Sunday, June 12, 2011

Language, Representation and Missionary Work

“Now we see through a glass, darkly” (I Cor 13:12)

“whether there be propheicies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge it shall vanish away…” (I Cor 13:8)

-The Apostle Paul

Language mediates reality. In trying to express the profundity of experience and phenomenon we rely on language. However language is always an imperfect substitute for raw emotion and experience – this insight is captured nicely in the common phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words”. Indeed, a thousand words word be a rather pathetic attempt at re-creating the phenomenon readily accessible to our mind in a very simple picture. Therefore, at the level of experience, a thousand words can never actually re-present the experience involved in seeing a picture. Words are thus not only a representation – they are usually a rather poor one – like a painting of a scene captured through a glass, darkly.

Plato was among the first in written history to seriously cast doubt on language’s ability to accurately capture reality.

In Plato’s Apology, the hero Socrates tells of various confrontations with supposedly “wise men.” Socrates discovers that all the politicians, artisans and poets all presumed to know something. However, the mediating influence of language was such that the moment they proclaimed to “know” something, Socrates could immediately invert their so-called knowledge and prove that it was not. Therefore, Socrates went about demonstrating that knowledge is impossible, or at least language as knowledge is impossible, as in the proclamation, “I know”.

Socrates has an advantage over the wise man, as he explains, “I neither know nor think that I know. In this particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage…” Therefore, even though Socrates did not know any more than his interlocutors he did possess an attitude towards knowledge that they all lacked, in that he did not pretend to know anything. This ontological bent (or this way of being) was, according to Plato, the distinguishing factor that separated the hero Socrates from every other person in Athens.

Plato writes, “The truth is, O men of Athens, that God only is wise; and in this oracle he means to say that the wisdom of men is little or nothing; he is not speaking of Socrates, he is only using [his] name as an illustration, as if he said, He, O men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing.” (Emphasis Added)

To reiterate, the second one tries to put something true into words; one begins to engage in representation, which is a lie (a representation is a copy, an inauthentic simulation of some supposed original). As such language can never reveal “the truth of all things” (Moroni 10:5). (And for this we must look somewhere else.) Furthermore, to proclaim, “I have the Truth,” is to immediately give voice to a lie. Hence, like Socrates, truth must always be defended through negation, included in our system of belief by its exclusion. However, this acknowledgement of human weakness and frailty, need not cause us to despair. Rather, saying, “I know nothing”, should help prepare the way for faith, which is essential both in that it is inevitable (because we cannot know, the most we can do is trust), and in that it defines our relationship to Deity (faith is the most basic attitude we cultivate as we trust in the Lord).

The application of this insight to missionary work is really quite simple. You will never reveal “truth” to another human being – how could you when truth cannot even be conveyed in language. Instead, the promise given to us is that, given heartfelt prayer and preparation, when we preach, despite the inherent weakness of language, truth will be revealed via the power of the Holy Spirit. “Unto what were you ordained? To preach my gospel according to the spirit, even the Comforter which was sent forth to teach the truth.” (D&C 50:13-14) When we engage in missionary work we engage in a lie (language), in the hope that truth might be revealed inside the other through the Holy Spirit. This occurs to me as rather strange, but I am reminded that the Lord works in mysterious ways.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks states, “The Lord knows more than any of us, and if we are His servants, acting under His Spirit, He can deliver His message of salvation to each and every soul.” We can and should strive to rely on the spirit. For, “If ye receive not the spirit, ye shall not teach” (D&C 42:14). Before acquiescing to the call to preach we should do our best to give place for the spirit. I believe words of teaching and exhortation have the potential to signal and point to divine truths (which I believe to be contingent truths with a small ‘t’). Preach with an eye not to the perfection of words but with an eye to the perfection that the words cannot access. In other words, “Cursed is he that putteth his trust in man, or maketh flesh his arm, or shall hearken unto the precepts of men, save their precepts shall be given by the power of the Holy Ghost.” (2 Nephi 28:31)

The other lesson I would like to draw from this analysis is a simple injunction to be humble.

The Apostle Paul, in his letters of exhortation to the Corinthians, expresses very beautifully the highest ideal in the Christian lexicon, which is Charity:

“Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.” (I Corinthians 13: 4-7)

Charity, a pure love of the other, excels and exceeds all else. The apostle Paul’s long list of what constitutes Charity makes clear the fact that Charity is irreducible to any singular, temporo-material act. Therefore, no one of the actions or mindsets listed by Pual perfectly encompasses the absolute ideal of Charity. Furthermore, no list of attributes and/or actions, no matter how long, could ever perfectly capture the divine perfection of Christ’s love – just as no words can ever perfectly re-present a picture to our mind. Therefore, just as Truth can never be mediated through language or representation, Charity can never be perfectly mediated through actions.

Psychiatry and simple deduction both point to the fact that we never fully understand the motivations for actions. The reasons for our actions are as likely an after-the-fact justification. Since we don’t have direct access to what Nietzsche called the “affects” within us we can never know for certain if it was love or else a desire for reciprocation or physiological superiority which determined our gift to the Other:

As Theologian John D. Caputo says, “Love can be a very clever way to possess, to make demands, to build up credit. Just like a good banker who happily extends credit—beware of bankers bearing gifts—so that he can some day collect on his IOUs, the lover can also at a strategic moment demand payment on all his I-Love-Us. Love is a very clever way to seduceLove follows the cunning logic of the gift: as soon as it makes itself visible, it begins to put the beloved in its debt and makes the lover look good, that is to say, to annul itself.” (John Caputo, Love Among the Deconstructibles).

I think this problem often manifests itself to LDS people by those who express frustration at being treated as a “project” rather than a person. These people may be non-members who we attempt to fellowship, or home-teachees, or acquaintances in the Elder’s quorums, whom we readily reduce to our easily understandable obligations towards them, rather than as a uniquely situated and irreducible Other. In these cases, we mormons are likely guilty of giving ourselves to missionary work for the sake of feelings of righteousness and superiority rather than the out of love and caring for the other. But how does one distinguish between these two motivations? After all, self-righteous feelings of superiority may very easily disguise themselves as a righteous concern for and love of the other. This risk is inherent in all missionary efforts, and to deny its possibility is merely to live in denial, and risk halting one’s progress, rather than come to terms with an uncomfortable reality – “If we say we have no sin, the truth is not in us” (John 1:18).

The pursuit of charity is an irresolvable dialectic between acting as though we could fulfill an impossible demand, and then simultaneously acknowledging that we never could and never will. In other words, in order to engage in missionary work, we must act as though we could be perfectly loving and caring, while simultaneously acknowledging that we cannot. This attitude inspires introspection. There should be a constant give and take between recognizing our lack and then pushing onward in spite of it. I believe this attitude will nourish a proper ontological bent toward the Other, whom we seek to love in our missionary efforts.

I’d like to share another passage form John D. Caputo:

"So we must love the other and respect the distance of the other, which means to love the other without trying to reappropriate the other for ourselves, without deploying love as a cunning strategy in a war we are waging with the other. We must constantly fear the strategies of love, but we must not fear to take the risk of love, which means both to make ourselves vulnerable to rejection and to risk reappropriating the other. We must love the other in ourselves and so love ourselves… But of course that is all quite impossible, a paralyzing impossibility.

Still, like it or not, that is the axiomatics of love… That aporia does not defeat but defines love. After all, when we go where we have gone many times before and where we know full well that and how it is possible to get there, that is not ‘going’ anywhere, not in any robust sense. We are really on the move, really underway, just when where we want to go is impossible, when it is impossible to take a single step forward. That is why Derrida is so fond of the verse from Angelus Silesius, ‘Go where you cannot go.’"

“Love is a passion for the impossible."

(John D. Caputo, Love Among the Deconstructibles)

Recognizing the impossible demands of perfect love we must, as John D. Caputo says, “surrender” to the impossibility of love; This does not mean to be paralyzed and frozen by indecision. Rather, despite the impossibility, move forward and take the risk inherent in love. Hopefully, this surrender to the impossible, will teach us to give ourselves more fully to faith in Christ and his grace. After all what is grace if not the possibility of the impossible?

Missionary work is a daring act, in that it is so likely to fail. It’s impossible to love others they way you should, but that shouldn’t stop you from loving others the way you should. I encourage you all to engage in attempts to love your neighbor as I believe you can find a great deal of excitement and fun in engaging in such a ridiculous (by which I mean logically improbable) project. May the Lord guide you.

Finally, I’d like to bear my testimony that sharing our understanding of the Gospel with others can brighten and deepen our own insights into Deity and Her/His love.

I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.


  1. Well written. That said, I take issue with the premise of the talk. From a purely philosophical perspective, it’s tough to argue with Socrates in general and to challenge the idea that our language is unable to fully reflect/communicate truth more specifically. However, one of the conclusions it seems you are drawing from this is that there is really only so much we can hope to understand or communicate, so we should therefore rely on spiritual feelings or faith to guide us. Personally I find that approach both disingenuous and dissatisfying.

    I think the problem with that sort of thinking is that it doesn’t really bring any genuine information to the table. By that I mean that it doesn’t seem to add anything to what we are able to gather using our (admittedly limited/flawed) physical senses. I think Galileo put it well, “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them.” Just because our reason and language is unable to fully capture the essence of something doesn’t mean that it should be pushed aside. In Galileo’s time it was spiritual suicide to challenge geocentricity, but he had the courage to reject the prevailing spiritual wisdom of his day and to use physical means to uncover a better explanation. Although I suppose you could make a philosophical argument that the truth he found and communicated is incomplete by virtue of the limitations of reason/language, it should be easy for us to agree that the heliocentric view Galileo presented contained significantly more truth than the geocentric argument.

    In my opinion, it is a dangerous pursuit to attempt to discern some sort of meaningful spiritual truth from a subjective feeling. Consider that we live in a world with myriad spiritual belief systems, each with its own group of convinced and sincere followers, and each with its own mutually incompatible truth claims. What are we left with to sort among these? Clearly our internal feelings are unreliable, because they appear to simultaneously confirm incompatible beliefs about the supernatural. I submit that we have to lean upon our senses, logic, and ability to think critically. Your thoughts?

  2. There wasn't enough space here for my response, so I wrote a response here: