“Devils Are Unmaking Language”

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According to C.S. Lewis scholar, Dr. Michael Ward, when it came to language, C.S. Lewis had “the highest possible view:  language is a metaphysical reality with a transcendent origin.”  (Planet Narnia, pg. 151)  After Babel, and given the constraints of this world’s fallenness, Lewis understood that language was something that was continually under attack.  The attack is most pronounced in our modern, scientific age when “precision” is valued above all else – even to the point of destroying meaning.

George Orwell understood this to a degree (though he did not “have eyes to see” the attack’s spiritual origins) when he wrote of Newspeak, his satirical rendering of linguistic reductionism: “Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined, and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten.”

Lewis wrote this in a letter in 1949:

“In a sense, one can hardly put it into words: only the simplest colours have names, and hardly any of the smells.  The simple physical pains and (still more) the pleasures can’t be expressed in language.  I labour the point lest the devil shd. hereafter try to make you believe that what was wordless was therefore vague and nebulous.  But in reality it is just the clearest, the most concrete, and the most indubitable realities which escape language: not because they are vague but because language is … Poetry  I take to be the continual effort to bring language back to the actual.”

Ward notes that for Lewis, “the actual” represents “concrete but wordless realities.” (Planet Narnia, pg. 151)

Lewis wrote of this destruction of language in his sonnet “Re-Adjustment” where he reflects on the reality that many today cannot go beyond comprehending a simple “linear chain of events,” as Ward writes, having lost “the ability to discern a story’s hidden meaning, ‘something that has no sequence in it.'”  (Planet Narnia, pg. 149)

Perhaps, this is why so much of our modern writing seems thin in comparison to the past.  The modern language with which we work is limited, therefore our capacity to communicate and understand a richness of meaning is reduced.

Language and as a result, meaning in all of its variegated and multi-faceted complexity, are casualties of the scientism of the modern age.  Perhaps that is another reason we moderns are more confounded by what appears to be Christianity’s many paradoxes.  Our ancestors, especially our medieval ancestors, were able to comprehend complexity better than we are today.

Re-Adjustment

I thought there would be a grave beauty, a sunset splendour
In being the last of one’s kind: a topmost moment as one watched
The huge wave curving over Atlantis, the shrouded barge
Turning away with wounded Arthur, or Ilium burning.
Now I see that, all along, I was assuming a posterity
Of gentle hearts: someone, however distant in the depths of time,
Who could pick up our signal, who could understand a story. There won’t be.

Between the new Hembidae and us who are dying, already
There rises a barrier across which no voice can ever carry,
For devils are unmaking language. We must let that alone forever.
Uproot your loves, one by one, with care, from the future,
And trusting to no future, receive the massive thrust
And surge of the many-dimensional timeless rays converging
On this small, significant dew drop, the present that mirrors all.

Sources:  Michael Ward, Planet Narnia, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008)

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13 thoughts on ““Devils Are Unmaking Language”

  1. God of the gaps is one such speech impediment of which atheists often erroneously accuse the brethren. The accusation, however, is merely a failure to understand that something like stars can be “described” by laws of physics and “explained” as being created by the Lord Jesus. The skeptic’s criticism is one-dimensional and, a-priori, only permits physical descriptions of things. To be consistent with this monochromatic view of reality, the skeptic should adopt this manner of description in his own personal life. But most skeptics of the Dawkins era are wholly unaware of the rise and fall of verificationism against which Lewis argued so vehemently.

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    • Yes, I am continually amazed at how they adopt a one-dimensional view in everything except what concerns them most.

      Dawkins dismisses anything that cannot be described by the monochromatic “laws” of physics and biology, but becomes quite colorful in his hatred of religion!

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      • One cannot be a verficationist and simultaneously believe his verificationism can be verified by its own premises. To be consistent with their own physicalism, they should avoid teleological language and any hint of sentient intelligence at every turn when describing nature. If sentient intelligence is not behind the universe, ok. But stop speaking as though it is and tell us plainly what nature is “really” like!

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      • It reminds me of Frost’s reply to Mark Studdock’s question, “On what ground henceforward were actions to be justified or condemned?”

        Frost: ““If one insists on putting the question in those terms … Existence is its own justification.”

        (Notice the tautology!)

        In other words, Nature just is!

        “And the actual tendency of events,” said Mark, “would still be self-justified and in that sense ‘good’ when it was working for the extinction of all organic life, as it presently will?”

        “Of course,” replied Frost, “if you insist on formulating the problem in those terms. In reality the question is meaningless. It presupposes a means-and-end pattern of thought which descends from Aristotle, who in his turn was merely hypostatising elements in the experience of an iron-age agricultural community. Motives are not the causes of action but its by-products. You are merely wasting your time by considering them. When you have attained real objectivity you will recognize, not some motives, but all motives as merely animal, subjective epiphenomena. You will then have no motives and you will find that you do not need them. Their place will be supplied by SOMETHING ELSE which you will presently understand better than you do now. So far from being impoverished your action will become much more efficient.”

        And, we all know what that “something else” is in “That Hideous Strength”.

        Personally, I am glad that Dawkins, et al. haven’t figured out how to abandon teleology in their everyday lives. As long as Dawkins rages against religion, there is hope for him.

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  2. That “natural selection” would bequeath to man a language which can only speak of the universe as though it were brimming over with purpose and design has got to be, for the naturalist, rather ironic, not to mention frustrating.

    I anticipate the LRC (something Frost would have had a hand in creating) will soon announce the discovery of “nothing.”

    “There are no words to describe it,” they will say. “All this time, nothing was right under our noses and little did we know it was the foundation for everything!”

    “The discovery of nothing is the most profound achievement of 21st century physics. It is the theory of everything, brilliantly simple and elegant. The Emperor may head the parade now without shame, for “science” has once and for all demonstrated that nothing is truly beautiful, nothing is really good and nothing is really what it seems. We know more about nothing now than we ever have!”

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  3. That nature IS explainable at all is the most obvious dilemma for existentialists, skeptics, atheists, empiricists, verificationists and naturalists. But nature’s legibility does not turn one to Jesus. As you note, even Mr. Dawkins “knows” design when he sees it, but he is obviously not a believer. So the question then becomes why apologists act as though atheists do not understand arguments from design? I think they do but find a myriad of ways to suppress those truths. Calling design in nature as “illusory” for example. They cannot empirically establish that the thermonuclear cores of suns is just a design “illusion.” Nor can they demonstrate that the strong nuclear force was unintentionally generated by natural causes for no reason. Jesus should have first place in all things ( Col. 1:18). Questions always arise about Him. Why not begin with Him? The man moulders will of course continue to reject the chief Cornerstone in their speech, but that does not mean we have to.

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    • “That nature IS explainable at all is the most obvious dilemma for existentialists, skeptics, atheists, empiricists, verificationists and naturalists.”

      Yes, and some are waking up to this. I think of Thomas Nagel. They are waking up to what Chesterton saw (and Lewis, then Plantinga later developed) that naturalists are sawing off the high limb of reason / rationalism on which they proudly sit when they explain everything away in terms of the movement of atoms (as if that really explains away, anyway!).

      You are correct when you use the word suppress. I wonder if at least part of Dawkins’s anger comes from the unconscious frustration he feels that he has to suppress anything. That challenges the autonomy he takes such pride in (even though he explains away the autonomy in the next breath).

      They laugh at the paradoxes of Christianity, but they are living paradoxes themselves.

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  4. Yes. In naturalism one can always find a pair-a-docs who disagree on the fundamental nature of reality. These disagreements arise, not from the matter itself under investigation (carbon, galaxies, photons or honey bees do not carry signs written in the king’s English telling us what they are), but from human interpretations of the physical material.

    We are all like Richard in some way. Let us not fall prey to the “Thank-God-I-am-not-like-that-fellow” sort of thinking.

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  5. Yes, I have been noticing and thinking about this and the topic of propaganda since my Communications undergrad days.

    One tiny yet consequential thing to watch: I literally never hear the pronoun “who” to signify a person anymore. Every single statement in everything from sports to lectures to news to conversations uses solely “that” when denoting a human.

    For example, “He’s the guy that lives with Jim,” or “Joanne is the one that taught my kids in 3rd grade,” and so on.

    I sense a blind, unexamined evisceration of the personhood of the human person with a 4-letter word replacing a 3-letter word. A temporary trend? Hope so, think not. ᐧ

    *Byron Barlowe, *Probe Ministries International *UpPeriscope.com * (Millennials are leaving the Church–we’ve got a solution!) *www.Probe.org (1800+ resources, responses to real questions from a biblical worldview)* *Facebook.com/probeministries (interact with us, our fans and the curious)* *Twitter.com/probeministries (catch the flow of valuable tidbits, links, news, etc.)* *www.MinisteriosProbe.org (our Spanish language site)*

    *www.linkedin.com/in/byronbarlowe (keeping it professional)* (mobile) 214-929-0772 (direct office) 972-941-4561

    On Fri, Sep 23, 2016 at 9:20 AM, Along the Beam wrote:

    > Rebekah Valerius posted: ” According to C.S. Lewis scholar, Dr. Michael > Ward, when it came to language, C.S. Lewis had “the highest possible view: > language is a metaphysical reality with a transcendent origin.” (Planet > Narnia, pg. 151) After Babel, and given the constraints of” >

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    • When one considers suns with diameters extending out into the tens of millions of miles such as Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus (38 million) or more inconceivably a billion miles such Betelgeuse, the great reddish orange shoulder star of Orion, much more comforting for man to speak of the forces that create stars rather than speak of the God who makes such thermonuclear luminaries with His fingers (Ps. 8:3).

      The more impersonal our universe is perceived, the more impersonal we will perceive ourselves. Lewis rightly notes in The Discarded Image, “We are all, very properly, familiar with the idea that in every age the human mind is deeply influenced by the accepted model of the universe,” Lewis says. “But there is two-way traffic; the Model is also influenced by the prevailing temper of mind.” It is a vicious cycle. Our technologies and social media have dis-incarnated us. We no longer need bodies to communicate with one another. This impersonal interaction has become so obvious and so ubiquitous that even McDonalds has taken note, doing commercials encouraging people to shut off their phones and get together in person. We have to consciously be thinking of ways to reconcile things in the heavens and the earth. It seems the Lord’s way of ministry has to include both (Col. 1:15-20). Correcting the “that/who” distinction is not merely a matter of grammar, but begins with the Word who made the heavens and the earth.

      “Those who have insight will shine brightly like the brightness of the expanse of heaven, and those who lead the many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.”

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    • That’s fascinating, Byron! From “who” to “that”. Does our impersonal, modern world influence us or is it a reflection? Probably both! We are irreducibly complex, after all.

      Is the entire personhood debate w.r.t. abortion influencing us at other levels, too?

      Identity crisis, to say the least, isn’t it? In many realms.

      I think it’s not an overstatement to say that our culture is finally at the crossroads that it has been approaching since the Enlightenment. And, it strikes me that the Enlightenment didn’t come out of thin air, either. It was a crossroads of sorts, too.

      In the words of a wise professor, “God have mercy on us all!”

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  6. Incarnational reality is never safe.

    “Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.” “Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…”Safe?” said Mr. Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

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  7. This is an extremely intelligent and scholarly post and series of responses and is of great value, so I hesitate to add such mundaneness to it. However, I believe that concrete, current, real-world examples are not only chillingly pertinent, but frightening, and need to be added for urgency’s sake. No longer are we dealing in American culture with Conditioners only, who start with (re)educating the young, speak at high levels, with circumlocutions and evasions, propagandizing for their humanistic causes. We have thugs who brazenly challenge not only free speech, but who want to police the language itself–down to the word level. The demons are on the streets (mostly in campus quarters)! N.I.C.E. is taking over.

    Just tonight on Stossel, the news and commentary show of the famous libertarian newsman (ew, a micro-aggression and sexist statement) John Stossel, I saw footage and reports of:

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