Moving beyond personality and language

In a post last month, I looked Douglas Hofstadter’s account of Zen Buddhism, in particular Zen’s mistrust of language as a vehicle for truth. As Hofstadter argued, words break the underlying unity of reality by dividing the world into categories; they “oppose the reality” of that to which they refer, by substituting their limited truth for the full nature of the object itself.

As I said at the end of that post, Zen is not alone in this mistrust of words, in this attempt to move beyond the limitations of language by destroying language. Certain strands of postmodernist thought have taken a similar attitude, through practices such as deconstruction.

All this can be somewhat uncomfortable for us as Christians: after all, the heart of our faith is our conviction that “in the beginning was the Word”, the Word that “became flesh and lived among us”; the Word incarnate, to whom the written Word of the Bible bears witness. However, this very emphasis on the Word provides a means by which we can acknowledge the force of the various critiques of language (whether Zen Buddhist or postmodern) while truly moving beyond those limitations rather than destroying language itself.

This discomfort with the limitations of language, and the desire to “move beyond” those limitations, remind me of the equally-common discomfort with the notion of a “personal God” (a concept which is, of course, rejected in Zen as in other forms of Buddhism). As C.S. Lewis puts it in Mere Christianity, people feel that “the mysterious something which is behind all other things must be more than a person”. However, in practice:

…though they say that God is beyond personality, [they] really think of Him as something impersonal; that is, as something less than personal.

As Lewis describes elsewhere, people’s vision of a God who is “beyond personal” typically ends up as a sort of gas or energy field or “force”.

However – as Lewis continues in Mere Christianity – the Christian revelation provides a means by which God can be more than a “personal” God without being reduced to impersonality. In the Trinity, we a genuinely “super-personal” God, a God who transcends the limited nature of human personality. And as Lewis puts it, if we are looking for a “super-personal” God, then the Trinity is “the only one on the market”.

The limitations of human language call for a similar transcendence, by which language can be a vehicle for truth, but in a way which escapes the limitations of human language – in particular its reductive and divisive nature as described in Hofstadter’s account of Zen. A means by which Mumon’s dilemma – “it cannot be expressed with words and it cannot be expressed without words” – can be resolved.

In my next post (which will take less than a month this time, promise!), we’ll look at two ways in which the Christian revelation, uniquely, achieves this.

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6 Responses to Moving beyond personality and language

  1. Chris E says:

    This is one of the reasons I found Ellis Potter’s critique of Zen Buddhism to be compelling – as he addresses the ways in which the distrust of language is played out in Zen.

    For instance, he believes that the purpose of meditation is to temporarily destroy the power of language in the mind of the subject.

  2. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » Blog Archive » The Word for the whole person

  3. Chris E says:

    The thought just occurred to me .. that if one wanted to be rather mischievous one could point out that the use of ‘tongues’ in some churches effectively have the same effect.

  4. John H says:

    Chris: in my experience (and I have direct experience of this) that’s exactly right. I think that for many Christians who “speak in tongues”, the perceived benefit is of escaping the limitations of conscious language in prayer.

  5. Chris E says:

    Hi John – I was commenting less about the perceived benefit, than the actual effect. Your other post is interesting in this context, because it has been my experience that that segment of Christianity also downplays any supernatural dimension to the actual reading of the word and the sacraments. Though admittedly, there are loads of other bigger causes of this which probably take precedence.

  6. Matt J. says:

    I’ll also affirm that this exactly what is going on with a lot of “speaking in tongues”. I imagine many people’s personal times of prayer have at least some of this going on, even if it isn’t audible.

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