Language is a symbolic system. There are said to be over 8000 languages, and thus there are 8000 “names” for any given thing. Thus, 8000 words for mother, for the sun, for trees but also for love and hatred. None of these words are the actual thing. They are arbitrary series of sounds that a community agrees upon to represent something. This is a more remarkable trait that people acknowledge. That is probably because acquiring language seems so easy to most people that it cannot possibly be complex. As a speech-language pathologist and professor who teaches and writes about people with acquired brain damage via stroke, head trauma, dementia, or other neurological diseases, I am very aware of how complex language is because we seek to rehabilitate people back to being able to use language. Our language centers are connected to all parts of our brain. Thus, we can express emotion (from limbic system), pain (from somatosensory regions through the body), thoughts (from parietal lobe), what we see (from occipital lobe) and so on and so on. For people who speak more than one language, they have multiple words for the same thing or concept.
This short description is to show you how special language is, how it is unique to humans. Now, all animals communicate with each other, but they do not have the symbolic elaborate system of language that we have. This is a gift from God. I and many others study language from a neurological point of view. We know a lot about how the brain operates, many specifics. However, how it all coordinates, the creative use of language, the subtleties of it, the grace of it, we do not understand. We understand the pieces but not how it all works as a whole.
Now back to symbolism. It is the only way we can “know” God. Without symbolic thought, we cannot think about God because he is not material, something we can see or touch. We know God via the symbols He provides us. Just as a word is more than a series of sounds because of the meaning, the world around us – the trees, the sky, water are both material and symbolic of the God. We take Holy Communion and understand the powerful symbol it represents of what Jesus did for us, what He means to us.
Words have power. If a parent tells a child that she loves him, the child feels safe and protected. If a parent tells a child that she hates him and he will never be worth anything, it can destroy the child. Both are from an arbitrary series of sounds. The first parent is not holding the child or doing anything concretely special for the child. The power of that parent’s loving words can carry the child through difficult times. The second parent has not physically harmed the child, and that harm that might carry into adulthood when not even around the parent. The parent could die, and the harm could continue. The words themselves carry the power.
James speaks eloquently on the potential for good and evil in language:
3 Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. 2 We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.
3 When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. 4 Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. 5 Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. 6 The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. 7 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and saltwater flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olive, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water. (James 3:1- 12 NIV)
Satan cannot create but he can corrupt. Hitler was democratically elected by the Germans of the time. They listened to his words, read what he wrote and it had to power to turn them toward hatred of Jewish people and anyone else deemed less than worthy. His words convinced the people to think of the “pure” of them as gods. He did not put guns in their hands and make them shoot people; he did not personally operate the gas chambers. He simply gave charismatic speeches and people acted on his words. This was not magic; he did not hypnotize them. And yes, there was already evil in their hearts, but the words reinforced their evil and moved them to evil acts.
On God’s side, a sermon, spiritual guidance by a friend, reading the Bible can move people to action, to change from a destructive behavior to a more positive one. One way we communicate with God is through prayers, language. We use language to represent our fears, apprehensions, concerns, desires to God. And God answers us in language, in His direction for us.
Written language is a symbol of a symbol, spoken language. We know how to say “This car really needs to be washed” but when you read it (as you just did) we must turn visual symbols to represent the audible symbols of the spoken word. When you write, you must turn the visual images (already symbolic of the spoken word) and turn it into a series of motor movements that will duplicate the visually written language. Again, this is a remarkable skill of ours. The Bible was originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek. English speakers read it in English, which means it had to be translated. This is more complicated than translating from Spanish to Portuguese. It is a different alphabet, and many words have different meanings than today. There are also concepts that are foreign to us. Thus, the symbols of written language (which were symbols of actual spoken speech) had to be translated into another symbolic written system representing different spoken speech.
So how can all of this work? Back to our capacity for symbolic thought. This is a precious gift from God necessary for us to get to know Him, to communicate with Him and be spoken to by Him. However, there can be limitations to symbols as do not represent the full real thing. We can get close to fully knowing God by reading the Bible, having fellowship with other Christians, listening to religious leaders and speakers. This is why being a Christian is a journey, not a destination. In my own life, there were things that I did not know about God or understand in my twenties that I better understand now. I hope if I make it to my 80’s I will understand even more. We humans are perfectly capable of reading the Bible but the meanings not fully sink in to us, or we resist the meaning because it is not what we like or criticizes something that we are “happy” doing.
We also cannot even fully understand the Bible, hence the number of translations and commentaries. We we have limited cognitive abilities compared to God. Our language cannot surpass the cognition that it is based upon. Now, God does not hold our limitations against us, He loves us. We are like the not quite good athlete that the coach loves because she has put her whole heart into it and keeps trying and trying.
There is, in my opinion, unnecessary wrangling among Christians about which particular parts of the Bible are literal and which are symbolic. Now, the dreams interpreted by Daniel and his own and the very elaborate dreams of Zechariah are considered symbolic. Some put Revelations as more literal, some as at least partially symbolic. I say the wrangling is unnecessary because it is all true, the symbols are prophetic, wise, and true. Jesus often spoke in parables, but does that mean if not literal, if symbolic, He was not speaking the truth.
“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead, they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16)
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. “Why do you look at the speak of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speak out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will clearly remove the speak from your brother’s eye” Matthew 7:1-5.
These symbols within the use of language (double symbolism AGAIN) are essentially to help us understand God, who is beyond our typical comprehension. These symbols, including language itself, are used by God to help us understand Him. That is why I say that symbolic thought is a gift from God, what He gave us to better understand Him.
As a speech-language pathologist, I know that everyone does not have the ability to develop language, or at least at the level to read the Bible or understand a sermon. But that is the good thing about humans being capable of symbolic thought. God can communicate to these people via different ways because God wants to reach everyone. We may not know the symbols He uses to communicate to them, but He does.
In a previous Blog entitled “Location, Location, Location, God as a wise realtor” I discussed my theory of why God had a chosen people and why Jesus was born where He was, when He was. One thing that was needed was a people with a rich written tradition, one used to expound on the wonders of the world. We also need people like Paul who were great writers. So here we are now, reading a book written more than 2000 years ago, even further ago for Old Testament. Here I am using writing to write a blog about people I never met, speaking a language I don’t know, in a culture that is difficult to fully understand for modern readers. We have Christian services all over the world, the world’s most professed religion. In oppressive regimes, Christians must smuggle Bibles, hide them from view to keep from being jailed or killed. All over a bunch of “arbitrary” marks on pieces of paper. That itself is a miracle. It attests to the power of the word, or I should say “The Word.” How God has used language to reach across all people, all lands.
But, God, being an artist, was not content to merely use language to give us a dry commentary on life and how to live it. He chose poets, creative people to show not just His love by what he tells us but to show the beauty of his Word via beautiful and creative language. The poetic books of the Old Testament, considered Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, and Lamentations, are about a third of the Old Testament. There is also poetry in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and in many of the Minor Prophets (e.g., Micah). The New Testament does not have the same percentage of poetry but that does not mean it is not beautifully written. It also quotes the poetry of the Old Testament. Jesus also quoted passages from the Old Testament, including many from the poetic Psalms.
There is perhaps no more powerful link between language and God than the first verses of John-
The Word Became Flesh
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome[a] it. 6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. 8 He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. 9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
There is power in the Word. Language is a precious gift, we should honor it, not defile it. We should use this gift, even with its limitations, to work to understand God. Read the Bible, listen to the Bible on audio channels. Talk with other Christians about the Bible, about God. Regularly practice praying to God. Like a muscle which grows stronger with use, our use of language to understand God can grow our faith, our relationship with Jesus and God.