Friday, July 10, 2015

Creation, soteriology, and the "problem" of the two Adams

I am not concerned with the problem of a first Adam. The fact is, we have no idea what creatio ex nihilo is (see also Karl Jaspers on Creation). We, as the created, only know creatio ex materia. Resurrection is the same way. We think we know what it is, but we really have no more idea than we do about creation. We only know the result, the what, but not the how. We know that resurrection is not reanimation and creation is not reworking some pliable, neutral, and everlasting material. God is not a thing among things, but we are.

Similarly, why does evolution present a problem? God creates from nothing, an act that does not preclude an infinity of changing somethings. The universe may stretch back into the forever, expanding and changing, hissing and spitting out world after world like a firecracker held out in the dark. This is not a problem: an infinity of changing somethings is not a from nothing. Evolution is just a closer view of some long length of something. Flesh may change, but it does not create flesh from nothing at all.

I tend to think that evolution is soteriological gift. It tells us that human beings are a piece with all of creation--that we are of the same stuff as everthing else. It tells us that the human being, the imago Dei, Jesus, assumed all flesh and so redeemed all flesh: soteriology is ecology; ecology, soteriology. In the resurrected flesh of Jesus all creation hopes. The us among whom God tabernacled includes the rocks that cry out and the trees that clap their hands.

Finally, for the sake of further thinking (and this is very speculative now), I would like to consider the existence of Adam and Even in parallel with the election of God. Even as Jesus set himself apart, so his people are set apart in him. The imago Dei as something graciously received from and through and because of Jesus. Adam and Eve become the beginning of those people in time, the first of the elect and also representatives of elect humanity to come. Therefore, perhaps the language of "fall" is unhelpful. Instead, theosis and sanctification provide a battleground. Humanity is made good, but still vulnerable. Elected humanity is being made perfect in him ("Be perfect because he is perfect.") though as gold is purified through fire.

Note also the interesting, tri-fold distinction of God's creating activity outlined in Mark Harris's The Nature of Creation. Harris understands the creation texts in scripture to describe the relationship of God with the world. Creation out of nothing, creatio ex nihilo, is “best expressed as a statement of God’s transcendence.” Continuous creation, creatio continua, “is most clearly an expression of God’s immanence.” God is in intimate relationship with humans and the rest of creation. Creation from the old, creatio ex vetere, (Harris's innovative addition) “is fundamentally a descriptive term for God’s redemptive activity in creation (186). Creation from the old is clearly connected with the resurrection of Jesus. The resurrected body is in a discernible continuity with the pre-death body plus something new as well: “more than the resuscitation of a corpse.” Still, Harris sees examples of creation from the old in other texts and situations also.

These three aspects of creation are simplifications and should not be separated rigorously.

God’s work of creation ex nihilo, continua, and ex vetere are not three different actions, but one creative action, while at the same time they point to the diversity and diversity of the unitary God. It is no accident that this is reminiscent of Trinitarian language of God – three in one and one in three – for it was through observations such as these, of God’s diverse work in the theatres of creation and redemption, that the three persons of the Trinity came to be recognized and distinguished as such. But the three categories of creative work are not to be identified with the three persons of the Trinity; rather it is distinctions such as these that have been important in the development of Trinitarian thinking. (187)

Friday, May 08, 2015

Sometimes All You Need is Permission

Sometimes all you need is permission. You have done the hard work. You have asked the questions and assembled the data. But, for some reason, concluding remains elusive. Maybe what is missing is permission.

Permission came for me in the words of Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart. In the March edition of First Things, Hart wrote a column entitled "Reason's Faith" critiquing smug rationalism. And with it he helped me own the pieces of a puzzle I've been working on for ten years (a process attested in the history of this blog).

Hart's point is that the sharp divide between reason (ratio) and faith (fidei) is a modern experiment gone wrong. He calls the division a "tarnished relic of the seventeenth century." And its result remakes human reason as a faculty divorced from all assumption "dispassionate and disinterested." But this is wrong.

"All reasoning," says Hart, "begins from a venture of trust whose truthfulness can be ascertained only at the end of the sequence of postulates and predicates and judgment to which it gives rise." As I read this, I think of David Hume taking arrogant reason to task for too closely wedding cause and effect. Hart goes on to say why he can make this assertion.

Every assertion he says assumes a metaphysic in which the mind and the world connect and are true to one another. Enlightenment reason cannot boast this connection.

The materialist by force of will ignores his own assumptions, choosing to focus instead on the practical utility of every question. Who cares why it works. It works. And that it works becomes the all in all. The context from which the question arises eventually ceases to be noticed. Consider this comment from physical chemist Dr. Peter Coveney: "In modern biology and medicine today you would find most people not even trying to think in theoretical terms. . . What we call "Baconian theory' says, don't worry about a theoretical underpinning, just make observations, collect data, and interrogate the data." Hart calls this a true fideism. "The unyielding rationalist turns out to be the most irrational fideist of all: one who believes in reason even though there cannot possibly be any reason for that belief." With Bacon, Descartes project is similarly framed. The self is trusted to posit reality from its own foundations, an attempt at faith from below. It was only a short path to rational idealism, to Hegel, and the nihilism of postmodernity. "Without that original trust, that spiritual commitment, reason is not reason at all, but the purest irrationality."

The worldview that preceded the Enlightenment, the Medieval mind, was more integrated. It could wed mind and world and so posit truth because, behind mind and world it understood the unity and oneness by the one God.

Hart's critique of ascendant reason looks not only to the assumed metaphysic, but also appeals to natural selection. This is a move I've written about before, in that case employed by Alvin Plantinga. I think it is a devastating critique. It is simply this: if the human mind evolves, then how can we trust it to guarantee knowledge? Put another way: how can we trust reason if it is but another evolved faculty?

This is where I think theistic evolution is another fancy way of saying God made the world. The Medieval mind understood that God's unity was necessary to secure truth as the product of particulars embedded in a cosmos. The theist post-Darwin has to evoke God's triune plurality as well to ground mission, action, change--eschatology.

So then, I've had all of these pieces scattered around, but the confidence to finally--once and for all--to put them together was lacking. No longer. I'm willing to say that reason and faith are one because God's logos made the world in wisdom. I'm willing to suffer the charge of fideism and supernaturalism and the suspicion of anti-intellectualism or just plain naivete.

See also:

Friday, April 17, 2015

Three ways physicists understand the physical universe

"Ten years after Einstein completed his theories, Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrödinger invented quantum mechanics, describing the behavior of atoms and light-quanta in a radically different way. Experiments confirmed that quantum mechanics gives a true picture of atomic processes that Einstein’s theories could not explain. Niels Bohr worked out a philosophy, generally known as the Copenhagen interpretation, to explain quantum mechanics. I prefer to call it the dualistic philosophy, since it describes the universe as consisting of two layers. The first layer is the classical world of Einstein, with objects that are directly observable but no longer predictable. They have become unpredictable because they are driven by events in the second layer that we cannot see. The second layer is the quantum world, with states that are not directly observable but obey simple laws. For example, the laws of the second layer decree that every particle travels along every possible path with a probability that depends in a simple way on the path.

"The two layers are connected by probabilistic rules, so that the quantum state of an object tells us only the probabilities that it will do various things. The dualistic philosophy allows us to divide our knowledge of nature into facts and probabilities. Observation of the first layer gives us facts about what happened in the past, but only gives us probabilities about what may happen in the future. The future is uncertain because the processes in the second layer are unobservable. The power and the beauty of quantum mechanics arise from the fact that the physical laws in the second layer are precisely linear.

"All points in a linear theory are equal, and a linear space has perfect symmetry about any of its points. As a result of the linearity of the laws, the second layer possesses a wealth of marvelous symmetries that are only partially visible in the first layer. For example, in the first layer, symmetries between space and time are only partly visible. In daily life, we do not mix up inches with seconds or miles with days. In the second layer, as the result of Paul Dirac’s elegant equation describing the quantum behavior of the electron, the mixing of space with time in the electron’s movements would be clearly visible. But we do not live in the second layer, and so the mixing is hidden from us.

"The dualistic philosophy gives a natural frame for the new sciences of particle physics and relativistic cosmology that emerged in the twentieth century after Einstein and Bohr were dead. The new sciences are dominated by mathematical symmetries that are exact in the second layer and approximate in the first layer. The dualistic philosophy seems to me to represent accurately our present state of knowledge. It says that the classical world and the quantum world are both real, but the way they fit together is not yet completely understood. The dualistic philosophy is flexible enough to accept unexpected discoveries and conceptual revolutions.

"Now, eighty years after the dualistic philosophy was invented by Bohr, it is generally regarded by the younger generation of physicists as obsolete. The younger generation mostly rejects duality and accepts what I call the quantum-only philosophy. The quantum-only philosophy says that the classical world is an illusion and only the quantum world exists. The concept of a classical world arose because the effects of quantum mechanics are rapidly erased by a phenomenon known as decoherence. Decoherence hides the quantum world by destroying rapidly the waves arising from quantum effects. After the waves have disappeared, whatever is left obeys classical laws and looks like a classical world. According to the quantum-only philosophy, the marvelous harmony of Einstein’s classical universe is only an approximation, valid when quantum waves happen to be small enough to be neglected.

"To summarize the present situation, there are three ways to understand philosophically our observations of the physical universe. The classical philosophy of Einstein has everything in a single layer obeying classical laws, with quantum processes unexplained. The quantum-only philosophy has included everything in a single layer obeying quantum laws, with the astonishing solidity and uniqueness of the classical illusion unexplained. The dualistic philosophy gives reality impartially to the classical vision of Einstein and to the quantum vision of Bohr, with the details of the connection between the two layers unexplained. All three philosophies are tenable, and all three are incomplete. I prefer the dualistic philosophy because I give equal weight to the insights of Einstein and Bohr. I do not believe that the celestial harmonies discovered by Einstein are an accidental illusion."

Excerpt from Freeman Dyson, "Einstein as a Jew and a Philosopher" NYRB May 7, 2015. Accessed May 17, 2015.

Friday, January 30, 2015

meaning = structure / structure = meaning

Take a second to read this paragraph. (Yes, I know it is hard and that there are no images or movies associated.)

"The structure of a compound sentence sends certain messages to readers, no matter how you fill in the blanks. First, it tells readers that the sentence contains two relatively important ideas, each one deserving its own independent clause. Second, it tells readers that these two ideas are approximately equal in importance, since they are balanced as a pair. And third, it alerts readers to the relationship between the two ideas, depending on the connector. For example, and suggests that the two ideas are being added together, but indicates that they are being contrasted, and or tells us that they are alternatives. A semicolon suggests balance between two similar or sharply contrasting statements." (Diana Hacker and Betty Renshaw, Writing With a Voice, 2nd ed. Scott, Foresman, 1989)

Meaning dictates sentence structure. That's why it is important.

Meaning dictates structure. Structure tells you how the author understood his or her message.

Meaning dictates structure. So when you figure out what something means, you'd better not emphasize something that the structure deemphasizing (e.g. no taking your main idea from a dependent clause).

Meaning dictates structure.

Meaning dictates structure.

Find the structure; find the meaning.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Erich Przywara, Analogical Deliverer

I read with excitement First Things magazine's January 27, 2015 article about Erich Przywara's analogia entis today. The article by Stephen Webb is clearly written, and includes as solid a description of Przywara's metaphysical insight as I have read. "Przywara," he says, "finds the formula for the analogical foundation of the Catholic Church in the Fourth Lateran Council 1215 decree that, 'One cannot note any similarity between Creator and creature, however great, without being compelled to note an even greater dissimilarity between them.' . . . The 'ever greater,' for Przywara, signifies an ongoing, never complete, and always expanding process. The analogy of being is not an analogy of inequality, as if God and creation could be compared even if only for the purpose of demonstrating how dissimilar they are. Instead, [it] denotes a dynamic disproportionality, so that whatever characteristics we attribute to God must be continually dis/qualified on the basis of a difference that has no limit or end."

As I read it, what Przywara has done is to locate a basis for speaking philosophically about God outside of metaphor. Instead of metaphor, which I identify (perhaps incorrectly) here with the approach of natural theology (in that metaphor compares unlikes), Przywara chooses analogy as his metaphysical foundation.

The reason this is exciting to me is that I have been struggling with natural theology for some time. By natural theology I mean specifically a place in human being or experience from which some religious philosophy may be built (e.g. Schleiermacher's radical dependency). At first I didn't want anything to do with natural theology. Yet, oddly enough, I was simultaneously struggling with related philosophical questions. I didn't know I was both forswearing and trying to embrace the same thing. When I realized what I was doing, the question then was why, in fact, some natural theology is needed; natural theology is bought at a dear price for the confessing Christian. Emotionally, I wanted to jettison the entire thing. Yet, to do so is is intellectual suicide. The ax was at the root of the tree.

Przywara says that there is another way to build an intellectual framework for discussing God apart from discovering some common anthropological attribute, such as morality. This way is analogy. I don't understand it well, but for now, I'm thrilled!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Augustine's De Magistro Suggests Your Project is Meaningful

The way down from Wonderland station through Boston and into Harvard Yard takes an hour or more. And, on a cold day as it was in the winter of 1999, the winter before my daughter was born, it seeps into the soul. You can shrug on a coat with your books. It helps. But when you are pushing thirty and grasping for the empty matches of an academic career, you bring the cold in with you. At least it keeps you awake.

My memory is as clear as the daylight. I walk up from the screeching yellow darkness of the Red Line into Harvard Square. People are everywhere. If you are lucky, the church bells will be going--calling you to prayer. (I heard the bells on that Monday when my Kant paper lost its way.) I pinch myself, being hurried along through Harvard Square and belonging--if only obliquely, but still belonging. I take a right past the mess hall and go down a block. Parked cars, utility trucks, cracked sidewalk, a moonscape of unmelted ice and pitted footprints. It turn left along the back of the library and into the divinity school. It is always a shock that no one throws me out.

I was bound for my professor's office, Dr. Philip Clayton. Third floor. I have no idea why I needed to see him. He was teaching the early Enlightenment: Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Kant, Schleiermacher, Lessing, Tillich, and a few others. When I reached his office, he was busy with a graduate student. So I waited. But the door was open, and Herr Clayton had warmed to his subject.

"I want you," he said--his voice suggesting he was taking pains to make himself as clear as possible, "to read, understand, and discuss what I am teaching you. But I would rather help you to discover your own project." The student, a young Asian woman by her voice, said something. She sounded halting and confused. "Yes," he assured her, "I think your work has been good. But in the paper you are working on, I'd like to see you find the edges of what you are about. What are your questions? If I can help you discover those, then I have done what I set out to do." She spoke again, and I strained to pick out her words.

And somewhere between her evident confusion and his probing encouragement, I realized I was hearing myself. Whatever it was I’d come for, it no longer mattered. This was the better thing. I was that young graduate student, trying so hard to do what was expected. And he, a world-class scholar, a protégé of Wolfhart Pannenberg, who was today guest-lecturing at Harvard and would, tomorrow, assume some higher star, he was saying that all the books are but window-dressing and windmills for a better way that Clayton called “your project.”

Do I have a project? What is my project? “If I can help you find the edges of what you are about,” he said.

As Providence always seems to do, the right book came along: the Westminster edition of Augustine’s earlier writings. (It was already in my backpack.) It is a collection of eight essays beginning with his soliloquies and including his more famous work De Libero Arbitrio (On Free Will). I had just begun to read the second essay, “The Teacher.” In Latin, De Magistro, or, if you like, the Maestro.

You may not know it, but Augustine had a son, Adeodatus. He loved his son very much. If you know where to look, there are passages that crackle with paternal pride. The early material of the Confessions, for example, are modeled from his impressions of Adeodatus’s babyhood. “So I have been told, and I believe it on the strength of what we see other babies doing . . . Little by little I began to notice where I was, and I would try to make my wishes known to those who might satisfy them; but I was frustrated in this, because my desires were inside me, while other people were outside and could by no effort of understanding enter my mind. So I tossed about” (1.8). Like all fathers, Augustine bragged about how capable and smart his son was, smarter even than himself, he said. Yet, Adeodatus only lived into his early twenties.

I don’t know if it was years after his death, or it the manuscript had begun earlier when Adeodatus was still alive. But in its present form, De Magistro is Augustine’s love letter to his son in the form of a Platonic dialog. Father and his then-sixteen-year-old son are talking together. Together they pursue the truth. See how smart he is, you can feel Augustine saying. See how he leads and pulls ahead.

The two of them are on about speech. About words as signs and the signified, and whether words can convey anything worth knowing. Knowledge and teaching require words. But words themselves mean nothing. It is the signified, the things in the world, that are the content. A man knows what the word “walking” means when he observes someone walking. So “the sign is learned from knowing the thing.” Meaning is discovered by the senses, not by knowing a word.

Ah, but what about inner objects? So instead of a stone or a bird, the object in question is a mental proof or insight? Here the senses cannot go. Such things are looked “upon directly in the inner light of truth which illumines the inner man.” There, some other force stamps things as true or false. Some other light allows individuals whose minds are completely separate from each other to nevertheless agree on what is true and what is false. This seal of the truth, says Augustine, is provided by the magistro, the teacher. My hearer is “taught not by my words but by the things themselves which inwardly God has made manifest to him.” A person can hear and understand words—and Augustine even grants that the hearer can assume that the words heard come from the mind of the speaker. But, are the words true?

“When the teachers have expounded by means of words all the disciplines which they profess to teach, the disciplines also of virtue and wisdom, then their pupils take thought within themselves whether what they have been told is true, looking to the inward truth, that is to say, so far as they are able. In this way they learn.”

That inner judgment, the sentence of truth or falsehood by which one learns, this, Augustine says, is the inner teacher. “Now we should not only believe but also begin to understand how truly it is written by divine authority that we are to call no one on earth our teacher, for One is our teacher who is in heaven.”

Augustine having finished his speech, Adeodatus gets the last word. “I have learned,” he says, “that in order to know the truth of what is spoken, I must be taught by him who dwells within and gives me counsel about words spoken externally in the ear. By his favour I shall love him the more ardently the more I advance in learning.”

Since that day sitting outside Dr. Clayton’s office, his encouragement has stayed with me. Discover your project. Find out where the edges of your questions occur. Learn them. Follow them.

Nevertheless, it was Augustine that provided the why. It was Augustine that made the project meaningful. Because Augustine gestured with his words toward the source of that project: the inner teacher, God. Or, if you like, the indwelling God, the Holy Spirit.

My apologies for moving so quickly. This is running very long. Let me say it like this: Is the intellectual life meaningful? Is its pursuit, its inner dialogue, its question and discovery and question, worthwhile?

Augustine says, yes. He says it is not a foolish exercise, this finding your project. He gives it a name. Not that he calls it this, but this is what it is: sanctification. The pursuit of Christ. And seeing them exhausted and harassed on the Red Line, he says “Follow me.” And, leaving all, they did.

Friday, September 05, 2014

What Jody is After

So jumping right in for the initiated: What is Jody after? What is his point? (And i may have to lump my cousin into it as well.)

Examining his statements carefully, here's my restatement. He'll have to tell me if I'm off the mark or not.

Jody cares because he wants liturgy to matter.

He says that the liturgy matters because we are material beings who worship. Worship requires a grammar because it communicates meaning. This grammar is not meaningless, but communicates the values of its culture--the church, the family of God. The church is the family that God has called into being, he says, and it is the subsequent sacrament of the first sacrament, Christ.

This grammar isn’t concerned with what things are. It is a passive sentence that tells the story of an active God. It is concerned with what things are for. In the performance of its grammar the community confesses God’s acts and interprets what they mean to itself. Misconfessing this at the very least spoils the message and at most is blasphemous!

The words and prayers of the church are traditions that affect real change. Blessing is a way the grammar sets something apart to be what it is for. Ordination is a way the grammar sets someone apart to play a role in the corporate performance. And there is also a reordering of the thing's identity, where identity is ontologically dependent upon use.

In baptism and ordination, this ontological change is called an indelible mark, which changes the individual to reorient them toward Christ. It doesn't mean they are super-people, but it is a testimony to the activity of the Holy Spirit.

The Spirit and the incarnation make all of this more than a (Wittgensteinian) parlor game. The incarnation, because matter is rightfully part of the divine plan. It is useful and necessary. The Spirit, because it affects creation of world and word and so gives direction and structure to the community itself. (This last paragraph is a muddled mess of theological gobbledygook.)

At this point, Jody gestures toward "the power of language to reorient and redefine." We're both boxing at Wittgenstein's speech-acts now.

At any rate, I think he’s hearing me say that liturgy does not matter. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that the liturgy is a family custom, and like all family customs, it occasionally does things that are a little crazy--but that’s okay.

I'll add more to this post--this is just half-written. It is a draft to get something out there.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Give up the myth of human progress?

“Clearly science and technology have put extraordinary knowledge and power at the command of beings who come into the world with the same brains and mental faculties as humans born 5,000 years ago. Any victory over our species’ destructive tendencies will likewise have to come from institutional and cultural development. We know what humans are capable of: in the wrong circumstances and with the wrong formation, they can behave monstrously. The hope for progress can consist only in the belief that there is some form of collective human life in which the capacity for barbarism will rarely find expression, and in which humans’ creative and cooperative potential can be realized without hindrance. [John] Gray regards such hope as utopian, but it can be supported both by experience and by reflection. Moral and political progress is inevitably more difficult than scientific progress, since it cannot occur in the minds of a few experts but must be realized in the collective lives of millions; but it does happen. Experience shows that some societies are much more decent than others, and that in fits and starts, cruelty, oppression and discrimination have become on balance less acceptable over time.” Thomas Nagel. NYT. 7/5/13.

In this quote, Thomas Nagel defends the myth of human progress. And I wonder, reading it, whether the holocaust is not made more horrible by its deep challenge to this myth. The German people were (and still are) shining examples of the best of Western civilization--and evil still took and used them without interference to accomplish in reality the things that only exist in our unspoken nightmares.

I've been thinking off and on about this myth of human progress. I love this myth. Believing it gives my life and my own civilization meaning and purpose. I am at the crest of thousands of years of progress. I am better than my forebears. And those who come after will be better, happier, and healthier than me. Their children would be geniuses to my age. And yet, lets face it, this is a thoroughly secular eschatology bound on a highly selective reading of the facts.

In short, the Judeo-Christian worldview should have none of it. It is a kind of antichrist. One of those lies that hold down the truth.

On the other hand, can someone just give up the myth of human progress? Can someone simply rewire the operating system they imbibed with their mother's milk?

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Hacking Language Acquisition: Some Thoughts.

What is language? How are languages constructed? And what are the best ways to quickly learn a language? These and similar questions have been rolling around in my mind over the last few months.

It all started because I have been teaching Greek to some dedicated friends. Now if you know anything about classical languages, you know that many people every year take these languages, such as Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, in graduate school as prerequisites toward further study. And you may also know that the dropout rate post-graduation for the enjoyment and retention of these languages is not good. Now I and my friends are putting a lot of effort into learning Greek. I don't want them to be a statistic--and, frankly, I don't want to become one either. So I ask the question, "What does it take to escape the attrition trap and break through into enjoying and so sustaining and even growing, in a language?"

I work a job, so I don't have a lot of time for deep reading and research about this. But here are a few things I've learned.

Immanuel Kant was a Linguist

According to Immanuel Kant, human beings construct the world along two planes: extension and change, in other words, along space and time.

  1. The noun system captures space
  2. The tense system captures time

Both employ the same method to do so.

Beginning with a root, prefixes and suffixes are added or removed to fix that root within a matrix that assigns it jobs--being a direct object or a subject, for example.

We memorize a lexical form (lemma) of a word, but understand that the lemma really exists as a root that can manifest anywhere along a matrix.

Understood in this way, there is a deep repetition, a strategic recurrence, between verbal and noun systems. Furthermore, taken together they answer Kant's qualifications for building the kind of world that human beings experience (an appropriately phenomenological world.)

With this in mind, one can begin to interrogate a language and ask why this matrix is chosen and not another one? Why five or seven cases and not thirteen or twenty-one?

Open- and Closed-Class Words

Linguists parse the words of a language into two categories: open-class and closed-class. Open-class words are the usual nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and verbs that we usually associate with language. Open-class words are also called content words or lexical words. These are the words that carry the meaning in sentences, and it is interesting that new words that come into a language are always open-class words (thus the "open.") Closed-class words, also called function or grammatical words, are things like determiners, qualifiers, prepositions, conjunctions, and intensifiers. They serve a variety of functions, as their names demonstrate. They do not, themselves, carry meaning in the way that content words do. Instead, they serve to grammatically connect the open-class words. There are far fewer closed-class words in a language than open-classed words by several standard deviations. And, here's another kicker, unlike open-class words, to which new terms may be coined or invented or taken whole from another language, closed-class words are stubbornly fixed. Languages have all the function words that they need, and it is near impossible to delete or add to their number, even when it would be useful to do so. Closed-class function words, then, are the inner skeleton upon which the open-class content of the language is attached. In short, if you are going to learn a new language, get to know function words well, and become adept at watching for them when reading. "Once the framework of grammar has been transferred to long-term memory," says author Tim Ferris, "acquiring vocabulary is a simple process of proper spaced repetition." I've read that an ESL teacher, for example, should aim at the perception of the structure of a text before the individual words. So by zeroing in on function words, one will learn more about a target language than would be done through memorizing hundreds of content words.

". . . the task facing the child is not to learn how language works, starting from scratch. Instead, since children are born with an implicit knowledge of languages in general, they have to figure out how the particular language (or languages) they hear functions. For example, all languages have something like prepositions, words that show relationships among things (The book is on the table). In languages like English, these words that show position come in front of the noun, so they are called prepositions. In other languages, these words follow the noun, so in those languages, a child would encounter sentences with this pattern: The book is the table on.In such languages,these words are called postpositions because they come after (post), not before (pre)." [1]

An Interesting Note from a Translator

"A translation is not just turning one language into another. It’s also about opening up a foreign mindset . . . to hear the text and experience it absolutely as intensely as I can, allowing myself to fall into its way of thinking about things. A good translator has to be an interested sponge when it comes to the idiom and cultural setting of the language he or she is translating from [--] fascinated by the picayune details of language. Every complex translation would be somewhat different if we had done it a month before, or a month later, or even an hour."[2]

Benny the Irish Polyglot Says to Ditch the English

One of the biggest lessons Benny learned in his transformation to langauge polyglot was to give up his English as quickly as possible. Be stupid, he says. Make mistakes. But leave your English behind and deal with the frustrating, bewildering, but language-acquisition-fast method of leaving your comfort language behind.[3]

Now, where dead languages are concerned, you can't just avoid your English-speaking expat friends and hang out with the locals. What you can do, however, is to up your exposure and go cold-turkey on sections of text. For example, one could go native on the Gospel of Mark or on a chapter of the Gallic Wars or something.

Tengentially, get away from code-thinking as soon as possible. A new language is not just a code for your old one. Stop occasionally and forget your native tongue while holding the new language in stasis like wine held in the tongue. Enjoy and parse out the sensation before swallowing.

A Large Bit on the Importance of Reading

"Studies of vocabulary development through reading give further support to the claim that most vocabulary is acquired. Anderson and Nagy carried out a series of studies on how children acquire words during reading. They found, for example, that there is about a one in twenty chance that a student will acquire a new word from seeing it in context. . . . If students see a word more often, they are more likely to acquire the word.Anderson and Nagy report that the average fifth grader reads for about twenty-five minutes a day. They comment "This number is certainly lower than would be desired, but it translates into about a million words of text covered in a year." If even 2 percent of the words were unfamiliar, students would encounter twenty thousand new words in a year. If they acquired one out of every twenty, they would acquire at least one thousand words a year.

"These authors go on to say, "An avid reader might spend an hour or two a day reading, and thus cover four or more times as much text. The rate of learning from context for self-selected text is likely to be closer to one unfamiliar word in ten than one in twenty. For children who do a fair amount of independent reading, then, natural learning could easily lead to the acquisition of five to ten thousand words a year, and thus account for the bulk of their annual vocabulary growth."

. . . .

"A study carried out with adult speakers of English and students learning ESL showed that both groups were able to define many new vocabulary words just from reading a novel.

. . . . .

"[Another researcher] found that picking up words from reading is ten times faster than learning words through intensive vocabulary instruction. However, they also suggest that some vocabulary study can be useful. They encourage teachers to develop a sense of what they call "word consciousness." "We believe that the goal of instruction should be to develop what one lexiphile has termed word consciousness."

. . . .

"One of the benefits of acquiring vocabulary through reading is that students develop a more complete understanding than the superficial knowledge gained by memorizing a definition. . . . When students see and hear a word in different contexts, they build a subconscious understanding of that word. Extensive reading is the best way for students to build a rich vocabulary." [4]

Note also the following quotation.

"It is perfectly possible to expand your vocabulary in a sustainable manner that is relevant to your current level, needs, and usage. Remember the “output” versus “input” distinction I’ve made earlier? Focusing on input (i.e. interesting resources to consult to immerse yourself in the language) rather than output (i.e. the number of words to memorize every day) is a good start. Rather than becoming obsessed with memorizing new words, simply accept the fact that you will end up forgetting a lot of the stuff you come across. But by being exposed to material that is at a suitable level to you and by trusting your common sense and learning as much as you can from context, you will inevitably end up assimilating sentence structures, collocations, and words in a more natural fashion through exposure. Sure, at this stage, if you come across a word several times and you still can’t get your head around it, it doesn’t hurt to write it down in a notebook or even save it in a flashcard app. But by changing the way you approach language learning, and by taking the focus away from memorizing a set amount of words every day/week/month to actually getting exposed to the language in a more holistic manner, you will find that slowly but surely, your skills will progress and your fluency in the language will follow a path in harmony with the vocabulary and sentence structures you are exposed to." (Lingholic)

Lend Language Your Ears

Human beings use air, their vocal chords, and the contraction and expansion of their oral and nasal cavities to express or suppress sounds. The Phonecians were the first to begin writing down sounds phonetically rather than resorting to picture language. Therefore writing for every other language that does this, which are most languages, is a kind of shorthand for the contraction or relaxation of organic sound production. Writing isn't where meaning lives. Writing tells you how to move your body to make the kind of sounds that produce meaning. Generally speaking: language is an oral thing. When you look at a page of English or French or Latin or German, you are seeing instructions for producing the sort of sounds that community of speakers agreed on. What this means is that when learning a new language, you need to keep your mouth and ears involved. Never read silently, and listen to as much as possible.

Set Short-Term Goals

One thing that Tim Ferris and Benny the Irish Polyglot talk about is not dying at the hands of language perfection. Language courses tend to teach against an ideal of perfection, and this, they say, kills motivation. Language is the way that minds connect with minds. It is the tool for making connections between people and cultures. So learn what you have to have to get to the point where you can start connecting and let the rest take care of itself. That's what they would say.

This is not as applicable where classical languages are concerned, but it is still helpful. If the point is to make connection, then read for meaning first before you read for parsed perfection.

Ferris and Benny talk about setting smaller short-term goals: to carry on a two-minute conversation, to order coffee, to read a weather report, to read a chapter of Plato without reference to a lexicon.

And finally, I'm thinking about the idea of micro-grammars within languages right now. It is one thing to learn how to say hello or to construct a simple sentence, but the conversation dies quickly thereafter because of a lack of micro-grammar. A micro-grammar is a word I use to talk about spheres of language: the weather, sports, the office, family life, religion, what's new in politics. Native speakers move from micro-grammar to micro-grammar as easily as moving from room to room, but even in native language there are times when one must acquire new words for a new environment (the micro-grammar of your city or neighborhood.) I'm not sure how yet to best incorporate this into language acquisition, but when I think of various children's books I can see that they recognize the existence of such grammars and take steps to teach words accordingly.

The Two-Face Technique

From the beginning, I have thought about language acquisition using the metaphor of climbing Mount Everest. There are a number of reasons for this. The effort and focus that climbers display even years before their attempt. The social, material, and physical expense and exertion, if not pain, required to successfully summit the mountain. The way that climbing Everest has become a well-understood and apportioned process of having such-and-such gear and moving up the mountain through established camps. The fact that hundreds if not thousands of people make an attempt every year (you aren't any different from them.)

Now one element of the metaphor that has become very useful is the difference between Everest's south and north faces. The south face is the (qualified) easier of the two. The south face was the way Hillary and Norgay made the summit in 1953. The north face, however, is a beast.

For my purposes, each face represents a technique of language acquisition. The north face represents what we usually think of when we think of learning a language: wrote memorization and paradigms. The raw violence of making our minds sink new synapses into new patterns unattached to any other familiar information. The south face represents the way native speakers learned their language. South face techniques are reading aloud and reading a lot. They are fun and easy, and in my experience they charge a session with energy and life. North face exercises feel like work. South face s just fun.

The trouble, of course, is that south face takes a good long while and a lot of exposure--far more than we'd achieve even through a course of immersion. (Non-native speakers tend to achieve a homeostasis of "good enough," which is why I say even immersion is not sufficient.) Few people have the time or patience for such an approach. On the other hand, north face is not so great either. I already mentioned the abysmal rates of attrition by graduates who have taken even years of a language in formal instruction. So what to do?

My hypothesis is that good language work needs both faces delivered in appropriate amounts. Overall, south face activities are best, but north face activities should be used to speed up the dial. You swallow a paradigm or construction quickly, via north face, and that reinforces and makes your south face work more capable. The resulting success pumps endorphines into the whole and keeps the arrow of acquisition moving forward.

Linearization or Discourse Up and Down

Dr. Steven Runge talks about something called the linerization problem. "Linearization describes the fact that we can only produce one word at a time, one sentence at a time," he says. That means that "the reader/hearer can only take in one word at a time, one sentence at a time." So the hearer or reader has to construct the architecture of meaning that's coming at her, and she gets one shot at it. How does she do it?

Runge says that she does it through two methods. First, she uses deictic markers or textual markers that help her structure the stream of information she is hearing or reading.[5] These tell her what is more important or less, whether the subject has changed or is going in a new direction. Citing the work of linguist Walter Kintsch, Runge calls this method construction.

As it turns out, there is a lot of debate about construction. After all, if meaning is really found in the big structures of language, then why is it that so few of those handy markers are present at that level. And why are so many found at the level of sentences? Runge says that it is a matter of debate whether meaning is top-down or bottom up, but he thinks it is both.

What he's really fascinated by is how textual markers on the sentence level go on to build those big, discourse-level structures our reader uses for understanding. "Call me silly," he says, "but it would seem that if one has properly understood how a device operates in simplex context at the lower-levels, then one will be in a much better position to adequately describe its much more complex interaction with other features at the higher-levels of discourse processing, i.e. the integration stage." Discourse Analysis needs its more humble, lower-level cousin, discourse grammar. "Lower-level structures are they keystone to understanding higher-level structures."

The second method the hearer or reader uses to extract meaning is more contextual. Runge calls it integration.

The newly forming mental representation of a text doesn’t exist in an isolated silo of our brain. Instead Kintsch has demonstrated that we integrate the new one into our existing, larger mental representation. This integration is not simply with the earlier portion of what we’ve read or even other books we’ve read, but with the sum of our knowledge about the world and how it operates based on our prior learning and experiences. . . . Differences in background knowledge, goals, and presuppositions all play a role in how we process a text. We don’t just read a text, we also integrate it with what we already know.

Integration is why two people can read the same text and get completely different answers. They may both be doing the construction side at nearly the same level, but their integration is widely different, as are no-doubt their life experiences. "Our own mental representation of the world . . . plays a huge role in how we process new texts or communication."


[1] David E. Freeman and Yvonne S. Freeman, Essential Linguistics (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2004), 14.
[2] Dennis Abrams, "The Art of Translation: Something New, Something Old" Publishing Perspectives accessed April 2, 2013.
[3] Watch his interesting TEDx talk at
[4] Freeman. Linguistics. 2004.
[5] A deictic marker is a word or phrase (such as this, that, these, those, now, then) that points to the time, place, or situation in which the speaker is speaking. Deixis is often and best described as “verbal pointing,” that is to say pointing by means of language. Deictic expressions fall into three categories: person (you, us), spatial (here, there), and temporal (now, then) deixis. Deictic expressions are tied to the speaker's location/context (deictic center). The most basic distinction is between near/proximate and far/distal.

Friday, November 02, 2012

The Three Options

Bluntly stated, there seems to be three options available to the publicly thinking Christian today. And by publicly thinking I mean the Christian who is interested in thinking outside of the ecclesiastical circle, the Christian interested in speaking in the public square.

The public square is always tended by a gatekeeper, and as I've said before, the gatekeeper in our day is Enlightenment secularism manifested culturally in the materialism of the hard sciences. This is to say that the public square and all conversation allowed in the public square is implicitly in dialogue or in open agreement with the philosophical assumptions of science.

So, then, the public Christian has three ways of speaking. First, he may fully adopt materialist presuppositions and compartmentalize his mind, so that he is a Christian in some spheres and a secularist in the other. A subset of this is that he may refuse to compartmentalize the two and live buffeted by the tension. Second, he may retreat from the the metaphysics of modernity into a neoclassical metaphysics. My hypothesis is that the Intelligent Design community is pursuing this option, and that this option fuels the success of that effort to revive the argument from design. Third and finally, he may adopt the extremely new metaphysics of process or emergence.

I believe that an orthodox confession can be made within any of these three strategies--and, for me, this is a very new idea! Using the metaphor of a car, where orthodox confession is the body, the underlying metaphysic is its engine. One can swap out an engine and retain the integrity of the body (to lesser and greater degrees.) And, stepping further out, my guess is that the publicly thinking Christian cannot remain neutral forever but will, by steps known or unknown, inevitably choose one of the above three options.

Final caveat: in the course of time more options may develop. These are the ones I'm aware of presently. The Radical Orthodoxy movement of ten years ago (to the present?) was, to my mind, a variant of option two. And it is demonstrable that process or emergence has yet to produce what could be called thick orthodoxy, or something that the Nicene Fathers might recognize and agree with. This, however, does not mean it cannot, but only that it has not at this point in its development.