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Language & Theology

Jessup Think
Jessup Think
Language & Theology

English professor Portia Hopkins joins Mark and Rex to discuss the role language plays in theology. They note that all theology is shaped by language and it is extremely important for the church and the Christian today to be aware of the theological and social implications of language.


Welcome to Jessup think I’m your host Mark Moore, and Rex Gurney your co host. That’s right. And on today’s episode, we’re joined by, by a heavy hitter,

Portia Hopkins, former chair of our English department, and still a mainstay of it.

Yeah. And we have a conversation that covers theology and language and specifically how language affects theology. And it’s a fascinating conversation. And so we hope you enjoy. Yeah.

Well, yeah, and today, we really do want to talk about the topic of language in theology, and specifically how language affects theology. And for me that this, this kind of idea, or this topic was really illuminated by a radio lab episode. So radio lab comes out of W. NYC. And they were kind of, I would say, they’re kind of pioneers on that hybrid between radio shows and podcasts. And I actually have my theology class, they have to listen to a segment. So there’s nothing on the screen Actually, we had to put like a moving picture on the screen just because I’m like, I know you need something so like, is that hard for them to do? They like squirming? Yeah, I know, like, we’re gonna well up all of our maturity. And we’re gonna listen. I also have to, you know, explain to him what the radio is. You know, it used to be a thing where you didn’t get to choose what was on it, you get to choose the channel and turn it on or off. But But radiolab did a an episode, actually, it was an episode on color, and how we see colors where they came into, or you know, as we started to kind of denote when they came in the language, things like that. And they do a segment on the color blue is just fascinating. So they kind of start with looking at ancient writings. So ancient Greek looking at Homer specifically. And they realized through it actually, it’s actually through a guy named William Gladstone. So he was like a four time or five time Prime Minister of England, he just loved Homer. So he wrote, like a three volume, like, just the epic tome on on Homer. And he started to notice when he was doing that, that Homer used color in really weird ways. And then he came to that really shocking conclusion. He doesn’t use blue at all, like not one time, which is really amazing. I mean, I think and even when I heard that, I was like, well, we I mean, blue is many people’s favorite color. So yeah, you know, and, and within the episode, they switch, they kind of start with that, which that was intriguing. They switch to he’s a professor of neuro psychology, and he’s working with a tribe in Namibia. And, and they don’t have a separate word for blue. And so he showed them a screen with 1212 squares on it. And 11 of them are very well, we would call green. I mean, they they look green, and then one of them is blue. I mean, it is the blue is blue, you’ve seen and that tribe members as they would look at the screen, couldn’t didn’t notice a difference. Like he would ask them, did any of the squares look different to you? and not do you can you know, a difference just and they double check that none of them are colorblind? Yeah, like that does as an issue, like some of our friends that we may remain nameless. But, but they didn’t have that word. And so that’s kind of like the, and they kind of noted like, it wasn’t that they couldn’t physically see it, they were seeing it. But the word somehow unlocked their ability to see it right. Or to see the difference in man, that concept of me just was like, wow, that like that really brought to the forefront like Oh, how language and it made me think of this the word God. I mean, many times we don’t realize this, but God did not give himself the name God, that God is, is a word that we use, to to help us signify this, this person is being who we’re trying to relate to who’s trying to relate to us. And so we’ve used that word God and and that, that word now Now we can all then be like, okay, okay, we have gotten now I know now I know something to call that. And it does start to then differentiate that, that being right now that we’ve given a word, associated a word God, now we can start to make that distinction. And if the word is basically the signifier and well God because I need a word To use

for God is the signified, then we begin to just pack a whole lot of meaning into the word God, which may or may not have much to really do with who we’re actually talking about. One thing that’s sort of interesting. And I was really introduced to this kind of late in the game, but in one of my classes when we’re talking about God’s attributes, and you’re always kind of in an interesting place when you start doing that, too, because of the anthropomorphic issues with that, but before we start doing that, I start talking a little bit about apophatic theology, which is, you know, has always had a little bit more traction in, in Eastern Orthodoxy, where you’re actually on sort of safer ground talking about who and what God is not than what God is. And so I have the class, I’m just, you know, I hand out some three by five cards, and let’s just talk about who God is not. And some of them have a hard time putting something down, they’re actually right, or they just basically think of the opposite of whatever they signified there, which is actually not what we’re doing. Yeah, but, but it’s interesting, it’s just interesting how freighted that word gets,

I don’t think that we realize that there’s kind of a cycle through to this, we have this sense that there is this being and that’s pretty universal, right amongst all cultures, all people all times. And then we need a word to talk about this. And so we would use the word God to talk about this. And then, as we narrow our definition of what that word God means, then we are narrowing our concept of what God means. And so in a way, the word is creating God, rather than rather than God living into the word. And I don’t think it’s an accident that john begins with the Word made flesh. I don’t think it’s an accident, that the word word is used for that, because there is this idea that look, you can, you can weigh this word with all sorts of things. But here’s what it actually looks like. And, and you can’t weigh that with concepts, in the same way that you can this God word that can mean all kinds of different things to different people.

Right? And that’s so good. And that as a great connection with john, and then idea, literally, the Word became flesh, and it is God speaking into our word, God, it’s hard to talk about God without using the word God, yeah.

Do it. But then they end up with the ineffable essence or something so abstract that it is almost meaningless, right? I think the funny thing is that we sometimes don’t realize that the word God is just as abstract. And, and not loaded with meaning because we think it is. But a lot of that is our own cultural, individual. theological ideas that again, we’re putting back into that word. When I took my systematic theology sequence. A time ago, there was a period of time that I had trouble praying, because I thought, I’m using the word God, I’m praying to God, but I didn’t know what I meant. That’s the trouble with too much education. It confuses you. And I thought, what what do I mean by this? And, and I worked through that, but it was a good working through, I had to realize that for many, many years of being a Christian, I’d use the word God, and I’d prayed to God, and I’d never actually stopped to think about what that word meant. And with whom I’m agreeing or disagreeing in my use of that word, right?

And that’s where I think that’s what’s interesting about let’s even even broaden it out, we could say the last 200 years, maybe of, of development of language and our understanding of language, we’ve started to have that conversation. Now, you know, before we we didn’t, most theologians didn’t stop to think about Oh, wait, how is language affecting?

And one reason for that was because kind of what the Enlightenment, there’s a real sort of turn into what you can and cannot talk about. Philosophically, right? Right kind of metaphysics was really important before the enlightenment and then suddenly epistemology becomes important afterwards. What’s really interesting right now know is folks are trying to slip trying to kind of make a turn back towards metaphysics, right, you basically are doing that through this 200 years of epistemological thinking, and that’s kind of redundant actually. Like, you know, how language totally plays into that language totally plays into that right.

Cuz Yeah, the conversation quickly goes from how do you know what you know, and kind of maybe the content idea, and then, well, how do you express what I know the Language What is expressible? and what isn’t?

Yeah? And

how do you try to ensure that the person who is receiving your communication has some commonality with what your intention is? Right? It’s complicated.

It is complicated. And I think that’s what, for me, that’s what’s been exposed over the last 200 years is that okay? language is complicated. And, and we do need to take a step back. And for those who have never thought about the word God, and, and the meaning we’ve given it, and maybe the meaning we’ve given it that is different from what God would give it. And again, I think we can’t get it,

I think I can’t possibly grasp it. So whatever meaning God would give God, our human brains are too puny and finite to be able to take it in. So all we can ever do is is trying to do the best that we can with the shadow or or the image or the bit that that we can get. But there still is responsibility that we have to do that work.

And I I know that mark really wants to smuggle vidkun Steen into this conversation. One thing that it can seem does talk about is sort of the limits of language, but beyond the limits of language lies mystery. You know, so he would say I’m not exactly on board with this. But I totally understand why he’s saying it that you really can’t say anything about God that what you would talk about when you talk about God is meaningless. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that there is no God. It’s just that it’s mystery beyond what you can possibly say, which is really interesting.

Yeah, it is. And it I mean, it’s a recognition that our words are an attempt to describe God. And that’s, that’s one thing I always appreciate about call Bart’s theology is that he recognizes, and he always said, he says, it’s a lot that all theology is an attempt. Like, we just have to recognize it. It’s an attempt for us to try to grasp and understand God, and we have to recognize our limitations. And I think the conversation of language helps us right, that starts right there that even within language, it is limited. And and I do think Vic and Stein really kind of maybe got the ball rolling on, on thinking about language, and he came up with kind of the phrase language games, which is actually kind of unfortunate, because he wasn’t trying to be flippant with her, or he wasn’t saying this is all a game, and we can, but he meant this is serious and how we use it. But it kind of spun from him to I think, as he started it into maybe more literary criticism. And and so how does that I would love to talk just a little bit about that about, you know, so we have kind of postmodern literary criticism coming in and jumping off of language, and kind of the language games that Vic and Stein kind of brings to our attention. How did how did the postmodern literary critics start to approach language? And then that’s that started to affect the ideology? Yeah, exactly.

Well, there used to be kind of an unacknowledged sense that a word and the concept it was referring to were the same thing. And so if I say something, the word and the concept, have a congruence. And then in the 20th century, folks like Jacques Derrida came along and said, actually, not so much. There isn’t, actually, I mean, Derrida said at various points, things like there’s no correlation between the word and the signifier and the signified, which is an overstatement. But Jared also loved to overstate things. But nevertheless, he has a point. So sometimes when I when I’ve taught on this, this is an example I use to sort of talk about that we, we assume that a word sort of means is if we, if we understand the language, if we if we have concepts in common, we’re going to understand the same thing by the same word. But what we don’t realize is we don’t even always mean the same thing by the same word. So think about the word Cal, we assume that we know what casual means. So if I am dressed to go to a barbecue, and I am dressed casually, there will be a set of clothing that I’m wearing to that, if I’m dressed to go to something formal, and I’m wearing and I’m and I’m going to be on the casual side, I’m going to be wearing a very different set of clothes, so we can kind of grasp that. But then think about the word formal. If I am going to something formal, then I if I am dressed formally at something formal, it’s going to be very different than being dressed formally. It’s something casual, so does the word formal or casual have any meaning at Absolutely has a meaning. And if I know the context of the word, then I understand the meaning. If I have no context, then the word has no meaning. And casual has no meaning without context, the word formal has no meaning without context. And so does the word correspond directly to the way that I’m dressed? Well, not really, the context, under which I understand the word corresponds somewhat to the way in which I’m dressed. So does the word have no meaning? Well, no, it doesn’t have no meaning. It has many meanings. It has multiple meanings. And it’s a bundle of meanings. And we have to understand that context is an important part of understanding the meaning of words. And when you start smuggling in culture into it, it even gets sort of interesting. I just thought about this. I hadn’t thought about this. In years, when I was living in Colombia, I was invited to a quinceanera once and it was formal. And so I just didn’t in the only suit that I brought down there. And I remember asking if when are we going and the guy was going with basically said, I’ll read I’ll read that, which to me is like right now right now. Well, right now meant four hours later, right? So I’m sitting on the couch in a coat and tie into suit waiting to go to this qingsiya netta, which was supposed to happen right now, but

was only happening four hours later, which was right now to him. Yeah. And so yeah, yeah.

Yeah. Well, and and i think that that, yeah, it it kind of has exposed the complexity of language and in the context of language and the cultural context, specifically to and I think that is really important. I think one of maybe the, the missteps or that’s maybe happened within the church is we kind of hear about Derrida through the grapevine.

Yeah. And we set him up as a straw man, right?

Want to poke holes, because he’s responsible for all cultural relativism, Doggone it, right? And we hear that overstatement of words have no correlation. And we think, well, that’s not true, you. And sometimes I’ve heard it presented that, that it is, you know, a devaluing of words or meaning. And, and actually, it seems to be quite the opposite. It seems to be saying, No words, word tomorrow. Even and the connotations, and yeah, we need to do more work because of how valuable we are. And, and because we need to do that work so that we can find commonality, so that we can communicate. Yeah. And, and I think that that, you know, that’s one of my hopes with my students when I bring up language. And that is, again, not to totally take away any meaning from language. And then they’re like, well, now I can’t say anything. Yeah, no, it’s like, well, that’s not the point. Yeah, it was never the point. But to start to think about, okay, theologically, how do we use language? And how does that language, it affects us? It affects how we think, you know, and in one conversation, I think, that has been going on in the church, especially, you know, the last maybe decade or a little bit longer is kind of gender inclusivity and language and, and the the all elusive, you know, gender neutral personal pronoun. Yeah. And, and so how have you How have you guys kind of seen that? And I even said, Guys, right there. So right. I’ve already I’m entrenched,

although culturally, contextually guys tends to be a gender inclusive term, whereas gals is not right. Gender inclusive term in which women can be included with men, but men cannot be included. Right. And that is so true, that

I could share at least my journey and sensitivity to inclusive language, you know, growing up in a very, very, almost fundamentalist, you know, faith, tradition, amen. Anyway, I just, you know, just assume that, you know, male pronouns for people and male pronouns for God used me, you know, ad nauseum was just the way to go. In fact, you almost were sort of proud of it, because other folks were, you know, the liberal does, we’re trying to, we’re trying to get you to change your language. And when I pass on my first church, I just became really sensitive. The fact that there was so much diversity in my congregation, and and the way I spoke about things, really did have sort of an impact on how people would would would hear and and so for a pastoral and actually almost an evangelistic reason, I started changing my language, you know, because I wanted to remove whatever barriers might be between someone hearing the good news of Jesus Christ, and if overuse of masculine pronouns is going to be a barrier, well, then it’s an easy thing to change. And then once it changed, I’m just sort of used to it now that went, I don’t Use that I’m really aware of it, it’s almost like a little, it’s like the opposite red flag kind of comes up in my mind because it’s not hard to, to do. Yeah.

This comes up in both when we’re talking about human beings and when we’re talking about God, right, and they might be two different issues. When we are using gender inclusive language, when the Bible really intends all you people, and we might use the word he, and what we’re really not talking about is something gendered at all. There are other times though, when we really are talking about men, or really are talking about women, right. And so that is sort of hampered by the fact that English does not have a gender neutral pronoun. And so if we had one, we could just plug that gender neutral pronoun in where we needed it, and it would solve a lot of problems. So in some ways, it’s a, it’s a, an embedded language problem. For us. It’s a really different issue when we start talking about gender and God. And there are different probably pastoral implications for what we do with gender and God, totally my journey, surprisingly, even as a woman is not that different than Rex’s. I grew up in reading in the 60s and 70s. And I just always assumed that when there was a male protagonist in a book that I could read my story into that story, I could read, kidnapped or something like that, by Robert Louis Stevenson. And I could identify with a male character, I could also identify with female heroines that just didn’t bother me. Although what I’ve realized later on, is that it’s tends to be easier for girls to identify with male protagonists and young adult books. I was actually thinking about that right now. Right? identify with us. Yeah, female, so so you know that again, it’s that, okay. Men can include women, and I was probably socialized into that kind of thinking to produce. Yeah, I’m sure I’m sure we were. Right. And so it didn’t bother me to pick up a Bible and read in the 70s or 80s, that everything was gendered male, that everything was a he. And, and we would say brothers, and not brothers and sisters, because I just assumed that I was included in that group. Part of that’s a function of my age, I’m 57. And I don’t think the same thing is true anymore. of somebody who’s 17 or 27 years old, right? They’ve grown up in a world where we had a sensitivity to the fact that that language is fair. In that it it again, is in women are assumed to be included with men, men are not assumed to be included with women. So there are going to be things that are true for all human beings, male or female. And then there are things that are going to be only true for women. That’s not right. There are things that are that that are more true for women than for men, there are things that are true for all human beings. But if our language doesn’t let us separate that out, we norm to male expectations, right? And we assume that the male way of going through things in the world is normative.

masculine subjectivity. I’ve heard all my life.

Yeah. And and so what a lot, a lot of what has happened, that gets the the label as being Oh, that’s feminist, that’s radical. A lot of what that is, in my mind is just women saying, Well, how about if we just re ask the questions? How about if we don’t norm to male expectations of things? And maybe we start by using gender inclusive language, it’s a small step in that direction. But it lets us rethink just like if no word for blue exists, how do you have a concept for blue? Right? If If you don’t have a word for something that is that is not gendered? How do you conceptualize it is not gendered, if your word for what is not gendered is always male, then you’re always conceptualizing everything as male. And again, I grew up with this, it still doesn’t particularly bother me, as a human being I’ve become adept at developing a hermeneutic, through which I can read what I think is about me as a woman about me as a human being about a guy that isn’t me all the time. But that isn’t what I sort of had to deal with in the culture. And what younger women today have been brought up to expect aren’t the same thing. And so I have become very conscious of my use of language because I don’t want to wound other people. I have had, I can’t tell you how many women say to me, that aren’t Christians? Well, I just don’t know that I can be a Christian. It’s a very patriarchal religion. It’s it’s all about male dominance. And while I will converse with them, because I do not think that that’s true. They have a point in that the way that we’ve enacted this space, marriage often does look male dominated and patriarchal and where they define themselves in girls that say, I can’t I don’t find myself in this story. And so what is it like for us to be There’s some really good work done retelling the stories about women in Scripture. They’re actually some some stories that we assumed were about men and that now scholars are saying that was probably a women, they were probably women in the stories. And so we are, we are beginning to do some of that work in a scholarly fashion. But how each of us individually chooses to use language, we can be weaponizing language, we can be holding back things and protecting ourselves with language. Or we can try be trying to be generous with our language. And I would prefer to be generous with my language, not because it, I’m gonna get angry if it doesn’t go my way. But because I do see the way that language has has contributed to the wounding of other people that I don’t want wounded, especially people that I don’t want wounded by the faith that I hold dearly, right? I do not want that to happen. So not only with people, but then when we start talking about God, and use male pronouns for God, that becomes very fraught for some, especially women and for some men as well.

And I think that it recognizes something that has been recognized over the last, you know, 50 years or so that when we use language, we’re doing something Yeah. Right. That language does something. Yeah. Right. Right. And part of what language does then can wound. And, and and unintentionally, unintentionally. Yeah, I

mean, we can we all know about wounding intentionally. When James says, you know, watch what you do with your tongue? I don’t think that we often use that to say, Well, you know, be gentle and sweet and don’t, you know, be super critical or or verbally abusive? Yeah, it’s all of that. But how about we pay attention to the way in which our language might have the best will in the world, our language might wind

up, it’s also possible to sort of change the wounds that are deliberately inflicted by language and trying to think of, you know, just different religious groups that don’t call themselves certain things. But other people call them that like the shakers like the Quakers, like the Mormons, who actually don’t refer to themselves that way, they actually have another name for their particular faith. But interestingly enough, they have taken these words and almost taken, which were actually pejorative words, and first, and they sort of own them and sort of re rephrase the words in a positive way. And actually, I think, you know, all of us have an excellent example of that with the word Christian. Yeah, it was negative, it was a negative pejorative thing that was called that we sort of just changed the whole meaning of and ran with it. Yeah. Right. Yeah.

Yeah. Yeah, not really. Yeah, those those first followers in Antioch. And, you know, people started calling them Christians too, too. So you embrace the negative and you make a positive. Right, right. Yeah. And I think that it is just a really good understanding of, Okay, now within the church, and maybe even past orally, starting to be aware of how language is how it does affect people. And, and especially, and I think some people kind of push back and say, Well, hey, if the Bible uses this, you know, this type of pronoun, and I think, what scholarship or where scholarship is going, and they start to recognize, even within the biblical texts, it’s clear the intention of the author is to talk about brothers and sisters, not and, and that’s, again, another language thing where the Greek word has a little bit more openness and English words, it’s, you know, every time you translate, you’re interpreting, and, you know, there’s often not a one for one,

I’ve actually, I’ve actually never thought about this before, but you know, we have in English, so many loan words or borrowed words from other languages and and just, you know, that we use all the time. And I just wonder if there’s something in another language that is a gender neutral term that, that we can co OPT and borrow and just sort of agree to use, I don’t know what that would be off the top of my head, but

the three of us trademark it, and the Exactly, exactly. people follow you around. I go, that’s one sec. Darn it. I shouldn’t have actually said that. Someone’s gonna start working on we’ve got to put that application. Mark here, here soon. No, I think this has been a really good conversation about about language, and there’s so much we could talk for hours, and we’ll definitely have more more episodes that kind of broach this and looking at specific words and how they’ve been used and and the freight that has been put on God as Father, right. Yeah. And we can, there’s so many and I just think it’s great. I think this has been a good introduction, and might just get people thinking, Oh, yeah, I use language obviously, all the time. And obviously, language is important. Yes. Right. Right is important to communicate. And one of the objections against Vic and Stein is, was that if you start worrying about every word, you say you actually stop talking about the issue, and you just start talking about language. And and I do think it’s important, right, and theology. It is our words are really important. And we don’t want that conversation to miss us actually talking about God. So we do, but I think doing the work of language then helps us talk about God in a better way. Yes. And, and and it simulates

theological, you know, reflection, and that’s, like, really important to do.

Right. So important, right. And, and, and yeah, that this, that words are not meaningless, and that they actually have more meaning than we can even understand. Yeah, and take the time to really think about how we’re using them. And what we’re saying. There’s so many words we use within the church that we never define. And we just kind of all agree, and it’s kind of like we get to the point where we can’t even ask what that word means. Because we’ve used it too many times. Yes. It’s kind of like after you’ve met a person, like for the fifth time, you can’t ask their name anymore. Like you’re beyond the point. Yeah, you have to ask someone else was using my wife, I’m like, Can you go get their name, or you just keep on talking to them and hope they drop their own.

Another cultural initiative, all people wear name tags all the time, I’d be down for that. Wonderful tattooed on our forehead. Whoa, that’s a different that’s a different issue. Different podcast. That’s

right. All right. Well, thank you guys for for just diving into this conversation, and using your words and using language. And we’ll have many more to come. But we’ll kind of we’ll kind of finish today. On a completely different idea is I’m just throwing this at you guys do not know about this. But we’re gonna closing every time over section. Yeah, I just, I just want to I want to learn more about about our guests. Okay. And about our faculty here. And so this is just kind of a it’s a new segment. I’m just just calling getting to know you, and just getting to know you. So it’d be for both, and I’ll answer it as well. But if it’s right now, if you walked out of this studio, and could get on a plane and go anywhere in the world, where would you go today? Barcelona, Oh, nice. We’re actually going to Barcelona in about two months.

I was in Barcelona, it for the first time ever in December. And it it captured my imagination in a way that few other places have. And I was there in the winter. I wasn’t there in the spring or the summer and it was so colorful. The the Sagrada Familia, the Catholic Cathedral there is this amazing, overwhelming amazing spaces. And probably the downside would be that I actually kind of want to move there, instead of just visit may never come back. Yeah, kind of never come back again. But I think that’s where I’d go. That’s great.

Well, um, as much as I love Spain, and for a long time, we wouldn’t go to Barcelona actually, because my wife grew up in Madrid. And so you know, totally with the Let’s deal between Madrid and Barcelona, you just kind of we would avoid it, actually. But she didn’t change her mind. It’s like Barcelona is okay now, but I would, as much as I love Spain, I actually would love to get on a plane and go down to a national park right on the tip of South America. A plane probably wouldn’t go there. So it had to drive after that. But it’s called tourists, Alpine, a national park and it is one of the most spectacular places in the world. It’s like at the top of my bucket list and probably will never go there. It’s just so far away. Anyway, I’d love to do that.

That’s great. For me, I am I love crystal clear water. And and I could so I’ve never been there. But I would love to go to Turks and Caicos. And and when I’m in a place like when I was in Hawaii, we my wife and I and family have been to Belize. A lot. And I could be in the water 12 hours a day, like and and particularly clear water. I don’t like murky water because that’s when jaws attacks. As long as I can see jaws coming up to me, you got to know Yeah, at least I know what to do. But yeah, that’s for me like I love and I just love being in the water. Just watching all of the fish and everything. happening. So it’s I grew up in Indiana, so there wasn’t a lot of going into. Well, thanks again. And Until the next episode or next podcast, we talked about some some fun stuff. Thank you for listening to Jessup. Think Be sure to follow us on Twitter at Jessup think we would love to hear your thoughts on the episode and engage with any questions you have. Our aim is to provide a framework for further reflection and deeper exploration of these important topics. You can also help the show by leaving a review on iTunes these reviews help the podcast reach new listeners. Until next time, I’m Mark Moore and this is Jessup.

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