Sunday, February 24, 2013
WHORF IS BACK!
The seminary program I undertook 1978-82 was premised on a special status with the University of Chicago Divinity School which used a one year MA program in Religious Studies to separate the sheep from the goats. On the one hand it was meant to locate Ph.D. candidates with brilliant promise and on the other hand the original charter of the school was meant to produce ministers. As declared students for the UU ministry, we made the statistics look good and a few of us were brilliant enough to leap across into the straight Div School program. When David Loehr was thrown out of M/L (mostly for defiance) he was taken in by the U of C Div School. The Div School operated in large part as participants in the great research and theory juggernaut that is the larger university. One passed two series of three courses each, one set of religious history and one set of religious thought, plus a series of three “free choice” classes. An MA degree traditionally distinguishes itself from an MS by requiring that one learn a viable research foreign language, usually (in religion) French or German. Maybe Hebrew or Greek, which are required subjects in a Lutheran seminary.
I knew this ahead of time and had already taken a year of French in Portland. I did pass the exam. But no other requirement made the M/L students so desperate and indignant as that requirement. Even the ones who could NOT pass the Big Six essay exams courses, were more meek about those than having to learn a language. (In fact, if one looked at all deserving, one’s exam paper disappeared into the hands of a forgiving nun who marked it rather differently than the profs concerned. No such arrangement for the French exam.) Students delayed, sent ringers to take their test for them, petitioned for different languages, and argued that since few UU’s are anything but English speakers and there is no significant body of scholarship about Unitarianism except John Godbey’s Transylvanian studies (insert jokes about vampires here -- actually today being able to speak the “original” vampire language might come in handy). They insisted it was an act of imperialism for the Div School to continue to impose the requirement. Etc. So the French requirement was dropped, then the MA from the U of C was dropped, and then any major scholarship component left. Now M/L is downtown in a glass office building in the Loop. Terribly trendy and impressive. I dread to find out what their GRE scores are.
But that’s all background -- though crucially relevant -- to what I want to say, which is to that due to the amazing brain research (not so much of it done at the U of C, I think) that recently provoked Obama into suggesting a brain research project on the model of the genome project, Whorf is back. Not the Star Trek character (fond of him as I am).
No, I mean Benjamin Whorf, the anthropologist who proposed (along with others) that how our language is constructed is interwoven with how we see the world -- one informs the other. Here he is:
Here’s your NYTimes quick version of what's going on:
Here is a far more extended and clear version as explained by a beautiful professor. http://www.edge.org/conversation/encapsulate-universes
This is an “Edge.org” talk so it’s not as short and smooth as a TED talk, but the content is crucially important to the modern world in which we are all voyagers among islands, each of which speaks a different language and lives in a different material culture. We are beyond United Nations now, because nations are not necessarily a useful concept anymore -- so many of us are in diasporas largely defined by the languages we speak. Each of those languages or concept systems is the equivalent to and the means of maintaining a unique religious point of view, whether or not it is embodied in an institution.
The existence of these “encapsulated universes” suddenly came into focus for Whorf when he was working with Hopi and realized that they saw the universe as process, noting the difference by speaking in verb forms equivalent to English participles -- they did not speak of a chair but of “chairing” or at least “sitting”. The great theological freedom of this is that when one says “Godding” one is not locked into the mistaken assumption that “A God” is an entity somewhere -- but rather God is a process. One would learn to do “godding” rather than quarreling over the nature of “The God.” Euro world-view and grammar is dominated by nouns, some would argue because it is a system based on the aggregation of objects.
Beyond that, a good communicator, educator or shrink MUST realize that each human person has constructed a world with a language from the materials of their own life. The great mistake -- an Evil and Demonic mistake -- is using that realization to punish and convert people by forbidding them their own language, which is the same thing as forbidding them their own world. In fact, that world is both their consciousness and their identity, so that the forced choice is to either become subversive or to destroy part of themselves. (Mike Eigen, psychotherapist, was posting today about “the annihilated self.”)
Around here that happened in terms of Blackfeet falling into the hands of European missionaries. Luckily, some individuals were able to navigate both worlds, even to create a new one that includes both (metis). NA activists never quite realize that the new America imposed this world/language destruction on anyone not conforming to their goals -- whether Chinese, Ukrainian, or even Irish. And the new Americans never quite realized that all those pluralities were quietly preserving and building back new versions of their old selves. The first frontier churches were often formed around the imported language so that the preachers could speak in that familiar way. The Hutterites still do that. But often when the congregation has all learned to speak “American,” their world view remains what it was. In Valier there are a lot of subconscious Belgians.
Conversely, denominations that seek to preserve themselves by identifying and exploiting a mainstream identity tend to slip into amorphous tolerance with no rallying flag. They become political more than religious and fear to make trouble for fear of losing members. If they are TOO tolerant of pluralism, people begin to press for pledges of allegiance and some folks will drift on out the other side of the category. The more frightening the cosmic global world, the harder people will press for some solid point of reference and a language in which to express it. It is not surprising that post-modern thought arose in French Algeria.
Maybe it’s more surprising that this category -- newly named “the Nones,” as distinguished by their assertion that their religious affiliation is “None” -- has formed in a time when institutions are being eroded by concepts like free-form individual “spirituality.” IMHO, this has paradoxically formed from the spiritual side of science. The right-wingers are right. And they SHOULD be worried. It’s as big a shift as from noun to verb. Have you noticed how many nouns are used as verbs these days?
I used to have a seminary classmate who often asked, “What does it mean?” His two respected authorities were Paul Ricoeur and John Coltrane. He did not enter the ministry. What did he do with his formidable intelligence? He sells wine.