On language, abstract frameworks, and the gospel


Aim: discuss irony of language abstractions; reality of frameworks; finally apply personally

Having outlined above the rough flow of this column, I shall give the flavour of this topic by pointing out a real disappointment in the way we use language. Words are excellent for talking about biscuits, and pens, and other things in front of me, and seem to have an immediate ability to conjure reality. My life may involve a lot of biscuits, and one overworked pen, but what is more real about these objects, their flavour (cheap) and the impression of beautiful theorems (priceless), is precisely what common language fails on. So, poetry, “what cannot be written in prose”, lends pastel to our charcoal to colour speech. Even that falls short though, leaving philosophy to follow two routes, one false and one true. The things that we feel, know, and desire to express draw on invented words, technical verbiage, periphrastic descriptions, and crucially broadening frameworks; so follows the irony, when Wittgenstein is seen by most people as abstract, far from real life, while the invented language was created to mimic apocalyptic literature, with fantastical grammar to produce meaning that the mundane, distancing vocabulary of half-real physicality seemed to exclude. Indeed, without getting too carried away, philosophical or technical language is seen as distant, when its motivation is in fact to describe what is felt as closer. This is the proper approach to philosophy: solidly grounded, to use whatever methods are necessary to reveal and not obscure the things that are really worth talking about; the false path, to get wrapped up in abstraction and build systems abstract not only from the physical word, but all other focuses of life under Jesus as well.

A technical digression: what is the really real of language? I have tried often before to link this to speech in some sense, with phrases like ‘speech, verbal communication, is the focus of written language, and the source of its semantics’. I have rightly been met with skepticism over what I am trying to justify, an attachment to something essentially verbal as the primal quality of language. I mention this because it really illustrates my frustration with my language skills as well as my point here. The communication fails because when I try to describe how I feel about something near to me, words and speech, I fail to explain myself using ordinary language. As phrased, saying that verbal communication is the focus of written language is problematic, and the objections I have heard are sensible: that writing influences speech patterns; that most writing is not read aloud these days; or, best, that speech is essentially God-ward in character, so how can we bind it tightly to oration?

Without changing my position, I hope I can show that re-expressing it in genuinely abstract language, far from being automatically suspect, does clear up what I am trying to say. The idea, impression, behind the view is that there is some characteristic, primally represented to us in verbal speech, which is the normative characteristic of revelation in writing, sub-vocalised thought, and indeed all thought to some extent. Before asking me what a ‘characteristic’ is, please grant me the leniency due an amateur philosopher. What I am trying say is, I hope, clear. Speech has a revelatory quality, and how we understand that characteristic is in turn revealed to us by the gift of speech, which is the primary we way we are to understand these revelatory qualities.

Before I sketch some justification, I need to note that I believe this idea worth exploring on the grounds that it is part of the aim of philosophy when cut along the grain outlined above, that is, expressing usefully in language, however distant from ordinary speech, things that are genuinely close to real life. In this case, the idea has such strong applications personally I feel very strongly drawn to it. How we think, how ideas are communicated and expressed, is linked to speech as a gift, a way of understanding and seeing a principle of communication embodied, and our minds self-expression become rooted in an external revelation. Indeed, not only does this idea mould an attitude towards ourselves of purpose and even dependence on things outside ourselves, already a philosophy extravagantly richly opposed to relativism, but only makes sense in a full-blown trinitarian theology of lordship. So, I consider this an important idea with a much broader application than described here, and one that ought to lead towards a lordship-rooted epistemology. (I refrain from several tempting asides here.)

Finally, I should offer some justification for my illustrative digression, by commenting on the bible’s overall framework of revelation. It is key from God’s speech that we should root our understanding of the discursive quality of thought not in ourselves, but in relationship (a key primality that Muslims for example entirely miss out on). That is, contingent on speech as a gift is our understanding of communication and self-awareness. I could elaborate more here. The other point needing argument is that the revelatory qualities we are talking about are exhibited to us most importantly in speech, so that my earlier loose phrasing about verbal qualities of writing and thought can be properly understood; but, the key use of speech as the dominant biblical metaphor points to this attitude [a weak development; sorry].

To end the technical digression then, it is enough to summarise that I have some particular leanings, but strongly hold that the only value to exploring these things is to grow a warmth of expression towards things that are genuinely real, that is, philosophy only in so far as it deepens our understanding and growth in the really real, which in this example was grounding an affection for revelation, conversation, and self-examination in a God-ward framework and strengthening flavour in those areas.

This whole discussion is intended to aim towards one application, favoured really from the start when I mentioned frameworks, namely worldviews. In a late attempt to make this post accessible, I shall define a worldview simply as a system of thought and action [with some assumed basis]. We can understand the way we and others act by looking at this basis and system. Unfortunately, I do not intend to fill in a lot of the groundwork (not having the background to be able to claim a fair representation of the basics), but in future posts sketched I would like to briefly mention some more atypical applications of worldview thinking than those in the books I have read so far. In any case, the end-point of these notes is a little different, with the intention being really to defend the idea of worldview analysis, from two fronts in fact.

Before that though, to compensate perhaps for the lack of background in explaining the ideas, I shall take the opportunity to offer a little personal history here. I first came across the ideas of presuppositionalism in a very vague and muted sense from the teachings of l’Abri, in their emphasis on our intellectual life coming under God’s rule. I knew very little academic theology before coming to university, and was generally inarticulate having only an outline in my mind of what God had done for me. At Cambridge, suddenly a huge amount of exciting new material was available, but I dived in very slowly. Surprisingly, it was Bartow Wiley who first got me started by suggesting I read Sire, which lead to Frame and the American and Dutch Presbyterians; it was only after that I actually started reading Schaeffer and of Kuyper directly. Reaching a stage where my engagement with these ideas took on some coherency and really started to resemble biblical teaching took a long time, and only in the last six months have I had the chance to examine whether it has had any impact on my life.

I have continually struggled with the thinking though, as all the people I have quizzed can attest, but I thought I had managed to work out enough of it to see how it reflected from and led into right biblical ideas. So, at the start of the summer, I began my study of Van Til himself. Perhaps it was a bit ambitious, perhaps it was right way to test my ideas, but I rocked them and took away a lot of my sureness. The material was genuinely hard to read: obtuse, technical, dense, and drawing together many disparate thoughts in ways far from apparent. I doubted whether I had really seized the ideas behind a God-centred epistemology, whether Lordship ethics was really the right grain to cut along, and whether this was in fact a right perspective on apologetics. Most importantly, I could not explain what I had been reading to Alun, which dented my confidence that this was a useful way of thinking at all. All his questions and frequent discussions were pushing me to jump ship and back away from it. I had never committed to it fully, just expressing that ‘there were some good ideas in it’, and other vague statements, so it would have been fairly easy to shift my attention elsewhere.

On top of another emotional confusion, this was hardly ideal, since I was trying hard to examine my own thinking and reactions flying out of control in all directions. Was this really a right way to be considering my mind in relation to revelation? The observations and thoughts on life generally around me were also clamouring, and the fact that I could not link many of them together added to the concern that a lordship theology was not helping.

Then, two Saturdays ago, I had a very refreshing evening struggling with my own issues and incidentally solving my theological wrestling too. This post is in a sense an outworking of that, expressing a couple of the ideas and connections freed up by that resolution. The idea I think is really contained in the thought of submitting the matter to two remarks. Firstly, one of the points abstractly discussed above came to bear here with the concept of near and distant abstractions, those linguistic constructions that are useful and not useful respectively. Looking at the development of lordship theologies at the turn of the century the focus was on something both true and applicable, that explained and was part of heart growth, and this was a driving motivation for Schaeffer (I gather; I am not an expert on him by any means) as well as Van Til, who is shockingly applied in his thinking at moments, insisting that the problems of deistic tendencies for example are least of all theoretical. So, rightly used, it was immensely reassuring to be convicted that applying the intellect to these areas is precisely in order to be fruitful and is no waste of energy or commitment.

Secondly, the vital linking idea was the connection between the gospel and presuppositionalism. It sounds very obvious perhaps, but using this basic observation somehow cleared up a lot of my resistance to submitting to God’s wisdom. To explain the point: From an apologetic angle, classical apologetics and presuppositionalism are often seen as opposed because they understand differently the relation between intellect, will, and conversion as God’s tools. Classical apologetics can be gospel-driven by appealing to it as a valid possibility to investigate by clearing away objections to an appeal, or by positively justifying engaging with it. In both cases though, the end the argument is put to is incidental to the perspective of the apologist on the function of the argument; it is a debate different from others because of the matter under debate, not the matter of the debate itself. On the other hand, presuppositionalism becomes clearly seen under the perspective that it is nothing other than a direct translation into a certain language of bible statements about conversion and re-creation. What is added on by godly classical preachers is unavoidably baked into the language of lordship in worldviews. So, whether the framework is developed for apologetic uses or not, lordship theologies are directly biblical in motivation and, having a commitment to contingency on God at such a low level, more personally challenging that I had realised before for coping with adverse situations.

I ought to conclude then and try and draw these connections together. We began with the introductory idea of language as a tool to describe close reality, and considered that abstractly in context of some exploration of speech as revelation. My interest in this area of discussion begins with the application of thought and language to life under Jesus. The second, more loosely worded half of the article takes as its excuse for lack of keen development of the ideas that it describes the issues broadly as I encountered them personally. The main suggestion then of this thread is to consider our mental and spiritual lives with what tools and perspectives are useful to capture and grow in the really real areas, and that one right framework of lordship or presuppositional theologies helps us by rooting our self-awareness in revelation and the gospel: that when we put our trust in Jesus and take on his new life, he will finish his work in us by changing all of our thinking and action to the service of his glory. He claims every desire and by the spirit has subverted our minds and is right now growing us into all wisdom, maturity, and joy. If you have not yet placed God first, you will cut yourself off from all of his gifts in creation as his long-suffering mercy approaches its end, but he has accomplished all that is necessary for us to be accepted before the Father, past and future darkness removed, as he finishes in us his new creation. May we think on Father, Son, and Spirit worshipfully with Jesus as our Lord.