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Philosophy of Religion

Hearing the Word

Frederick Sontag
Pomona College, Claremont, California

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ABSTRACT: That is the crucial question: Did God intend direct and final communication with us? There is little evidence that Jesus' appearance cleared anything up or gave us God directly. Wittgenstein, who wanted language to be clear, knew well enough that neither the Hebrew nor the Christian God's words could fall within his constructed linguistic net.

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Matt 13:3 "He told them many things in parables.
13:10 "Why do you talk to them in parables?"

That's the crucial question: Did God, should God, have intended direct and final communication with us? If so, Jesus certainly failed his mission. There is little evidence that Jesus' appearance cleared anything up or gave us God directly. Wittgenstein, who wanted our language to be clear, knows well enough that neither the Hebrew nor the Christian God's words could fall within his constructed linguistic net. They would always come from outside, from "the mystical." Thus, where our clarified language is concerned, "never the twain shall meet." Then, was Jesus really a proto-Wittgenstein? Did he use parables as an obscure vehicle for speech which alone might bridge the gap for us between our languages and the mystical always outside of it?

The Christian Bible, the Hebrew Scripture, The Muslim Koran - or any religion's sacred texts for that matter, will remain controversial but still important avenues for divine communication. Somehow all religious faith lies locked up in non-direct discourse. How, then, can we claim to "hear the word of God or gods," as many claim to do? Well, in the first place, we know that we will never all hear exactly the same sacred speech, interpret it in unison, or respond to it in the same way. For all that our enlightened scholars of sacred texts may provide—and there probably are more misreadings of a text than can be recognized—the Modern-Enlightenment goal to clear up all variant interpretations of a text will fail, due to the impossibility of confining living gods to our attempted literal interpretations.

Our major problem, religiously, is that our various divinities do not seem to have employed competent editors, and clearly they did not directly supervise the books that resulted from our "hearing the word." All texts were given up to human hands for compilation and particularly for interpretation. Heaven obviously contains no single, authorized publishing house. And what is now printed in many instances existed first in oral tradition, that notoriously changeable and often obscure medium. Some divine czar of communication should have allowed into written form only the authorized versions, with clear Wittgensteinian definition of all terms. Any authoritarian dictator, bent on preventing discord, could have done a better job, if put in charge of the divinities' printing house. Thus, as the source of a clear, single, religious creed, all sacred texts are failures. They were too loosely compiled.

Our divinities either need a course in exposition and writing or they never intended to offer us a clear text in the first place. In God's name, why not? For Heaven's sake, didn't they realize what confusion would result from their laxity? Wasn't it Nietzsche who remarked: Isn't it strange that, when God decided to turn author, he should have learned to speak Greek? We have the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, which explains how we came to have so many obscure and divergent languages. But surely the heavenly U.N. Security Council could have elected to authorize, and to allow us to speak, only one language, putting all the rest of our vague tongues to shame. "Now hear this...." should have come over the speakers of any divinely engineered communication system. And, then every vague speech should have remained silent and complacent. Aren't the divine special forces in charge of linguistic uniformity at all times? Is heaven less efficient than a zealous communist dictator?

A dictionary of important terms in the language elected by the gods, set out as a guide and left prominently in Eden, would have been much better than arrogant but obscure injunctions about not eating fruit from the tree that would make us more knowledgeable. God's injunctions to Adam and Eve in Eden were odd. Shouldn't a high level of education be a goal of all divinities? And for heaven's sake, any parent knows that saying that something must not be touched only arouses our curiosity. And where would any religious tradition be if it were not for our intense curiosity to learn all the secrets of all the gods, to steal their fire, which later moved from fathoming God's life to grasping Nature's secret ways? Maybe what we need to do is to turn from the obscurities that lie in all important texts, whether secular or sacred (else we would need no Supreme Court to interpret the Constitution), and ask what problems lie in us in how we hear the words that divinities offer to us.

Jesus turns to this issue (Matt 13:13) "They look without seeing and listen without hearing," And he had also said just before: "Listen, anyone who has ears" (Matt 13:9). So, it would seem that we are not all equipped with ears that either make us understand alike, or even pay close attention, as every teacher who stands before a class knows. Odd, then, that a great part of the problem goes back to the genetics of the mind's evolution. Why did our evolutionary rise not bring us all out into conformity instead of into conflict, both intellectually and physically? Had the divine designers of evolution's course gone to MIT, surely this could have been avoided. The fruit on the tree of knowledge should have been equally distributed to all, rather than in the discriminatory manner in which human intelligence seems to have been parceled out.

To 'hear' the word, any word, really should mean to 'understand it'. The problem lies, not in the words themselves, as Wittgenstein thought (hoped), but in how we do or do not understand what we think we do. And a control system set on our minds, which might produce uniform interpretation, seems biologically to have been left off. And yet isn't is true that, both politically and religiously, we are often at our worst when we are certain that we are right? Or to put it another way, all too often isn't it true that our claim to have a divine authority underwriting our beliefs, as expressed in churches, synagogues, mosks, classrooms or legislators, is all-too-often simply a cover up for our own insecurity in our uncertain belief or understanding?

To paraphrase Shakespeare, "The fault, dear religious purist, lies not in the text but in ourselves, that we are underlings." (That is, deviant intellectual dissidents, except when under compulsion from pope or dictator or religious zealot). Then all who hear any word will not understand alike, no matter how clear the translation is made. It is our plural hearings (and non-hearings) that is more the problem. As Augustine noted, after all, the same words are heard by the student who understands and by the one who does not . This does not mean that some teachers are not more effective than others, some orators more persuasive than others, but that our unity can never come from the text alone or be made sacrosanct against new "hearers of the word" who listen to different voices. But our interpretative task remains, since obviously not all interpretations are equally good or even acceptable.

And aren't religions and religious people (and politicians) at their worst when they are sure that they alone are right? Truth may exist pure and enshrined in Plato's heaven of Forms, but he knew absolutely that, for that very reason, it could not lead to a uniform embodiment or interpretation. The very existence of the truth that we call 'divine' means that such can never be rendered final in secular discourse, else it would not have issued forth from our diverse divinities. "What if God were one of us?", The title of a Country Western song asks, but it adds a question in the asking and assumes that this could not be. Even if Moses got God's commandments on tablets of stone, or Joseph Smith on tablets of gold, they faced diversity the second each one stepped down from his divine mountain top or ecstatic religious excursion.

Does this mean that each religious group should not attempt to maintain the purity of its doctrine and to transmit it thus as to each new generation? Exactly the opposite. The non-finality in all divine communication means that no divinity intends finality and therefor leaves the job of faith's interpretation to us, precisely because the word does not arrive fixed. No word can, since all languages are by nature variable. (Nice try, Wittgenstein). Of course, if all divine communication is not fixed exactly in its meaning, the result is that any and all gods may be rejected by us. In distinction from physical kings and queens, who often do and sometimes must employ military and physiological power to retain their supremacy, all real heavenly divinities have left themselves open to rejection, whether they created the worlds we live in or whether they left that to pre-existing natural forces.

Yet, paradoxically this is precisely where we find out what our particular God is like. Did she intend that we be certain and so always forced to be loyal to some divine exact decree? Hardly, since the religious traditions speak with so many voices. All gods, by failing to agree on one uniform religious presence, set themselves up for continual rejection, or at least the possibility of being ignored by ardent secularists, since nothing in the world's design or loose religious situations forces us to accept any single divinity, or anyone at all for that matter. "Why do you talk to them in parables?" (Matt 13:10), we ask too, since to do so is to ask for plural interpretations by those who hear the divine words. How can we tell who understands the divine intent, since it is clear that many divine announcements fall on deaf ears. Who, then, understands? Why, those who "do the word." Their lives and actions show it forth, not their words.

So it is useless to argue for any exclusive rightness, since we know that truth cannot be contained in words, except by imposing artificial restraints. That is how we show our understanding, by our non-self concern, and thus our ability to act out our love for others. In this case, "to understand is not to argue over intellectual certitude or the superiority of any doctrine. It is to come to live in a new way; that is how you show that you have understood. At Jesus' trial before Pilot, you do not hear him claim to have disclosed a divinely certain doctrine. He does not say that he holds the key to some absolutely good doctrine. Don't we simply have to live in the way that we believe we should as would-be disciples and then let others decide whether our actions indicate that what we have understood was a divine word?—lest words get in the way of what Jesus' actions were meant to convey to our understanding

In "Jesus Christ Superstar", you remember that the disciples wander around, as they perceive the impending destructive storm, and sing plaintively that they had hoped to retire and then to write the gospels in quiet circumstances. But such was not the case. The storm was unleashed, ending in crucifixion and not in exhalation. So the gospel words were not written in triumphant circumstances but rather out of the disciples' confusion over the future of their gospels. They had believed what they thought they heard in Jesus' words, but they had not counted on their conviction being tried by fire. Even Peter, the favorite disciple, renounced his verbal declaration of undying loyalty. So words must not be a very good test of understanding, since Peter had professed his understanding and his loyalty verbally, but then was disoriented when events turned against him.

Looking over the New Testament, we do not read much about the infallibility of doctrine, but rather a great deal about blindness and the difficulty of getting men and women to hear what is being communicated. Isn't it, then, in Jesus' action (or in the actions of the Buddha or Moses) that we find our clue on how to treat the words of any sacred text, a clue that the truth lies not in the text itself but in our responsive actions? Jesus did not dictate the text as an infallible doctrine of words forever to be repeated, but rather as symbolic words, as a guide for our actions, that is, if we have understood the message communicated. He taught us not so much by his spoken words-- although they are frail guides-- but by his actions, which were accompanied by very few words, in fact almost more by verbal silence.

"I created through my word; I communicate spiritually through inspired words; but the creation of the universe and your world could only be accomplished by the release of power and love as directed by my word. However, now words can be just as deceptive as insightful, and so I judge much more by the acts of love—or of evil—released on others by your words of love or hate. At the end of time, you may also judge me, not so much by words, since there comes a time beyond which words are not decisive or effective. Judge me, then, not by the words heard from any religious seer or prophet, no matter if they have been crucial in guiding you in the path of righteousness, but by my powerful acts that will recast the world, bring evil under final control, and so grant new life to the deserving who have held the faith and tried to act as instructed." Thus saith the Lord

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