Monday, March 12, 2012

What's NOT in a Word

I deal with a lot of ignorant fundy atheists. Here’s an example of how ignorant they can be. Really ignorant.

In my article on Wisdom (link below) I note the equation of Jesus with hypostatic Wisdom. As part of explaining the background, I say:

In Hebrew and Ancient Near Eastern thought, words were not merely sounds, or letters on a page; words were things that "had an independent existence and which actually did things."

One particularly ignorant atheist I’ve dealt with a few times made this comment:

So, apparently because of ancient superstitions about wisdom, all of the sudden this incarnation makes sense? It's a common human mental bias to externalize things and treat it like a personal agent. This sounds like a textbook case of that.

Um, no. It sounds like a textbook case of some snotty modernist atheist assuming the worst possible reading of something in accordance with his assumption that ancient/religious people were bone-in-the-nose savages, desperately in need of enlightenment from a member of Uncle Whitey McSam’s world, who believe that “words” actually physically exist and zip around invisibly bopping into people, like in one of those old Electric Company skits where the guy would say a word like “DONUT” and huge Styrofoam letters spelling out “DONUT” would fall out of the sky and crush him like an eggshell.

Yes, fundy atheists can be that presumptively bigoted and ignorant. They are all the time.

Housekeeping first. One, I didn’t appeal to this point as a defense of the incarnation – which isn’t even the subject of the article. The original usage this fundy atheist appeals to was in a place where I used the article to defend the point that Jesus was believed to be divine by the NT authors, and also that he taught that he was divine. The article was not written as a philosophical defense of the mechanics of the incarnation. (It’s also typical of fundy atheists to lose track of those sort of thing, too, precisely because they regard what religious people have to say as so far beneath them that it does not deserve serious attention.)

Second, on “externalize things and treat it like a personal agent.” No, that’s not what was being described here, and it would not have taken a lot of effort to find out what was being described. The quote in question comes from Barclay’s commentary on the Gospel of John, and while in editing I inadvertently removed the source note, the quote is not hard to find and can even be uncovered in Google Books. A serious researcher would have looked for the quote to learn more, but fundy atheists, generally not being interested in arriving at the truth of a matter where their former faith is concerned, presume that their supreme rationality has given them all the insight that they need.

Sadly, that’s most often when they put their feet in the mouth at supersonic speed. Did Barclay really say this with the idea that the Hebrews thought words were like some sort of personal agent?

Not at all. Here’s the material following that quote from Barclay which explains what he did mean:


So clearly, Barclay’s idea is that the Hebrews recognized the power of words to change and affect people. This is in contrast to the notion that words are “only words” and that they have no effect on people and things (as summed up in the popular “sticks and stones” children’s ditty, to use a well-known example). There is nothing here on saying the Hebrews granted words some objective external reality to the extent that they were personalized. Rather, the matter is one of what we would recognize as the psychological effect of words on human behavior -- and the objective reality granted to them is understood in those terms.

Of course, whether words do really hurt, or in some other way affect people, is a matter of discussion, and also depends greatly on the sort of person they are addressed to. Words have little impact on me. Others break down at the slightest verbal provocation. The Hebrews would be on the same side with those today who are engaged in advocacy against verbal bullying (see link below for example).
The fundy atheist, who naturally assumes ancient people are stupid, however, looks at things like the irrevocability of the laws of the Medes and Persians, and Isaac’s irrevocable blessing of Jacob, or even the Muslims example above, and supposes this has behind it some notion of words as magic spells that run around hitting people. Of course, if that were the case, there would be no reason why they’d be irrevocable; you’d just be able to send out some more words to cancel out the effect of the others.

So why were these things irrevocable? One scholar suggested of the Medes/Persians example that it was because kings were assumed to be inspired when they made decisions, so whether they were aware of it or not, what the initially said must reflect some divine attention. I prefer an explanation related to the agonistic tenor of their society: You can’t draw your own words back because to do so would be to dishonor yourself before witnesses.


Either way, in sum: Fundy atheists, who have their heads in the clouds of their own perceived intellectually superiority, would naturally prefer to read such things as the above account about Smith, and the account of Jacob and Esau, as reflecting some sort of magical thinking about words. In reality, Barclay is saying merely pointing out that the Hebrews recognized more distinctly the power of words to change people from within and to alter their circumstances.


But of course, that’s not the narrative the fundy atheist wanted to hear, is it?


Trinity article

Bullying article

1 comment:

  1. The prime example of words "doing" things is John 1:1-3..."In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made."

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