A discussion of how language and the creation of reality can shape our worldview. Recently, I went to a meeting of AAF in Berrien Springs. John Walton, Professor of Old Testament, Wheaton College (formerly of Moody Bible Institute) had been invited to discuss his book, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate.
Because of the popularity of the book, many people know that his primary argument for Genesis 1 is that it concerns “function” not “material” or things, and that function is to be understood in the context of the Israelite Temple ritual as “temple text”. Thus, it shares a cosmology common with the ancient Near East and is not to be understood from the scientific point of view.
We may have our scholarly disagreements with Walton, and reviews that take issue with him are numerous. But the point is: why are so many conservative commentators unable to tolerate this compromise, instead insisting on pitting what they call the literal (correct) meaning of the text against the scientific (wrong) picture? Within the inerrantist tradition there is a strategy to maintain the integrity of the text while exposing an error of interpretation that may have led to a popular but misguided understanding of the text. Walton’s “function” retains the integrity of Genesis 1 as ancient cosmology while exempting it from being judged by a scientific world view.
Missing Pieces. Language and the Creation of Reality
But conservative SDAs don’t seem willing to accept this strategy. The point is illustrated by two seminary teachers at the Forum meeting who insisted the text did concern the material creation. Thus, there was still tension between a clear reading of the text and the data supported by a scientific world view. I have considerable hope that Walton’s “function” will eventually have an effect on the minds of those within the inerrantist tradition.
I have less reason to believe it will make much of an impression on conservative SDAs. The reason for the latter observation lies in the fact that Walton, while respecting the Bible, is comfortable with a scientific picture of the world, thus moving his Bible believing constituency to accept it as well. Conservative SDAs are still moving away from it. Walton has clearly created a language which will move his readers out of an ancient near eastern world view and into a scientific world view; conservative SDAs have no such language; the Bible is either right and science wrong, or science is right and the Bible is worthless.
To clarify what I mean by the way language functions, I refer the reader to a recent article by George Lakoff, a famous linguist. Published by CommonDreams.org: ‘The “New Centrism” and Its Discontents,’ The article confronts the issue of the state of liberal democracy in the face of a hostile conservative opposition: To quote Lakoff:
Because we think with our brains, all thought is physical. Our moral and political worldviews are realized as brain circuits with strong synapses. If you have two conflicting worldviews, you have two brain circuits that are mutually inhibitory, so that when one is activated, it is strengthened and the other is shut off and weakened. When a worldview applies to a given issue, there is a neural binding circuit linking the worldview circuit to that issue circuit in such a way that the issue is understood in terms of that worldview. The right language will activate that that issue as understood via that worldview. Using that language strengthens that worldview.
When a Democrat “moves to the center,” he is adopting a conservative position – or the language of a conservative position. Even if only the language is adopted and not the policy, there is an important effect. Using conservative language activates the conservative view, not only of the given issue, but the conservative worldview in general, which in turn strengthens the conservative worldview in the brains of those listening.
That leads to more people thinking conservative thoughts, and hence supporting conservative positions on issues and conservative candidates. Material policy matters. Language use, over and over, affects how citizens understand policy choices, which puts pressure on legislators and ultimately affects what policies are chosen. Language wars are policy wars.
Language Changes the Brain
The meaning of this statement hits us right between the eyes. There comes a point when the wiring of the brain is so affected by a concentration of specific language that it is extremely difficult to understand an issue in a different way without going through the same process that resulted in developing “said” brain state in the first place.
Those who understand the role of the brain in addiction and overcoming it, will see the parallels. Of course, this argument applies to the liberal side as well. The difference being that liberals have not developed and deployed such language strategies as has the right. Lakoff warns liberals that they must never use the language of the right. We might mention the most recent, “investment= more government spending,” or the cultivated perception that universal health care is a socialist invention, and that “Obamacare” is the equivalent of national bankruptcy.
Secondly, the benefits of science in promoting better health and longer life must be used full force against the anti-scientific views of right-wing Adventism. If vegans won’t wear leather shoes, right wing SDAs should not use antibiotics or undergo diagnosis or surgery with scientific instruments. To do so should be viewed as compromising one’s religious principles. The tendency to separate health science from earth science is picking and choosing without any justification except personal opinion. It is time to emphasize that rejecting science in favor of dogma is a return to the mentality of the Dark Ages.
Lastly, the importance of the Sabbath, rather than a test of our fidelity to the Bible, should be viewed within the framework of work and leisure time and how each contributes to human wellbeing. God is not served by our time conditioned ideas of rest and work. Physical activity may be an important form of rest. We all know, today with computers, being sedentary is how we get work done. The idea that if we don’t maintain a literal reading of Genesis 1 the Sabbath will be compromised is a way of trashing both the importance of the Sabbath and human life.
Lessons Learned from Language and the Creation of Reality
Lakoff offers liberals or progressives a few strategies of his own invention. But we are focusing on Adventism. Progressive Adventists may be served by coining some of their own words and concepts to change perceptions. We could start by talking about honesty of belief, interpretation, and practice. This will not be easy because it involves commitment to a particular world view, so these ideas will have to evolve together.
However, as interpreters of the Bible we can avoid talking about the historical grammatical method of interpreting scripture, or that the principle that scripture must be allowed to interpret scripture as if they are adequate ways of biblical interpretation. The manipulative way these hermeneutic principles are used has to be exposed. They do not take history seriously, resulting in established institutional opinion despite the appeal to an interpretive process.
How Do We Proceed?
To serve the church is to serve its people. Many of us risk ourselves to bring the light to those in darkness, those who function within an unsustainable worldview. And while we cannot point a condemning finger at those who have experienced the misfortune of having their brain wired in a way that prevents them from living in and integrating with the real world, we do have a responsibility to educate and open their minds. Nor should we be quick to condemn those who are too quick to hurt for righteousness sake. The mind does not open all at once; it represses experience and filters information according to the worldview which governs it. Our task is to educate, and “Education is redemption.”