Obliquities

One of the reasons for studying another language is to learn to think more clearly about what you say, and specially about how you say things. When you are at first bewildered by the various ways in which you can take a Greek genitive case, you can begin to wonder if it is the same with similar phenomena in your language, and you can start to realize that we mean different things by similar expressions. When you try to use another language on the basis of conjugations and declensions and the rules of syntax, you are more likely to become aware, I think. It helps us to see how we say things, and it helps us to be more honest about how we understand the things others say.

Not that you can’t be honest and aware if you don’t study another language, but that studying another language makes is obvious as few other things–in my experience–do. And what it does is make us more sophisticated in our ability to use language, or it should. We should realize that there are ways of taking things, that people don’t always chose the right expression, that we need to, as it were, listen with attention, because it isn’t what we say, it’s what we mean that we try to communicate with varying levels of success.

It is sounds strange to say that honesty and sophistication go together, but consider what a great ruse it is to associate sophistication with deceit. In one fell swoop the sincere are diverted from something valuable and the wicked attracted to its misuse. Still, prevailing notions of sophistication are wrong. There are things that must be taken in a sophisticated way in order to be dealt with correctly, because there are things that are more complex things in and of themselves.

One example would be a murder mystery. We might be inclined to think it dwells on murder and depravity and so it is therefore a bad thing. But if we thought this, we would not be dealing rightly with what a murder mystery is. A murder mystery is not about reveling in murder, it is about dealing with what murder does to our village, or town, or society, and about how we recover the peace of order after such a disruption occurs. If it were absolutely bad to think about those things, it would be wrong to be a policeman, and that is obviously not the case.

The mystery has to do with why the baffling deed occurred, and what resources we have to understand it and make sure it is not often repeated. You can say: it happens because men are evil and nobody can understand the heart; but we find that murder is still anomalous after we’ve said that; none of us would want to live in a society where murder was more than rare (in other words, no society but instead anarchy). We understand we can’t live in a society free of evil men. We live in societies with evil men (ourselves being one of those evil members) because society provides ways to control our evil so that we can live tolerably together, though not perfectly. We want societies that reduce evil to a minimum and study ways to achieve that, and we should. Once we think about the kind of society we want our descendants to live in, we realize we have a duty to make sure if possible that our society is a wise one, one that reduces evil to a minimum in the best way so that we can all enjoy the benefits of living together. And a murder mystery wants to know how the order of society was broken, how life together became for one of us death. It is not about enjoying the damage, but about picking up the pieces. And we don’t write manuals about appreciating murder mysteries because most of us understand that something like that is going on. When we understand they’re trying to figure out what happened, we understand it is about figuring out what happened on a larger scale – not about solving a particular mystery, but about how to deal with and if possible prevent these kinds of events in our societies.

That’s a bit far afield from learning a second language, but it illustrates what you stand to gain. Of course, there is a nearer place for us, and that is the interpretation of Scripture.

One of the rules of hermeneutics that came at me in the DR was this one, neatly translated into Spanish: si el sentido sencillo tiene sentido, no busques otro sentido (if the plain sense makes sense, seek no other sense). I was taught that, and I think part of the appeal to the person teaching me was that it made a neat little saying. I don’t warm to those kinds of things (like the last verse of “Praise the Savior,” I think it’s silly). But I thought for many years that it was the truth. Now I don’t, and when it came at me recently, I considered it from a new angle and found I could not agree. I found myself thinking that what it means is that the Bible is not interesting.

It is a principle of interpretation which seeks to go no deeper if the meaning is obvious to the reader. I don’t agree, and I interpret Scripture differently. It doesn’t mean that the obvious meaning on the surface of a text isn’t important, but that it isn’t where an interpreter stops. If that is where you stop, then the Bible in many places is just giving you information about the past, because it does and that is plain. But the Bible is not giving us information about the past merely; it is giving information about the past not to inform us about the past primarily but by that means to reveal God to us. I believe that because I believe that’s how the apostles handled the Bible, and I believe that they did that as examples, teaching us how we should handle Scripture. In fact, I’m pretty enthusiastic about the four levels of interpretation the church used to advocate: literal, tropological, anagogical and allegorical. And I think it is true that you will get what you go looking for, which is why I don’t agree with the saying above.

True, there are abuses. People see a plausible explanation and they think that as long as you can explain something it must be true. They get discouraged when they are faced with two explanations, because immediately it defeats their assumption. But a good explanation is the one that explains more, and the best explanation is the one that explains most. Not most arbitrarily, explaining anything at all you want to ask of the text including things the text never seeks to explain; but coherently, controlled by the literal meaning but going deeper and showing us God as he reveals himself to us, showing what he expects of us, and showing us at the deepest level who and what Christ is and does.

It is a clear book, but it is not an easy book. It is revealing sophisticated things, such as the doctrine of the Trinity and the dealings of God with man. If you have the idea these things aren’t sophisticated, you either think that and don’t operate on that notion, or you operate on that notion and will be limited in what you understand of what God reveals.

And that’s why it is good to study another language. You’ll start to see what you’re missing.

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2 thoughts on “Obliquities

  1. I would love to know the logic by which WP believes “10 Reasons NW is Bogus” is related to this post.

    This, I think, is important: “It doesn’t mean that the obvious meaning on the surface of a text isn’t important, but that it isn’t where an interpreter stops.” It doesn’t make interpretation easier, however. But probably better if one goes about it properly. Which statement might be a tautology.

    Also, the last verse of “Praise the Savior” silly? Is this the Thomas Kelly PtS? I always like(d) that verse myself.

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