Meaning, Revelation and Tradition in Language and Religion

The Missouri Review 5.3 (Summer 1982): 117-28

Paul Ricoeur, in his book The Symbolism of Evil, referring to a certain sentence on which he is about to expatiate, begins: “That sentence, which enchants me…” Well, there is a sentence which enchants, and has always enchanted me. In his case the sentence is “The symbol gives rise to thought.” In my case it is the opening verse of St. John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” I think that “enchant” is the right verb because, if the word is hopelessly inadequate to convey the significance of that sentence to me now, I remember being curiously fascinated by it long before I was really able to attach any intelligible meaning to it, and at a time when I certainly had no intention of accepting on faith anything I couldn’t understand. I happened not to have been brought up that way.

Of course I was already beginning to feel the fascination of words in the ordinary sense – bits of human language – and no doubt that had much to do with it. But what connection could there possibly be between words and their history – the sort of thing that Archbishop Trench and Max Müller and M. Bréal and Logan Pearsall-Smith wrote about – and “the Word” in that fateful sentence? It is only since I started trying to arrange my thoughts on the subject of this lecture that I suddenly realized that practically all I have ever written on the subject of language and other matters connected with it could be characterized, not inaccurately, as attempts to answer that very question. The next reflection was that my best hope of imparting any sort of coherent structure to the jumble of ideas that I should be hoping to lay before you was to string them on the thread, as it were, of that underlying question. It was borne in on me that that would be the best, perhaps the only way, of keeping a reasonably steady course through waters that not only run very deep, but keep ramifying into separate channels, all of which lead away from the main stream.

If we ask ourselves what are the most distinctive features about the little thing we call a “word” – and it’s not a question that we very often do ask ourselves – I think we shall find that the two most outstanding are these. First, a word, whether spoken or written, has a remarkable, even paradoxical, quality, – namely that it both goes out and remains where it was to start with. “Word” means, of course, not simply the ink marks on the paper or the sound in the air. There is also the meaning of the word. Without that, it would not be a word but merely ink marks or noise: And when a word is read or heard, that meaning goes out – goes out to another mind, or to many other minds. But all that same, this exodus does not leave the speaker or writer any poorer. He still has the meaning nestling inside him just as snugly as he had before he let it go.

The second feature is already implicit in the first. In addition to the element in it that is perceptible to the senses – ink or sound – the word has a second element, inasmuch as it expresses or symbolizes, or what you will, something that is not perceptible to the senses, the something that is called its meaning.

“Expresses, or symbolizes, or what you will.” By putting it in that delightfully casual way, I was, of course, skimming over the surface of some of those deep waters that I have alluded to. Just this question of what exactly is meant by such terms as “symbol” and “symbolize” has attracted a great deal of attention in many different quarters, especially in the last fifty or sixty years. It has perhaps been examined most extensively in connection with literary expression, and most intensively in connection with poetry. Now, in that latter connection, you will generally find symbolism being dealt with on the basis of perceived resemblance or likeness. In some way or other, a symbol is “like” what it symbolizes. Whether or no, as Coleridge held, it is also part of what it symbolizes is a further question; but a symbol’s relation to what it stands for is certainly, in some manner, a relation of likeness or a development from that relation. For instance, in the domain of rhetoric or literary criticism, it is often related to other indirect ways of conveying meaning, such as the metaphor and the simile. In the simile it is pointed out, you frankly and grammatically aver that A is like B: my love is like a red rose, and so on. In the metaphor, you short-circuit the process, and perhaps move a step away from prose and into poetry, by leaving out any express reference to likeness: my love is a rose. But finally you can go a step further than that and simply write a poem about a rose, but in such a way that everyone knows that what you are in fact writing about, that what you mean, is not simply a rose but also a woman. That is a simple and very transparent example of a symbol, and it is easy to see how it is based on a relation of likeness – or as the lady’s family circle might prefer to put it – of imputed likeness. Actually, that remark was not just a would-be humorous reflection, but a rather important one, since it reminds us of something that we should never forget: namely that, if words are indeed symbols, they are symbols not of things but of meanings – not of something physical but essentially of something mental.

But the problem soon moves beyond that into realms where, although it is obvious that a poem, or something in one, is intended symbolically, it is no longer clear what it is that is being symbolized – Blake’s “tyger,” the French Symbolists; I need not stop to give examples. And here the conclusion that has been arrived at is that it is a mistake to try to be clear about what is symbolized and that to do so is to misunderstand the very nature of a genuine symbol. Whatever it is that is being expressed by a symbol, that symbol was the only possible way of expressing it. If there were any other way of expressing it, it would not be a true, a primary symbol. Or, putting it another way, if the “it” that is expressed by a symbol could be expressed in any other way, then it cannot be the kind of “it” that needs the mystery of symbolism to make it manifest.

Aristotle defined words as “symbols of soul experiences,” and it seems clear that if individual words are indeed symbols, then they are certainly “primary” symbols in the sense just indicated. This is so because any attempt to explain in words how words come to be symbols or just what symbolizing means in that case, is merely using what are already symbols to explain symbols. It is therefore not explanation, but merely substitution. In fact, the objection to this process is very similar to Coleridge’s objection to the philosophy of science as it prevailed in his day – and still largely does in our own. That philosophy, he said, is based on the false assumption that phenomena (that is, everything perceptible to the senses) can be explained by other phenomena. You can split up the infinitesimal particles, but when you have finished doing that, the problem of how the particles came into existence in the first place remains. It is, with another hat on, the same old problem that you started out to explain – the problem of how the world came into existence. Claiming to investigate origin, all you have really done is to discern rearrangements. (Let me add that, in Henri Corbin’s “The Concept of Comparative Philosophy,” I recently came across what seems to me to be a very good definition of the word “phenomenon”: “The phenomenon is that which shows itself, that which is apparent and which in its appearance shows forth something which can reveal itself therein only by remaining concealed beneath the appearance.”)

In much the same unsatisfactory way, the literary approach to symbol – and through that to meaning – hardly reaches down to the problem of meaning itself, of meaning as such; rather, it deals, at a later stage with the problem of two different levels of meaning – the literal on the one hand and the metaphorical or figurative meaning on the other. It is good training, and very needful training, for the sort of imagination that is needed for the anterior problem that I am trying to get at, but it hardly touches the problem itself. I mean that any word is the symbol of its meaning. It is the fact that words are primary symbols – symbols that you can’t get behind, or not in that way; it is the fact that they are what Paul Ricoeur has called “fundamental symbols of consciousness.” Such symbols, to paraphrase Corbin, are “things which can reveal themselves only by remaining concealed…”

Perhaps one could say that such fundamental symbols – words – must therefore be based on the principle not of likeness, but of revelation. However that may be, is there any way you can get behind them? Here it is worth noticing that, as I have said, while a great deal of attention has been bestowed in the last few decades on the second of the two features which, I suggested, characterize words as such (that is, their symbolic function), almost none has been given to the first – the remarkable fact, you will remember, that a word as such, or its meaning as such, both goes out and remains where it originated. This restricted approach was not always the fashion. One of the things that I discovered in that quest I mentioned was that, from time to time in the centuries or our era that preceded the sixteenth or seventeenth, a great deal of attention had been bestowed on just that feature. Thus, while I got a great deal of light on the second feature from a number of relatively recent writers, it was only when I went further back and ventured to look into some of the thinking done on the subject by such minds as St. Augustine, John Scotus Erigena, Thomas Aquinas, and St. Bonaventura that I began to get some light on the first feature and, at the same time, to realize two things: first, how essential that same light is for any insight at all into – well, let me say into words as fundamental symbols of consciousness; and second, how that same light could begin to illuminate my underlying problem of that same relation between words and the Word.

You may wonder why one should have to go so far back to find anything approaching a convincing psychology of fundamental symbolism. I wondered myself. Perhaps it was because those writers had not yet had the bandage of Cartesian and Kantian dogma drawn across their eyes and were free, therefore, from undue obsession with the physical brain. I am not going into that. What I do want to do, if I can manage it, is to present some of that unfamiliar psychology in summary form, so that you can reflect further on it if you are minded to do so. You find the substance of it in a good many places: St. Augustine’s treatise on The Trinity is one of them, and there is a good deal of it in Aquinas’s Summa, especially in the early Questions. A particularly memorable moment for me was the moment when I discovered that Aquinas had also taken the trouble to produce a separate short treatise entitled The Difference between the Divine Word and the Human (De Differentia Divini Verbi et Humani).

The psychology in question differs from modern linguistics in the sense that it begins its investigation into the word at a much earlier stage in its life, or even just before its birth. The spoken or uttered word is seen as the conclusion of an interior process, during which it first took form as an “inner” word (verbum interius) an entity not yet belonging or clothed in any sound, real or imagined. The exponents of this psychology speak of a “memory word,” of a verbum cordis or “heart word,” and finally of the “intellect word” that finds vent in actual utterance – vox, the voice or sounded word. The reasoning is close, elaborate, conscientious. In fact, one gets the impression that the will or the ability to think really strenuously is something that we have since rather lost hold of. I can only sketch inadequately the general picture that is left in the mind after studying it to the best of one’s ability. It is a picture of the memory as a sort of womb in the human psyche. Impressions from the senses are received into that womb, and the mere fact that it retains them instead of letting them go as soon as they appear allows the first embryonic appearance of a word or name – the memory-word. Received further into the light of the intellect, this memory-word becomes the heart-word, but it is only when the intellect acts on it – acts formatively on or in it – that it opens into the intellect-word, and is ready to be born into physical existence as a voiced or uttered word.

Of course, to get the full force of it, you have to realize that all this is not conceived as a purely subjective process. Psychology in those days had not yet become the physiology in disguise that it mostly is today. The form or species of an object, which in the active intelligence makes possible its naming, was identical to the form of species of the object itself in what we should call the “outer” world. “There is one principle which produces the object of perception and the same principle at the other pole produces the contemplation of that object.” That was how Coleridge was to put it many years later; but earlier thinkers did not need a Coleridge to preach it to them, because they took it for granted.

The point I want to draw attention to is the circumstance that the context in which you find this psychology expounded so carefully and in such detail – whether it is St. Augustine on the Trinity or Aquinas distinguishing between the divine Word and the human, or some other – is usually a sustained endeavour to help the reader grasp by analogy the existential relation between the Father and the Son in Christian theology. St. Thomas Aquinas is not content simply to produce the first two lines of his wonderful Corpus Christi hymn:

Verbum supernum prodiens
Nec Patris linquens dexteram…
The supernal Word proceeding
And yet not leaving the right hand of the Father…

He must find some way, as a philosopher, of helping his readers grasp in their imaginations the appallingly difficult notion – difficult because it flouts the fundamental law of contradiction on which all strictly logical thought is based – the notion of a thing or being proceeding or going out and yet remaining where it was. And this he does by saying in effect: Look, you find this an impossible notion to accept about your Creator. But think carefully, look very carefully into yourselves, and you will see how it is something that happens every time an ordinary human word is engendered.

Rather strangely perhaps, I have come to the conclusion that in our day this analogy, or more than analogy, between the divine Word and the human can be more helpful in the inverse direction: that is, beginning with the divine Word, the Logos at the root of all creation, and passing thence to the mystery of language. I do not, of course, mean by that that the Christian mystery of the Son proceeding from the Father, and yet remaining with the Father, is the easier one to grasp – only that in contemplating it we are at least forced to realize that we are confronting a mystery: the primary mystery of the unmanifest being made manifest. And in the twentieth century, that is perhaps a rather wholesome experience. In any case, I am convinced that that is the only profitable frame of mind in which to approach this problem of words as primary symbols. More specifically, such an approach mitigates our tendency to over-emphasize the factor of likeness in building our concept of symbol – of likeness between one created thing and another. It suggests that, if we think in terms of likeness or similitude, we should rather strive to conceive the kind of likeness that may subsist between the generated and the generant, to conceive of the manifest being in some manner the “image” of the unmanifest.

But now, if we do presume to try to fix our attention on such issues as the unmanifest becoming manifest, as the invisible transpiring through the visible which it has brought into being – or let us say (since that is what we have come to mean by the word “nature”) as the supernatural taking form as the natural – then we are thinking about what can equally well be called “revelation.” And I have come to believe that on that subject, very much as is the case with symbol and symbolism, one way of getting our thinking out of the straitjacket in which the general mental development of the last few hundred years has constricted it is to explore some of the older writers. It is interesting that there are passages in those writers where, when the topic is the true nature of words or language, it is not always immediately clear whether they are really referring to language in general or to the language of the Scripture. There is a sentence in St. Bonaventura which makes more explicit the relation between the two as they felt it. He speaks of the Word as “the multiform wisdom of God, which is hidden [occultatur] in all knowledge and in all nature but is clearly passed down to us [the word is traditur, from which we get tradition] in the sacred writing.” Some sense remained as late as the nineteenth century of this special significance of the language of Scripture actually as language, as revelatory word and not merely as information about past revelation. This is reflected incidentally in the recent history of the word hermeneutics. Hermeneutics means, roughly speaking “interpretation,” and until a few decades ago it always signified interpretation of the language of the Bible. It is only in the last few decades that its meaning has been extended often with the omission of the final s Hermeneutic) to cover the interpretation of language and, especially, the element of symbolism in language in general.

Is there then something special that we can lay our hands on that differentiates the language of the Scripture from any other known language? If we limit ourselves for the moment to the Old Testament, I can think of at least two things. First, the predominant part played in it by prophecy – and here again I am thinking not simply of the fact that the Old Testament does contain a large number of prophecies, but also of a certain quality in the Hebrew tongue which seems somehow to integrate the substance of prophecy with the very structure, even the grammatical structures, of the language. Here I have to confess that I am no Hebrew scholar, but it does seem clear, from such investigation as I have been able to make, that the Hebrew verb is a very different matter from ours, inasmuch as, to the extent that it can be said to have a past and a future tense, it uses the future tense for history and the past for prophecy – a notion which is at least not less difficult to grasp than that other one, which we have already looked at, of a going out which is at the same time a remaining where you were.

Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century controversy in the realm of hermeneutics tended to focus on the issue of what was called “verbal inspiration”: whether the words of Holy Writ should be regarded as divinely dictated, so that every word must be taken as literally true and accurate, or whether the writers were indeed divinely inspired but wrote under the impulse of that inspiration what their own minds and imaginations directed them to write. I have specified the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries, but I suppose that issue is still a live one between those who may perhaps be called hard-line fundamentalists on the one hand and, on the other, the great body of those who, without being fundamentalists, for one reason or another regard the Bible as probably the most important book in the world. The second group, to which I belong, is of course heavily in the majority, but because the opinions that divide the two are, whether devoutly or contemptuously, often entertained with great confidence, I prefer not to ignore the first group, and my contention is that, if what one is trying to arrive at is a viable concept of revelation, that cleavage of opinion can really be ignored. The reason is this lies in the very nature of language, the very nature of a word, of which I tried to say something at the beginning. Surely a word is only a word at all if it has three characteristics. There must surely be a sound or a mark, the sound or mark must be capable of conveying meaning, and the meaning must go out and be received by a listening or reading mind. And in deciding whether or not revelation has occurred, we cannot ignore the third characteristic any more than we can ignore the other two. It is clear, is it not, that if what we mean by “the Bible” is simply a pound of ink and paper and pasteboard, then it is not revelation. It is at most potential revelation.

Perhaps it has been a clearer perception of this simple fact that has led to the broadening of the scope of hermeneutics from biblical language into the problem of language in general, with a corresponding theological feedback into the nature of biblical language itself. Whether you believe in verbal inspiration or not, if you are willing to reflect at all on language, or on any particular language, you cannot just leave out what happens at the receiving end.

My experience here is of a growing consensus of opinion, converging from many different points of view, that if its fundamentally symbolical nature is omitted from our understanding of language, if we forget that words are primary symbols of consciousness, then in the end we simply fail to apprehend it as meaning. For meaning, as distinct from mere information, always has an element of revelation in it. Hence the continually increasing attention that has been paid in my time to the whole realm of symbol and symbolism. If however, what I have previously suggested is correct, then the light which that attention could throw on the subject has been obscured, or certainly limited, by excessive concentration on the principle of likeness or resemblance as the key to the nature of the symbol. That is what has led (in association with the concept of “metaphor”) to the prevailing assumption that a statement must be either symbolical or literal. Literal meaning, it is assumed, cannot at the same time be symbolical. Whereas, if Coleridge was right in holding that a genuine symbol is not merely parallel to but actually “a part of the reality it represents,” then that is a false dichotomy. And of course on the falsity of that dichotomy hangs the justification of the typological interpretation of Old Testament history which has formed such a substantial part of the whole Christian tradition, and of which the carvings and the glass in almost any Gothic cathedral amount to something like an encyclopedia.

Are there any pointers to a way of transcending our limited understanding of the nature of symbol and, in particular, of the essentially symbolical nature of the word? In trying to answer that, I must revert for a moment to that acutely elaborated medieval distinction between the Divine Word and the human to which I referred at the start. The inner word is always something at the same time proceeding from the intellect and remaining within the intellect. But what does it rely on for its origin? It relies for its origin on memory. It has to crystallize, so to speak, around some grain of sense perception given from outside itself and retained in itself. Whereas the Divine Word is self-generating. What the memory is to the human word the Creator himself, God the Father, is to the Divine Word. If I venture to reflect on the problem of meaning in language in terms of this kind of psychology, I find myself led on into a number of consequential reflections. Thus memory differs from its Creator in the fact that it is not permanent. It fades with time. In the same way, and no doubt for that reason, language fades. As has often been pointed out, words – or the living meanings in them – fade with the repeated use that they undergo with the lapse of time. Many philologists, for instance, have drawn attention to the fact that, if we look into their history, most words present the appearance of “fossilized metaphors.” That is one of the reasons why poetry is needed as well as prose. The languages of all civilized peoples, it has been pointed out, have undergone a process of “sedimentation.” It is not so much meaning that they present us with now as the husks of meaning. There is, however, a means by which the faded words, the fossilized metaphors, can be revivified, so that meaning again shines through them, so that language once again begins to reveal something behind or beyond its merely sensuous references. And that something is, precisely, the act of using language and the faculty of apprehending it as a tissue of symbols. In the case of religion, it is in much the same way – and, indeed, it is in close association with that very process of sedimentation – that what began as revelation fades into tradition. And here again the only known remedy for sedimentation appears to be the way of symbol. For tradition to re-acquire the pristine energy, so to speak, of revelation, it needs to be apprehended not only as historical record but also as a symbol. Herein, as I see it, lies the importance of what is generally called “typology” – a principle of interpretation, or hermeneutic, which, like symbolism, has been receiving more and more serious attention in the last hundred or hundred-and-fifty years. (The Oxford Dictionary gives no quotation on the word earlier than the 1830’s.)

But I doubt if that habit can be acquired in our time without our first arriving at a true understanding of the nature of symbol. So, before attempting to say anything more about typology, let me pursue one more of those consequential reflections that I have alluded to. It was pointed out that the difference between the Divine Word, originating in itself, and the human word, originating in memory, is that the memory has to have a sense-perceptible content on which to build or around which to crystallise. It is here, possibly, that we should look for an explanation of that undue emphasis on the element of likeness, of comparison (or implied comparison), between two existent objects which has characterized our conception of a symbol ever since Aristotle first produced his definition of metaphor, putting it in terms of mathematical ratio – the perception that a is to b is to c – and adding that to make good metaphors is “to contemplate likeness.” And does the difference between a man-made symbol and those primary symbols given in the beginning by nature herself, those natural phenomena which are also potential words, lie precisely in this: that, just as the memory must have a sense-context as its nucleus, so the human faculty of symbolizing must have as its nucleus two manifest objects to place side by side – that it must proceed, whether, consciously or unconsciously, from simile through metaphor to symbol? Further, shall we come nearer to an understanding of such a fundamental problem as the origin of language if we make the same distinction between symbols that the medieval linguistic analysts did between the human word and the Divine – if we study the man-made symbols that we know in terms of a useful analogy with the primary symbols that we did not create (but as no more than that, because the primary Symbol-maker did not have to work by comparison)?

It is certain, I think, that if we are minded to take the typology of the Old Testament as more than a man-made fiction, we should have to approach the nature of symbol more in this way than in the customary one. History is interpreted typologically – or, as Erich Auerbach preferred to express it, “figuratively” – when one worldly event is interpreted through another so that the first signifies the second and the second fulfils the first. But this can only be fact, and not mere fancy, if history itself is seen, as I have suggested that words must be seen, as the supernatural incarnating in the natural. Then the second event is seen as not simply “like” the first, but, so to speak, a further and more explicit development of it. This is how the typological or figural relation between the Old Testament and the New was seen and felt by our predecessors for many centuries: ever since Augustine described Moses as figura Christi – as prefiguring Christ – or before that, since Paul took Ishmael and Isaac as prefiguring respectively the heirs of the old covenant and of the new.

One may perhaps go further and raise the following question: what part, then, is played by symbolism in the New Testament? How are the bare bones of narrative tradition raised there to the level of revelation? I am indebted to Robert Funk’s book Language, Hermeneutic, and the Word of God for pointing out the crucial importance, in the Gospels, of the parable. Indeed, the parables recounted in the Synoptic Gospels could perhaps be said to be in the New Testament what typology is in the Old. And it is significant, from the point of view from which I have been speaking, that the parables are, frankly, similes. “Parabolic” utterance is in fact the generic title which comprises all kinds of “other-saying,” from simile through allegory and metaphor to symbol. So they are based on likeness. But (and here again I am indebted to Professor Funk) it is likeness of a special sort. It is a likeness which explicitly points beyond likeness. The “earthly story with the heavenly meaning” looks at first sight like a very ordinary, even humdrum, worldly event, a simple event or series of events in the natural world. But then, at some point in it, the natural breaks down. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot might say of it that it is “the wrong shape.” Poor women are indeed glad to find the dime they have lost, but they do not in fact invite all their neighbours to a party to rejoice over it. A host whose guests fail to arrive does not send out for others in the byways and hedges, still less does he drag them to his wedding feast by force, and still less again does he then punish them for not appearing in the proper morning dress. A farmer sowing expensive seed does not in fact scatter more than half of it in places where it won’t grow. And so on.

An ordinary simile suggests the supernatural – that is, the supersensible – by comparing two naturals. My love is like a rose, or is a rose. They are both objects in the sense-world, but by placing them side by side the poet suggests into being the supersensible qualities of beauty, grace, blessedness, or what you will. Whereas in the parable one term of the comparison is already supersensible. “The Kingdom of Heaven is like unto…” and then comes the parable, the parallel with nature which can only be drawn by making nature itself a little unnatural, with the result that, if it “works,” so to speak – “if ye will receive it” – what breaks through is not just information about the kingdom, but the Kingdom itself.

I am then led back by such reflections to the central issue of the relation between the divine word and human. An ordinary human child is first born as a physical being and then begins to speak. And when he begins to speak, he is limited, as we saw, by the necessity for a fleshly memory – a nucleus around which his words can be built. May we say that, when the divine Word itself had been made flesh and began to speak, there was no such limitation – or, if there was, that it was voluntarily accepted? That the spoken word was both divine and human at the same time? And may we add that, when the divine Word began to symbolize – since the symbols themselves were both divine and human, since he was symbolizing out of the flesh – he was, therefore, limited on the one hand to the necessity of symbolizing by the method of comparison, but that, on the other hand, he transformed the very element of likeness into something transcending likeness? Or, if you will, that he re-transformed his symbols into what I called primary symbols – into the kind of symbols that words are in themselves? So that, if we are to think of parallel as likeness, then it is not the likeness between one subject and another that is in question, but the likeness between the generated and the generant, the kind of likeness which allows us to call the manifest an “image” of the unmanifest.

I fear that I must leave it at that. And I do so with some trepidation. Why have I given this lecture? Because it is just a fact that the assemblage of reflections I have tried to place before you has produced in me a conviction that I do now have some understanding at least of that opening verse of St. John’s Gospel. For that reason I thought it would be well to try to share those reflections. But I am also aware that those reflections (bound up as they are with my special interests) have been jostling each other in my mind over a long period, without having hitherto been marshalled into any sort of order – and that they are by their nature not easy to communicate in such a way as to become grounds for the like conviction in others. I am sure that I cannot have altogether succeeded, but I believe (such is the importance of the subject) that it will have been worth doing if I have not altogether failed.

Owen Barfield

Copyright © 1997 — Owen Barfield Literary Estate.       Return to Top.