The Agony of Babel (Myths of Language, Part II)

Last week I paused this blog after suggesting that although Deconstructionism is depressing, it nevertheless dovetails nicely with the “Christian Myth of Language.”  How could I, as a Christian, say such a thing?  Am I some sort of post-modern Judas, kissing the Christ and then selling him out for a few nods and snaps from my hepcat friends in the French Theory Café?  Christians and Deconstructionist readers alike, please withhold your judgment until we get to the bottom of this.  Now, let’s take a look. . . .

And let’s start by combing through the ruins of the Tower of Babel.  In the strata beneath Babel, according to the Christian myth of language, words had enormous power.  We all know, but nevertheless it bears repeating, that God created the universe by speaking it into being.  “Let there be light!” and there was light.  God then gave language to Adam, who used it to name all the animals on Earth.  (The refreshing Christian memoirist Don Miller points out that this must have taken quite awhile.)  Using the language God had taught him, Adam gave them their true names, their perfect names.  At this point there was a one-to-one correspondence between the symbol – the word – and the meaning it symbolized, whether that be material, intellectual, or spiritual.  This was the time when Emerson’s formula was literal and true: Words were straightforward signs of natural facts, which were in turn signs of spiritual facts.  Or, as the apostle John put it, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning.”

But Babel, alas!  For reasons known best by Him, God made a ruin of human language there.  At the outset, so the story goes, all humanity spoke a common language.  They said to each other, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly. . . .  Let us build ourselves a city, a tower with its top in the heavens,” and with that, they could do it!  No sooner were the words spoken than their potential was real; the men and women of Babel had the capacity to use language to get to real meaning – in fact to get to heaven.  Once Babel was broken, this potential was lost.  God confused the languages of the nations because he wanted to stop them from getting to heaven (why he wanted to prevent them from getting there is someone else’s blog to write).  The agony of Babel was therefore more than just an inability to communicate, although that inability was – and is – a part of it.  But beyond that, the true price of Babel was the interruption of the divine language on Earth.  The names that Adam had given the animals, the instructions that could have built a tower to heaven, and possibly even the words that had created the universe itself – all of that was lost.  The Word that was both with us and God detached from our end and slipped off the tip of the human tongue.  Words cannot have ultimate meaning, after Babel; they are no longer centered on any truth; they don’t correspond to reality the way we think they ought to.  In vain we try to find universal meaning in written and spoken language; in vain we try to make ourselves understood.  But all is vanity, and a chasing after the wind.

So far we are two-thirds of the way into the Christian myth of language.  Consider how much it agrees with – and even anticipates – Deconstructionism.  Both assert that any attempt by humans to use language to construct or discover ultimate meaning is bound to fail, and both emphasize the arbitrary diversity of the languages humans use.  Neither one, I feel I should add, believes that relinquishing linguistic diversity would be a good thing.  Deconstruction stresses that one language is as worthwhile (or arbitrary) as another; the story of Babel suggests that the original, meaningful one has been lost for good.  Even if it were possible to recover it, God would not be pleased if we tried, and would likely frustrate any attempts to do so.  Granted, the myths of the two theories do disagree about how we got here.  The Christian myth says that there once was meaning, but it was lost; the Deconstructionist myth says that though European philosophers invented the concept of truth, there never was any to begin with.  Both myths, however, give a grim warning about trusting too much in the fixedness of language, or the towers of vain wisdom and false philosophy that are inevitably built from it.  Perhaps words were once bricks that could be raised and ascended to heaven.  Regardless, they can’t be used that way anymore.

That is the first two-thirds of the Christian myth of language.  It draws attention to the same sort of details within a text that Deconstruction does.  Reading through either lens, we should expect to find evidence in a text of contradictory value systems and empty assertions of meaning.  We should expect our own readings to be limited by the language used in our interpretive communities; and we should acknowledge that, because of the limits of language, neither our individual nor communal interpretations are likely to be the “right” ones in any ultimate sense.  Of course, however, the Christian myth of language does not end there, with the agony of Babel.  It gets much more upbeat in the final third!  Even inchoate in the tower story itself, there’s the implicit understanding that humanity longs for meaning, or heaven, or God, and that language is somehow the answer to that desire.  Deconstruction cynically credits the desire for meaning to a covert desire for power – and hey! if that was the motivation behind Babel, perhaps that’s why God put the kibosh on it.  But this is the beginning of the rest of the story I’m telling you: Over the centuries – millennia – in the aftermath of Babel, our agony and frustration at the inadequacy language has been refined, beyond sublimation.  We have extensively reflected upon ourselves.  Many of us now just want to know God, regardless of what the public consequences of that knowledge will be.  We read voraciously, and write obsessively, searching always for that lost, perfect Word.  We’re willing to submit to it, to cast our crowns before it and take nothing for ourselves, if only the Word would come home.  That’s where the final third of the Christian myth of language picks up.  It is undeniably “logocentric,” and it diverges from Deconstructionism – but still, not entirely.

And that will be the subject of next week’s blog!

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About eddystonelight

This is neither the first nor the last blog of David Gilman-Frederick.
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5 Responses to The Agony of Babel (Myths of Language, Part II)

  1. atwistedpair says:

    This topic interests me greatly (as I have previously indicated), and I’m keen to take part in the overarching dialogue to which your posts about ‘Myths of Language’ also contribute. Given the haphazard nature of the conversation that tends to result within the ‘Comments’ function of blogs in general, I’m proposing, rather, to attempt a post on the topic.

    • I look forward to reading it! My next post is almost ready too, though I got bogged down grading final exams last week. I intended to finish it this weekend, but then there was this earthquake in the north. . . .

  2. Pingback: Forbidden fruit « a twisted pair

  3. atwistedpair says:

    As you might by now have noticed, my promised post about what you term “The agony of Babel” has become a “mini-series”; part five is already posted, and I’m working on the next — working title, “Immortal but naked”. Looking forward to your next.

  4. Pingback: Do things mean something? « a twisted pair

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