Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Religion and Archaic Language

One curious feature of religious belief is its desire to protect (or even resurrect) archaic forms of language in its modern, everyday practice. Such examples are almost too numerous to mention, but include:

  • The use of archaic forms of Arabic among radical Muslims.1
  • The persistence of Latin in the Catholic mass long after it had fallen into disuse in all other social arenas.
  • The rendering of The Book of Mormon (a mid-19th century document) in 16th century English.
  • The persistent presence of KJV-exclusivism in various modern Protestant sects.
  • The persistence of Hebrew language as an entirely liturgical language from around the 2nd century until its rehabilitation in the late 19th century.

Objectively, this feature of religious expression is difficult to account for. In almost every other situation that calls for the use of human language, the evocation of archaic forms would be detrimental to the clarity of the speaker's message. Why employ language that is no longer in wide-circulation if you want to be understood? What could possibly explain the drive to shroud one's message with such deliberately abstruse prose? The answer, predictably enough, is that religious language differs substantively from everyday language.

In most uses of language, the general inclination is to make ones position as explicit as possible by reducing any potential ambiguity in what one wishes to say. "Sarah Smith holds a rose in her hand", for instance, is less ambiguous than "Sarah holds a flower in her hand", though this latter sentence is itself less ambiguous than "She holds it in her hand". Let us call the first sentence fully-propositional since its meaning is clear without any further elaboration, and let us call the last sentence semi-propositional,  as while it may take the same, general form (syntactically) as a fully-propositional statement, it cannot be properly understood without further refinement, elaboration or explicit contextual clues. In everyday communication, our language is generally composed of fully-prepositional forms; that is, forms that convey a meaning that is not entirely undermined by ambiguity2 and possess a determinate content that can be judged as being either true or false.3
    In religious language, however, ambiguity must not be seen as an inherently undesirable outcome of language use. In fact, as many atheists have fondly pointed-out over the years, religious language often has a decidedly slippery or woolly quality that seems to shield it from direct critique. The argument made by William Downes in this book is that this is no mere accidental quality of religious language, but rather an integral part of it. More specifically, Downes sees the preponderance of semi-propositional forms as being a central and inexorable aspect in the formation (and success) of religious ideas.

    Take, for instance, the rather unassuming sentence "God exists in heaven". It looks like a fully-prepositional statement in form, and the meaning - on a naive reading - may seem to be relatively clear, but the point is that such clarity is deceptive. Two people cannot agree on what is signified by the word "God" in the same way they may reach an agreement on what is signified by "Sarah Smith": one's definition of the former is shaped largely by subjective experience and cannot be anchored by anything that can be pointed to objectively. In this sense, "God" is an ambiguous and highly variable term that is scarcely more explicit in meaning than the pronoun "she". Heaven suffers from similar problems; again, given the impossibility of finding an objectively shared meaning of this word between any two people, we can scarcely say it is any less ambiguous than the word "it". Even the word exists is problematic, since it is obvious (according to most theological tenets) that God doesn't "exist" in the same sense that other objects in the universe "exist". In other words, even a mundane religious utterance like "God exists in heaven" renders itself completely immune to unambiguous explication and must therefore be recognised as semi-propositional in nature.

    However - and this is the important part - simply because religious language is frequently semi-propositional in nature, that is not to say that it is not at all meaningful. In fact, the very ambiguity of language allows words like "God" to be used with a kind of free-wheeling multi-valency that simply isn't possible with words like "rose". Its inherent ambiguity allows religious language to produce an almost inexhaustible supply of meaningful inferences that can be applied to almost any situation encountered. To the extent that it doesn't over-reach and creep into domains better expressed using fully-propositional forms (we might call such domains the world of the "profane") religion can create a web of self-referential meaning that is almost infinitely pliable and profoundly salient within the mind of the believer.

    With respect to the archaic forms of language I introduced at the beginning of this post, I hope it is becoming clear why such language forms are preserved in almost all religious traditions. The archaic language keeps it out of the "profane" domains of fully-propositional language4, and preserves it within its own hermetically-sealed domain of the "sacred". To the extent that archaic language is incomprehensible, so much the better for the inferential salience of religious concepts. This not the only reason for the use of such language within the praxis of religion, however, and I shall explore the other possibility - the importance of ancient authority in religions - in a subsequent post.


    (1) "The fascination of [Islamic] fundamentalism is... bound up with language. Their leaders try to speak pure Arabic, untainted by dialects or foreign words... The Arabic spoken by modern fundamentalists is often appallingly trite, puritanical, conformist and, in fact, artificial. It is, however, perceived as pure and religious, mythical and, in a dull, banal sense, sublime. The mere code of the language becomes a tool used to legitimate their claim to the status of a sacred authority." - The Blackwell Companion to the Quran, pp. 116-117.

    (2) Of course, all language contains some degree of ambiguity given the inherent poverty of language to adequately convey a concept from one mind to another, but I hope it is clear why the final of the three sentences can be said to be incomprehensibly ambiguous (in the absence of any context) in a manner that the first sentence is not.

    (3) Not in any absolute senses of the terms, but rather in principle.

    (4) I think this is why translations of the Bible which use contemporary English (usually for the edification of teenagers etc.) sound so campy: the "sacred" and "profane" domains are in conflict, which the brain struggles to reconcile in any way that doesn't utilise the release valve of laughter.

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