Saturday, February 27, 2010

The grammar of salvation

First posted December 29 2005; reposted as it is relevant to the Dawkinsnet situation.

A post about the structural parallels between Christianity and, Peak Oil and other groups with a tendency to ‘cult-like’ behaviour.

I have been struck by the echoes of Christianity that crop up in unexpected places, and to try and explain what I mean, I need to explain something about Wittgenstein's understanding of philosophy and language.

The easiest way to get a quick grasp of Wittgenstein's view of language is to talk about the difference between what he calls surface grammar and depth grammar. Surface grammar is the explicit content and form of a sentence: the division into nouns, verbs, adjectives and so on. It is what we normally think of as grammar. Depth grammar is the function that a sentence plays within the life of the person speaking the sentence. In other words, an investigation of the depth grammar of a word will indicate the use that the words have.

Think of the expression 'I need some water'. This seems quite straightforward, but depending upon the context and the emphasis placed upon different words, it could have all sorts of different senses. For example, it could be a straightforward description of thirst, or an expression of the need for an ingredient in making bread, or preparing water colours. So far, so straightforward. But think of something more interesting. Perhaps it is an insult: I am a mechanic, and I am working on fixing a car radiator. My assistant knows that I need some fluid, but passes me some left over orange squash: 'I need some water' - where the expression also means: why are you being so stupid? In other words, the surface grammar of a comment may be the same, but the depth grammar is radically different dependent on the situation at hand. For Wittgenstein, true understanding came not from the search for definitions but from grammatical investigation - ie, looking at real situations and seeing what is being discussed.

So the ‘depth grammar’ is concerned with the function that words, concepts and behaviours play in our human conversation and life. What has been striking me strongly in recent months, first from my experiences at and now from researching the Peak Oil situation, is how far there are patterns of behaviour in non-Christian environments which in fact replicate the depth grammar of Christianity. In other words, how easy it is for a particular topic to become a gospel-substitute, and how this reflects the profoundly embedded nature of Christian thought within our civilisation. As Wittgenstein once put it – a whole mythology is embedded in our language.

Consider the claim of Christianity: the world is corrupted by Sin; Jesus Christ was born to free us from that Sin; if you accept that Jesus rose from the dead and confess him to be the Messiah (ie confess Jesus as the ‘standard’) then you will be released from Sin and born again. To embrace Jesus as the Messiah is to resolve all the spiritual questions which may plague us and provide a pattern of living which leads to abundant life. There is an explicit claim of salvation – “Jesus saves!” – and the embrace of that salvation, leading to fullness of life, is what shapes the ‘grammar’ of Christianity.

Now consider, first, some of the shenanigans at The MoQ – Robert Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality – is an account of the world, which claims to solve many of the most troubling contemporary issues. It is certainly a very useful philosophy, and one with which I have a lot of sympathy. Yet it is – inevitably – not without its flaws. What interests me is the way in which, once those flaws are pointed out, there is an exaggerated reaction, which suggests that there is something more at stake for the interlocutors than merely a dispute about philosophy. For the reaction often takes the form of ‘you haven’t understood it yet’. The MoQ is viewed like the Bible, 'inspired', therefore it cannot be wrong, therefore if you disagree with it there must be something wrong with you, you must still be in the grip of heretical understandings etc. Once you have understood it, then you're free of the clutches of alternative views and it all makes sense.

As such, it's a form of gnosticism. There is esoteric knowledge, associated with particular (pure) experiences - called Dynamic Quality in the MoQ - and once you have gained that knowledge, absorbed that insight, then you are on the inside. You share in the mysteries.

Now compare with some of the discussions that go on around Peak Oil, particularly the ‘doomers’. Instead of it being a work of metaphysics that needs to be understood, it is a combination of geology, physics and politics. Yet here there is the same tendency to describe disagreement as ‘not getting it’ and for there to be vigorous repudiation of alternative perspectives. Again, it is this emotional charge which interests me the most. With Peak Oil there is at least the possibility that lives might rest on the outcome of the debate, yet once views have been ‘scratched’ a little, it rapidly becomes apparent that the views expressed rest upon more-or-less unacknowledged presuppositions, going deeply into a particular persons view of the world. An entire weltanschaaung is in play – this is not an academic question, it is not just an existential question – these are the questions of the meaning of our life.

They are – in Christian language – ‘salvation issues’. For this is what is at stake in the discussions for the participants, this is what gives them such importance – that the resolution of a particular issue, whether it be the MoQ, Peak Oil, the virtue of Republican or Democrat perspectives, whatever – resolution of such issues takes on the penumbra of a faith. If you ‘get it’, then you are ‘saved’. Although the explicit language is starkly different, the fundamental patterns of human behaviour – the ‘depth grammar’ involved in these human conversations – seems to me to be effectively identical in each instance. This is what I mean by the ‘grammar of salvation’. An issue takes on the form of Christianity, whilst – obviously – employing a different vocabulary.

Which leads to the question of legitimacy. Christianity is explicitly talking about God, the meaning of life, the nature of our human existence. Yet the MoQ and Peak Oil make no such explicit claims – and those who are most charged to defend their perspectives are often also those who are most assertive about their rejection of Christian perspectives. "The lady doth protest too much, methinks." Yet it is also the way in which their language functions.

At the heart of the Christian faith – indeed, something which is held in common with other faiths such as Buddhism – is the sense that we cannot capture what is most essential in our words, our language games. The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao. Which has the consequence, once it has been understood, of making all explicit claims to finality stand under a cloud of doubt – this could be wrong. In Christian terms, this is the process of casting out our idols, those things around which we structure our lives which are not God, and thereby diminish our humanity in so far as we gain our worth from them (ie worship them). Which leads, ultimately, to a radical uncertainty, for there is nothing tangible and explicit upon which we can rest our judgements. Here there is only room for faith – for a lived out and worked out understanding and approach to life which cannot be captured in words.

Thing is, our culture suffers from a crisis of certainty, from Descartes onwards (see Cosmopolis by Steven Toulmin for one account of why), and this crisis of certainty has its origin in the rejection of Christianity amongst the philosophes of the Enlightenment. Yet the consistent reapplication of the grammar of salvation to various issues teaches me that the longing for salvation has not gone away – it has simply channelled itself into more socially (intellectually?!) acceptable channels. Metaphysics does function as a religion - it is a kind of magic, as Wittgenstein puts it.

“Of the good in you I can speak, but not of the evil. For what is evil but good tortured by its own hunger and thirst? Verily when good is hungry it seeks food even in dark caves, and when it thirsts it drinks even of dead waters.”

We are required to live with our uncertainty; and the only way to live with uncertainty is through faith. The only interesting question is ‘what sort of faith?’ not ‘do you have faith?’. The ability to be detached from one’s own perspective is a sign of spiritual maturity – living with uncertainty we walk by faith. Unfortunately, those who are most strongly attached to the various perspectives – those in whom is provoked the strongest ‘emotional charge’ when such perspectives are held up to sceptical scrutiny – are those who have not come to terms with the uncertainty, and they do not have faith.

Only the holy can see truly. That is what it means to believe in God, to attain perfect detachment, and that is what it means to walk with faith.


  1. Thanks - you make a very good point about the role that various movements play in people's lives. Deep grammar is not unrelated to what is called "functional grammar" in other circles.

    And I love the quote towards the end (though the link is broken - where is it from?).

  2. It's from Kahlil Gibran's 'The Prophet'. I'll fix the link.

  3. Amen to that, Sam!
    amen to that...


    On a side, I read the MOQ site for a while, dare I say was even tempted to start posting. In the end, that there is something more at stake then philosophy kept me in my own little corner of the world. Honestly, the more I read it the more I just became spooked. And besides, I have my own motorcycle to work on.

  4. Hi Sam, as a commentary updated to add to the Dawkins Net situation - I have no problem with this. (The fact that the moderators had to do some fixing of the way the forum worked is in fact a recognition that it had become - always was - cultish.)

    Anyway - deeper grammar. You said "the only way to live with uncertainty is through faith".

    Kind of yeah. A kind of faith. But in the same way as the language itself has levels of depth, the recognition of uncertainty also comes with some recognition of depth. Uncertainty is rarely total, even where outcomes are totally unpredictable, something is known about the uncertainty, things that set bounds to where, when and how outcomes might emerge - the processes at work.

    So that faith needs to be graded too. The "ultimate" answer is not needed for all questions of uncertainty.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.