Sunday, January 10, 2010

Clay IV.9

A, B, C, D, . . . . Letters were invented so that we might be able to converse even with the absent. Thus the tradition has it. Letters are signs of sounds, these sounds being, in turn, signs of things we think. Our thinking--that we do think--is a sign of our being created in God's image. It is our thinking more than anything about our outward appearance, our shape, that is suggested by the biblical lines: "Let us create man in our own image."

Yet our thinking and the things we think are shot through everywhere by the marks of the Fall, and these marks seem to be there also in our language, that is to say there already in the very medium of our thought. So that some have been led to wonder if the signs themselves were not carrying the burden of the Fall: the signs themselves dragging the soul into the body of a fallen language and thus molding its thought as a fallen thought. Here the tradition reverses itself, and we may say that our thinking becomes the sign of sounds that we make, or rather the sign of the particular sounds our parents made, and their parents before them, going back to the moment when our language became corrupted. (In turn, the sounds that the generations of men have made can be understood merely as would-be signs of the primal letters, which letters we cannot know. Also, the alphabets in which we write cannot approach that originary divine alphabet, although our human creation of alphabets suggests our longing to do so.)

That thought and language are shot through with the marks of the Fall means also that the language of revelation is itself shot through. The text of the Bible does not escape the vagaries of (fallen) language, (fallen) thought. The Renaissance humanists' supposition that Hebrew was somehow "the language of God"--that one would hear "God's own words" if one could properly read aloud the Hebrew text of Isaiah--this notion was obviously mistaken. And any notion similar to the Muslim teaching, which holds that the Koran is not just a divinely inspired text but is itself an attribute of God, eternal and uncreated, is even further from the truth.

The texts of revelation, the texts of the Bible, are composite: they give the truths of the divine as these truths have been embodied in language. These truths, embodied in language, seem to us both clear and somehow mysterious: they call out for interpretation. But our interpretation, while certainly uncovering something of the divine, will itself be subject to the fallenness of language. One might say it is even more so subject. Thus it is that the interpreter should never hope to present descriptively and clearly what scripture itself could only give forth as paradox or incommensurability. And thus it is that interpretation can never fully answer the call of scriptural texts.

The radical fallenness of language and thought, once it is recognized as such, leads to what I will call the Doctrine of Perpetual Error. This doctrine acknowledges the following: we are always in some manner in error as long as we are in language. And to conceive of our being, the being of men, other than in language is of course impossible. In other words, we are in perpetual error, and we can only hope to formulate something like allegories of the truth, or shadows of a truth that is necessarily beyond our grasp. This doctrine also implies the following: all of the Christian scriptures, all of the Christian creeds and teachings, are in some manner in error: they are approaches to the truth of the divine that are the best our human understanding can attain.

Our attempts to formulate the truth are like shots in the dark. How close have they come to the mark? The answer to this question, if an answer is to be found, can only be found under the two illuminating lights of gnosis and the tradition.

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