Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Evangelicalism and language as magic.

"Dr Harries I presume?".  Jim Harries has a way of isolating himself from outside perturbations!

The underlying  assumption in the forgoing is that the language, epistemology, and ontology of Western science is universal enough to illuminate cross-cultural issues

I have been telling the story of my Thinknet project in this series of articles. What I’ll be doing here is using this project as the basis for comment on some of the thinking behind a blog post by Eddie Arthur, an evangelical Christian missionary who specialises in language. The post by Arthur is a review of two books by missionary Jim Harries. Jim Harries promotes a particular model of mission which he calls “Vulnerable Mission” (VM). I have written sympathetically on this subject here and here. One of the reasons I got involved (amongst others) in mission studies is because my Thinknet project seemed to throw light on the nature of language and its relation to culture; two topics that are of great relevance to mission. But more crucially perhaps, it was my eventual outlook on the nature of language and mission which in part created tensions with evangelicalism and helped move me away from some of its harsh over engineered doctrines to a softer broad brush approach to Christianity. Evangelicalism and its ugly sister fundamentalism are both very much bound up with the way they read and interpolate meaning into the biblical texts. In this post I would like to comment on the linguistic aspects of what is in fact a strong contention between Harries and Arthur.  


Natural languages don’t literally carry meanings; rather they trigger meanings in the mind of listener whose wealth of experience, memorised in the form of a network of conceptual associations, is stimulated by the incoming signals of language. In my attempt to try and reduce the theory behind this idea into a pithy non-technical conceptualisation I have contrasted the objective mechanical logic of mathematical languages with the subjective fuzzy associative logic of natural languages. (Further informal account of this contrast can be found in the VM papers I’ve already linked to above). The meaning of mathematical symbols is found in the algorithmic manipulation of symbols in a process external to human thought, whereas with natural language meaning is assigned by the connotational effects of symbols on human thinking, thereby leading to very fluid meanings. For example, whilst the foreground meaning of statements about dark rain clouds on the horizon is likely to be fairly standardised, the background connotational meanings will be different for the gardener, the cricketer and the rain dancer. The notational languages of the physical sciences are suited for the modelling of well defined physical systems, but the highly connotative logic of natural languages are adapted to the world of fuzzy human affairs where information slowly emerges out of a fog of complexity

In the light of these brief considerations let’s have a look at the following statement which can found in the comment thread of the blog post under consideration:

Ruedi Giezendanner
replied:2 months ago
When we started working for an Indian BT organization, we asked our Indian boss which Indian language we should learn. He looked at us and said, “English IS an Indian language.”

So, English is spoken as a local language in India? Yes and no: The use of a common pool of linguistic symbols is not itself a sufficient condition for transparent communication. This is because meanings aren’t endogenous to natural languages. The symbolic signals of a language act as a series of triggers to the human conceptual network inside our skulls; that mental network is constructed by long years of exposure to a particular cultural context; this learning doesn’t come packaged together with the linguistic symbols themselves.

Natural language meanings are extrinsic rather than intrinsic to a language in as much as meaning is actually delivered by the mental conceptual network upon which linguistic signals impinge. This is in fact a trivially obvious conclusion once one realises that the linguistic symbols of a language aren’t like little containers which can be opened and their meaning inspected (a point that Jim Harries himself has made); rather linguistic signals act as stimulants which release meanings implicit in the mind. Natural language is not a set of incantations and spells by which some special magic provides instant access to meaning: The illusion that meaning is actually being delivered by language from without rather than from within may be because our interpretative neural make up delivers meaning to consciousness so smoothly, efficiently and silently that we get the false impression meaning is coming from beyond us. The semantic force of natural language is sourced internally and to think otherwise is as bad as the fundamentalist creationist error that somehow “God spoke the world into existence” by sheer word power, just like that. That’s magical thinking from more primitive times. (However, the syntactical content of language which effectively constructs new semantic configurations does come from without)

In the light of the foregoing understanding of natural language let me now consider the following comment by Arthur in regard to one of the books written by Jim Harries about daily life in Africa (my emphasis):

However, it is important to remember that this book is written by a foreigner. It is an Englishman’s interpretation of Kenyan village life, not a Kenyan one. If you are really interested in getting under the skin of another culture, far better to read material written by the people themselves and not by their Western interpreters.

That latter sentence is attractively patronising about natives, but given that meaning is an extrinsic property of natural language the statement is profoundly problematical. Think about it in terms of connotation: The level of mutual understanding between two interlocutors depends on the level of similarity of both their ostensive pool of available language tokens and their hidden mental networks. Therefore necessary (but perhaps not sufficient) conditions of successful communication are:

a)    A pool of common terms that can be strung together in order to stimulate meanings in one another’s minds. 
b)      Similar concept networks.

Given a and b it follows that reading material written by a Kenyan is not a sufficient condition to communicate meaning even though he might be using English symbols; we must also share similar concept networks.  So, how then do we “get under the skin of another culture”? There seems to be more than one possibility here, but all of them rightly require sufficient time to build a common concept network. One possibility is for me to go to Kenya and spend a lot of time imbibing their culture and language. I could then read or listen to what they say thereby availing myself of a chance of “getting under the skin of their culture”. An alternative is for a Kenyan to come to the West and imbibe a Western concept network and try to make translations from the Kenyan network to the Western network. This latter strategy may work, but conceivably there could be incommensurability between the two networks and so the translation process could remain incomplete.

So, assuming the human mind to be a sufficiently flexible universal neural learning machine, then of the two foregoing strategies the more effective would likely be for me to go and imbibe Kenyan culture and language; that would cut out any incommensurability issues in translation.  However, if after a long term visit to Kenya I eventually successfully learnt Kenyan conceptual networks any attempt by me to translate from Kenyan to Western terms may hit the same incommensurability issues faced by a Kenyan trying to explain to the uninitiated Westerner how Kenyan thinking works.

But what if I’m not able to spend any time in Kenya imbibing their culture and language? Who would I best listen to in order to “get under the skin of their culture”?; a Westerner who is acclimatised to Kenyan culture or a Kenyan who is acclimatised to Western culture? Both emissaries might face issues of incommensurability and gaps in their knowledge of their respective foreign cultures when trying to translate. There is also the asymmetry of overwhelming Western power, wealth and influence to contend with, a wild card which might skew the output of this experiment in some unforeseen way; perhaps by the benefactor-beneficiary effect. (See here)

All in all, then, it is difficult to either affirm or contradict from a theoretical stand point Arthur’s patronising assertion. Someone like Jim Harries who lives and breathes rural African culture is in a position to actually understand African culture. But whether a Kenyan acclimatised Westerner like Harries would render a better translation of Kenyan conceptual networks than a Western acclimatised Kenyan is difficult to judge.  In the absence of reasons to believe why one case should be favoured over the other a possible strategy would be to get accounts from both kinds of sources and then make comparisons. It would probably be wise to repeat the experiment several times to spot any systematic differences between the two kinds of account.

Here are some further extracts from Arthur’s blog where he picks up the matter raised by Harries of what language to use when communicating with Africans.

There are an increasing number of Africans for whom English or French is actually their mother tongue, not to mention the growth of urban patois such as Nouchi in Abidjan or Sheng in Nairobi. These cannot be ignored when talking about communicating the Gospel in Africa, especially the burgeoning cities across the continent.

This leads into my biggest problem with the whole thing and that is that according to this model it is the missionary who decides which language the Gospel should be transmitted in. I’m all in favour of working in African languages (that’s what I’ve spent my adult life doing and advocating for), but the choice for the medium should lie in Africa, not with the expat. Some Africans prefer using European languages in some contexts, and they should be allowed to do so, if that’s what they want.

I have similar concerns about some of the other sections, but the language issue is the one I know best and about which I feel most qualified to comment.

I think this shows that Keith’s point about language choice not being straightforward stands. It also illustrates the issue of rural versus urban language use. French is a first language for Many Abidjanais and to insist that they be addressed in ‘African’ languages is nonsensical. This does not devalue the need for Bible translation, but it does show that we need to think seriously about what languages are used where and not to allow our own biases to determine what should be done.

I am not going to contradict of any of that, but it’s what Arthur has left unsaid which constitutes a serious omission.  For the only variable he has focused on here is what he refers to as a “language” and by that most people think in terms of the ostensive medium of signalling; as I have already said the mind is such an efficient and unconscious translator that it leaves us with an illusory impression of meaning immerging out of the signals themselves. Hence, it is easy to fall for the idea that once one has the signalling medium in one’s possession one also has its meaning.

But look at points a and b above: Strictly a “language” is far more than the pool of tokens and syntactical constructions it employs as a medium of communication. If the ostensive signalling of natural language is to work it must be bundled together with the huge background hinterland of its interpretative concept network. Ergo, use of a recognisably similar signalling medium is therefore not a sufficient condition to conclude that mutual understanding can be taken for granted. A natural language is far more than its signalling medium. It follows from this that multilingual situations may be evidence of different (incommensurable?) domains of meaning. Therefore you chose the language to use according to the conceptual domain you wish to access.


Finally I’ll say a little bit about the interpersonal aspects that stand behind this contention between Harries and Arthur. What I consider to be a heavy hint about this matter is found in the following quote from Arthur (my emphasis):

However, as was the case previously, there are some serious flaws with this book. The first and most serious problem is the “I’ve got it right and everyone else is wrong” attitude which pervades the book. Even when I agree with the author, I find myself wanting to disagree because of the strident tone.

Nonetheless, Jim feels “written off”. Apparently you have to accept every jot and tittle of his ideas or you are opposing them. Please look at Jim’s response to my comments. From where I am sitting, he has simply side slipped my comments, while likening himself to the prophet Jeremiah. So my genuine and honest questioning of his work is transformed into persecution of the Lord’s prophet; a classic way to shut down conversation.

It is true that Dr. Jim Harries is very convinced about the exclusiveness of his own approach to mission. As I’m all for British compromise I have found his insistence on VM’s ideological purity just a little uncomfortable. But no question about it, he very strictly follows the model I have referred to above of the person who realises that the best way for the Westerner to get to grips with African (rural) culture is to go and immerse you self in it for years. Moreover, to further insulate the “experiment” against the perturbing and biasing effects of the overwhelming firepower of Western cultural influences and wealth he insists on keeping Western resources/culture out of mission as far as possible. I’ve met few people of such single minded dedication. I’ve seen him cross swords with other missionaries over his work but he remains cool in circumstances when I would have gone for my gun; ditto when I myself have raised questions about his rather uncompromising stance. He’s the last person I’d call strident. I’m not an evangelical myself but Harries has won my trust in his abilities and authenticity. Compare that with Eddy Arthur: It soon became apparent from the signals I was receiving that here was not the most easy going of guys, a guy who finds himself wanting to disagree with whomever his human instincts clash.  In a future post I’ll talk about the time Arthur responded to me in an all too typically paranoid evangelical way and I consequently gave him a sample of just what being strident really looks like.

Stop Press:
I was interested to note the following Tweet in relation to Arthur's post:

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