew (in the passage cited above), once in Mark, 6 times in Luke and never in John. The majority of the uses are in the book of Acts with the rest of the uses scattered amongst the epistles. If you compare this to the term disciple, the latter’s use is never used in the epistles. It is used 242 times between Matthew & Acts. Matthew has the most with around 75 uses; Acts has the fewest with about 27 (I haven’t been too precise in my counting).

Further evidence to support the difference between the disciples and apostles is provided in the first use in Acts, in chapter 1. Peter is described as standing up in the middle of the disciples, who numbered about 120. He goes on to talk about replacing Judas, who by this time had committed suicide. Two possible candidates were chosen from amongst those who had been with them since Jesus’s baptism from John. This implies to me there was a bit of a crowd that followed Jesus regularly, in addition to The Twelve. This does make for an interesting view when you read the gospels and read of Jesus talking to his disciples, where many (I think) assume the gospel author is talking about 12 individuals, when I think it may in fact be more; but I’m not certain of this.

Anyway, that was a long interlude. Back to Paul. The question is, was he really an apostle?

Although I am not well versed in the reasons for believing it, I am of the understanding that Galatians is widely considered to be the earliest of the books to be written by Paul. His opening statement is pretty unequivocal in affirming his apostleship.

It is not surprising that there is general harmony between the accounts of Paul’s conversion (I really hate that word, by the way, it makes it sound like a person is a car) in Acts and Galatians. Given that is likely that Acts was written by Luke, who joined Paul on one of his later journeys, then the accounts that Luke gives (in chapters 9, 22 and 26) was probably passed on to him by Paul in the first place. It has to be noted that even Luke makes a bit blunder in internal consistency as to whether or not Paul’s companions heard a voice or not (compare 9:7 with 22:9). Again, here we see a differentiation between the disciples and the apostles in that Paul says he didn’t meet up with the apostles for 3 years after Damascus (Galatians 1:12-20) yet in the account in Acts the first thing he did was go to the disciples in Acts 9:1-26.

When the term apostle is used in relation to Paul, the main passage I would reference is 1 Corinthians 9 where it seems evident that Paul has made a claim to be an apostle but that this is disputed by some people in in the church at Corinth. In verse 1, Paul’s own definition seems to be someone who has seen Jesus, which is where we come back to Gurdur’s point about the road to Damascus.

I don’t know precisely what happened to Paul on the road to Damascus. I have heard the explanation of an epileptic fit, and indeed I have heard that used a possible explanation of what some passages of the bible describe as demonic possession. Some of this is explored by Charles Foster in his book, Wired For God, where he states, “The history of religion is crowded with epileptics,” and this is then referenced to The Falling Sickness: A History of Epilepsy from the Greeks to the Beginning of Modern Neurology by O. Temkin, though I have not read this book myself. The one thing I think it is fairly safe to say is that something happened to Paul; I think to claim that the whole episode was conjured up seems far-fetched, given that Paul was travelling was others present at the time who could have easily testified otherwise. The fact that they are neither named nor referred to again except for the Damascus testimonies is, for the historian, just a bit annoying. But it doesn’t falsify Paul’s testimony.

I think Gurdur summed it up well with the phrase: “Unanswered and unanswerable questions.” From my point of view, I don’t think it’s particularly important whether or not we consider Paul to be an apostle. The only time it really makes anything more than a semantic difference is if one appeals to “apostolic authority” in relation to the formation of the New Testament canon.

In the next part of the response, I’ll be looking a bit more at the authorship of some of the Pauline corpus and considering whether or not some, all or none was forged.

How do you define a christian? Part 3: Sacraments as boundaries

Part 1: Self-definition
Part 2: Creeds & Confessions

In most forms of christianity, there are various “ceremonies” which are often referred to as ‘sacraments’ by those of a high church persuasion. Sociologically, these can be good demarcation boundaries for who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out.’ In particular, the two I am thinking of are baptism and communion (the latter also known variously as eucharist, holy communion, mass or The Lord’s Supper). Personally, I’m not a fan of the term sacraments, as it is quite pretentious and off-putting for those who are not well versed in high church terminology. My own view is that church should be open and welcoming, including in the terminology used. The ordinary person on the street should not be given any reason to stay away from church on the basis that they don’t know what the “right way” is to behave and talk in church.

There’s an early christian handbook for new believers, which seems partly based on the gospel of Matthew, called the Didache [you can read the full text of the book here]. If you read down, chapter 7 has specific instructions on baptism and chapter 9 has instructions on communion. Both are very formal and ritualised but will be familiar to those who have grown up in many western churches today.

I recently read both the book itself, along with an analysis of it by a catholic professor, Thomas O’ Loughlin (you can read the review here). Although I think O’Loughlin missed the point somewhat, he does make an interesting observation when he says:

“any group which has a developed sense of belonging…; a firm sense its own history….; and a clear unifying set of ‘facts’….will have a very clear sense of its boundaries, and of who is within the group. Furthermore, it will ritualize [sic] the gateways in those boundaries so that the whole group have a badge of identity and newcomers know they have crossed a threshold.”

This is also echoed slightly by the christian theologian, Tom Wright, in Surprised by Hope, when he says:

“I have come to believe that the sacraments are best understood within the theology of creation and new creation….God’s future has burst into the present and…somehow the sacraments are not just signs of the reality of the new creation but actually part of it. Thus the event of baptism – the action, the water, the going down and coming up again, the new clothes – is not just a signpost of the reality of the new birth, the membership (as all birth gives membership) in the new family. It really is the gateway to that membership.” (emphasis added)

I do not think that the purpose of baptism and communion is to act as ritualised gateways, though I do think such the sacraments may be used thus. To draw an analogy, the raison d’etre of a book is to be read, although that doesn’t stop me from using it as a doorstop or as a spider-squashing device. The purpose of baptism is to publically declare one’s faith, but this is no way determines whether or not someone is a christian. If you accept the idea of baptism as a “gateway” then, when taken in a soteriological sense, this would mean that those who are not baptised cannot be part of God’s kingdom. I would argue instead that it is an indication(but not a definitive marker) that one already has become part of God’s kingdom.

One very interesting thing to note is that while we have a record of Jesus being baptised, and of John the Baptist doing the same to others, there is no record of any members of The Twelve themselves being baptised. They are instructed in the Great Commission to “make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” The book of Acts describes some of the early church leaders performing baptisms, yet I don’t recall seeing a specific incident where they themselves were baptised. The closest I could find was in Paul’s letter to the Romans where he uses the inclusive term “us” to describe those are baptised, implying he was shortly after his experience on the road to Damascus (watch this space for a further post on that topic, later this week or early next week).

This, of course, does not mean baptism is a once-and-for-all thing, which I suppose sets me apart (pardon the pun) from Calvinism where the idea of a secure election is sacrosanct. I have many friends who have publically declared their faith and been baptised only later to have left church life, renounced their faith or just plain old given up. One of the better writers on the web who has done this is Daniel Florien, author of the Unreasonable Faith blog.

In any sociological group, there is an important concept of “the other” – i.e. to define oneself not only by what you are, but also by what you are not. So I acknowledge it can be helpful to think in terms of those who are baptised as different from those who are not, or to consider those who take part in communion as having a different belief from those who do not take part. Yet I think it isn’t helpful to regard these as absolute boundaries.

There is a very obvious thought experiment one could do: suppose someone, having examined the evidence and reasons for belief, makes the free and conscious decision to “become a christian” (however they want to phrase this). They are on their way to publically acknowledge this by being baptised and on the way there they are killed. If we take Wright’s view at face value, then this person would not have met the membership requirement of the new birth. O’Loughlin’s view is not quite as harsh, but there would certainly be considerable doubt over whether they might be considered to be an ‘insider.’

It is also interesting to note that between them, the different stances churches adopt on baptism and communion are probably two of the main reasons for divisions and splits, which in my opinion is a sad state of affairs. I won’t go into any detail here, as the next section in this mini-series will be on denominations where I will be exposing some of my own prejudices on the matter.

The BC/AD & BCE/CE “debate”

As you may have seen, there was a mini debate that flared up over the last few days in response to an article in the Fail on Sunday about the BBC dropping the use of BC/AD as a label added to years in favour of BCE/CE. There are some very good pieces on the web, and I have referenced these at the foot of this post.

This is something I’ve changed my mind over in the last few years, so I’ll pen down my initial objections and why I am now not really fussed over it.

My objections

I first came across the use of BCE/CE as an alternative to BC/AD about 10 years ago. I can’t tell whether this had anything to do with my leaving a christian school around that time or whether there was a noticeable upturn in the use of BCE/CE as an alternative. If anyone has any statistics (preferably with references) on the relative usage of the terms, then please do point me towards them. I think the debate could be much better framed with more facts and less rhetoric, though the same is true of pretty much every debate I can think of!

At the time, I was younger and a little bit of a fundamentalist. My immature gut reaction was to think that this was stripping Christ out of the language, much as in the same way many Christmas cards are dubbed “Seasons Greetings.” I do still think there is some element of the “out of sight, out of mind” brand of secularism within this, but I do think it really is too minor to get one’s knickers in a twist about.

I wouldn’t mind so much if the terms were replaced with something that actually had some meaning, some reference, that signified an important event. When talking about housing construction in the UK, we often use World War 2 as a demarcation point, with buildings referred to as pre-war or post-war. But Common Era and Before Common Era are devoid of any meaning. I think this may be behind the supposed objection by the Plain English Campaign. I say “supposed” because the Fail only includes one quote from their Press Officer and yet there is no statement on their website about it.

My acceptance

Ultimately, it’s not the end of the world. There is still a demarcation boundary between these two eras, and it would be a very dull mind indeed that doesn’t enquire into why the two are separated. What event was it that heralded such a turning point in how all of history is oriented? Yet there are admittedly problems with the BC/AD system. Not least, it is widely regarded that whoever did the sums on behalf of pope Gregory got them wrong, and that Jesus was probably born in around 6 B.C./B.C.E. There is then the question of whether this is actually an important date for christianity at all. The hinge point is not Jesus’ birth at all, but rather it around the Easter weekend which witnessed his death and resurrection. Of course, there is then debate about precisely when this was, with dates ranging from A.D. 27 to A.D. 41.

I am writing another blog post at the moment on one aspect of the interaction between religion and politics, but for now I will summarise my view that I don’t agree with any group (religious or secular) imposing their system of beliefs on another. Discussion and persuasion are far better means to achieve a goal than dictation. So while the more fundamentalist view may be that this is an imposition of secular values stamping all over their beliefs, you have to recognise that the use of the BC/AD system may be perceived to be the exact reverse.

My opinion is that it should be the goal of the church to preach the gospel. Let the world know the historical facts and our best understanding of the interpretation of their implications. People can then be free to choose whether to accept or reject them.

I don’t consider that this silliness over a dating system is a serious hindrance to that goal.

I was reminded of the introduction to 1 Timothy, when the author writes:

“instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines, nor to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation rather than furthering the administration of God” (1 Tim 1:3b-4a, NASB)

And on that note, I shall allow it to distract me no further.

Other references

Leading the charge from the newspapers was (unsurprisingly) the Guardian. The case here is made from an FAQ section of the BBC website, though the Guardian links directly to the FAQs, which has no link from the BBC’s religion site.

Blundering in like the hapless modern-day Falstaff that he is, Boris Johnson has written a piece in the Torygraph.

The satirical blog, The Beaker Folk of Husborne Crawley, has an excellent take on it.

Probably the best right-wing defence of the Mail’s piece comes from Heresy Corner.

The final, concise, word goes to Phil’s Treehouse.

Of course, there are plenty of others which I may have missed. This is just what I’ve found from a quick perusal of the web.