Sunday, October 28, 2012

I thought I’d better preserve the italicised text below for the record. It is a comment I put on the very Reverend James East’s blog here. It concerns the concept of connotational languages, a subject which is critical to understanding the natural language mode of speaking. This language mode includes the metaphorical but the idea is more general than just that. Needless to say it is very relevant to the subject of interpreting the language of the  Bible: 
A wide range of confounding paradoxes relating to our comprehension of the Godhead can be eliminated if we understand the difference between notational and connotational language. Notational languages, such as we use in mathematics or logic, attempt to talk about objects in detached and unambiguous “true or false” terms. For example, we might use notational language to say “It is day time” or “It is night time”. But in notational language statements like “It is both day time and night time” are liable to be contradictory. Connotational language, on the other hand, refers not exclusively to the object it describes but binds together the circumstances of the first person with the object. For example, someone might say “It is both day time and night time”, a statement which makes sense if we realize (for example) that in the particular context the statement was made the first person was telling us that he has depression (say). Connotational language carries information about both the objective and the subjective.

A statement that has connotational content leads us into a vista of reintepretation that depends on the open ended world of the language user and this prevents us from trying to wrap our minds around nonsense. For example, if the Bible said “Jonah swallowed the whale” you can bet your bottom dollar that there are some blockheads out there who would read this as a notational statement and attempt to believe it with a teeth gritting faith. They might justify this hogwash with the fideist argument that baloney somehow makes sense in the infinite mind of God but not in finite human minds.  However, “Jonah swallowed the whale” would make complete sense in a connotational context where, say, it is being used as a metaphor for people who attempt to swallow colossal absurdities. The hopelessly incoherent should not be identified with what we don’t know or don’t understand (or perhaps never will understand)

It is all but impossible to rid natural language of its connotational content except perhaps in the disciplined (but artificial) world of mathematics and logic. It is surely an irony that fideists, who are so strong about their inner connection with the divine, have never really thought their way past the third person language of the enlightenment with its objective, logical, and detached notational statements. To fideists statements like “Jonah swallowed the whale” are to be interpreted notationally and the resulting claptrap used as a test for the muscles of faith.  A corollary is that reason and revelation become polarities in opposition.

Instead of faith being measured by a willingness to imbibe bilge I think we might take a hint from Emerson about the rational basis of faith: “All I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen”.

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