Understanding and indwelling

If words are not counters but living powers, we now need to ask what it is about the nature of language that endows it with this potency. Words spoken or written with full intent, that have survived the vicissitudes of the centuries and have been handed down from generation to generation, are an extension of being in the personal mode. They embody the perceptions of gifted individuals who have given those words to their community through its tradition. We are enabled to indwell the meaning of those words by participating—through myth and ritual, as we shall see—in the life of the community that owns them and so become initiated into the truths and realities to which they point. Philosophers of language refer to 'speech communities' and insist that meaning exists only in communication: 'intuition and expression are one' (Urban, 1939, p.67). Polanyi suggests that words have this seminal power because they are over-determined, being made up of countless layers of meaning derived from innumerable human experiences. Therefore they transcend any single use to which they might be put. Words can transmit meanings from a deep social source. Robert Conquest has spoken of

The inexact impressions of a phrase

That draws strength only from the hard-won stock

Of image flowering from

Our speech's core.

Augustine reflected on the relation between teacher and disciples: 'So powerful is the feeling of a mind which sympathises that, whilst they are moved as we speak, and we as they learn, we have our dwelling in one another, so both they, as it were, in us speak what they hear and we in a certain way learn in them what we teach' (Augustine, De Catechizandis Rudibus 17; cited in Harrison, 1992, p.55).

Vico's insight into the philosophy of history was essentially that we are enabled to understand historically remote societies because they still indwell, as it were, their language and culture, and we who share a common human nature with them are able to indwell them too, through strenuous historical research combined with profound imaginative insight (Vico, 1961, p.67, para. 161). Vico elaborates his basic axiom of verum factum—humans have made culture/reality, therefore humans can understand it:

In the night of thick darkness enveloping the earliest antiquity, so remote from ourselves, there shines the eternal and never failing light of a truth beyond all question: that the world of civil society has certainly been made by men and that its principles are therefore to be found within the modifications of our own human mind.

Herder claimed that to think and speak is to 'swim in an inherited stream of images and words; we must accept these media on trust; we cannot create them' (Berlin, 1976, p.168).

F.D.Maurice well understood the notion of indwelling words in order to indwell a community when he wrote that when we use words with care and respect, we are enabled to enter into sympathy and fellowship with those who have used them before us. We begin to sense that words have stored within them wisdom that can lead us to a better understanding of the world and God. Taken on trust, they put forth their 'living, germinating power' (Maurice, 1904, p.35). (George Steiner has said something very similar in connection with the art of the translator: 'When using a word we wake into resonance, as it were, its entire previous history... To read fully is to restore all that one can of the immediacies of value and intent in which speech actually occurs' (Steiner, 1975, p.24).) Maurice confessed that he had learned from Coleridge, by example, 'how one may enter into the spirit of a living or a departed author, without assuming to be his judge; how one may come to know what he means, without imputing to him our meanings' (Maurice, 1958, vol. 2, p.354). Within this 'common tradition' of fiduciary hermeneutics, to which John Coulson has so salutarily recalled us, Maurice believed that the Oxford Movement (of which he was in some other respects fiercely critical) had played its part in restoring the 'great principle of a social faith', namely that 'we exist in a permanent communion which was not created by human hands, and cannot be destroyed by them' (Maurice, 1843, p.10).

We are inevitably reminded here of Burke's attack on the theory of the contractual basis of society and his affirmation of a partnership between the generations that alone produces the highest good of human community:

It is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.

In Real Presences, George Steiner has defended a fiduciary hermeneutic: an act of trust, he insists, underlies our universe of discourse (Steiner, 1989, pp.89f.). Expounding the dictum 'a sentence always means more', Steiner suggests that meaning spreads outwards like the ripples on a pond:

These comprise the individual, subconsciously-quickened language habits and associative field-mappings of the particular speaker or writer. They incorporate, in densities inaccessible to systematic inventory, the history of the given and neighbouring tongues. As the ripples or shot-silk interference effects expand outward, they become of incommensurable inclusiveness and complexity. No formalization is of an order adequate to the semantic mass and motion of a culture.

As a parting shot Steiner adds that the equation Wittgenstein made in the Tractatus between the limits of our language and the limits of our world 'is almost a banality' (ibid., p.83). Our language, rightly understood, is actually unlimited in its suggestiveness, if only we trust ourselves to it and indwell it, allowing it to lead us further. Edwin Muir spoke of the utterance of divine creation and of human creativity as 'spontaneous syllables, bodying forth a world' (Muir, 1984, p.165). We have to recover the dying art of appropriating in order to read and to hear the language of poetry, liturgy and scripture that can open up new worlds.

The power of language to move our emotions, to open up new experiences, to act as midwife at the birth of religious belief lies in its deep social source. Because it is chronically over-determined, its range of possible meanings is inexhaustible! As John Coulson has put it:

The inherited language of faith, to which we make an imaginative assent .is of an uncompromisingly symbolic character: it is a many-faced challenge which never yields a final paraphrase: in fact its linguistic mode seems deliberately chosen thus to preserve it for infinite use for all generations.

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