In an e-mail conversation that was interrupted by a local thunderstorm (as Calvin said to Hobbes when the dinner bell sounded, "just when I had you in the jaws of crushing logic") I was expounding on the theme of "holy exegesis" that I mentioned in an earlier blog
. That is, if language is created by God, and scripture is inspired, then every adjective, every noun must have a concrete referent. We do Scripture no favors when we spiritualize or idealize these words. For spiritualizing a perfectly usable word in order to avoid its obvious meaning has become a Post-Modern travesty far worse than the Modernist heresy of assigning the words to a later and uninspired editor. "First they came for the authors, but I said nothing because I wasn't an author; then they came for the words, but I said nothing because they weren't my words; and when they came for the soul, I said nothing because I couldn't find it."
In an earlier blog
I attempted to creep up on the definition of "holy" by denying its
opposite, which Vladimir Lossky informed me is the Platonic method of apophasis
In this blog, we're going over the top in a frontal assault, definition
by affirmation. Hopeless, of course, were it not for the fact that all
the hard work has been done by the sappers, and if we don't meet up
with them by getting the same definition, then we will know we've failed.
Now it behooves us to understand this word "holy", since Scripture uses it so often, and so much seems to depend on recognizing it. That is, we are commanded to be born holy, live holy, and die holy; we are told that we will not see God unless we are holy
. We are instructed to depend on the Holy Spirit
for guidance, and without which
we cannot understand truth, but must discern among the spirits for that which is holy
. So a cursory reading of both the Old and New Testaments would suggest that this is a very important word to understand. Especially today, when Episcopal bishops can talk about adulterous homosexual relations as "holy", we need to find a less slippery definition.
So it is quite frightening when George Barna's polling
discovered that 21% do not know what the word means. Another 19% offer the tautology of "being Christ-like" as if that helps. Here's the complete breakdown.
When pressed to describe what it means to be
holy, adults gave a wide range of answers. The most common reply was "I
don’t know," offered by one out of every five adults (21%). Other
responses fell into categories such as "being Christ-like" (19%),
making faith your top priority in life (18%), living a pure or sinless
lifestyle (12%), and having a good attitude about people and life
(10%). Other response categories included focusing completely on God
(9%), being guided by the Holy Spirit (9%), being born again (8%),
reflecting the character of God (7%), exhibiting a moral lifestyle
(5%), and accepting and practicing biblical truth (5%). Once again, the
responses of born again and non-born again adults were virtually
identical.Of the answers that have a external referent, another 18% + 10% think it is a mental attitude. Adding up these percentages then (though the questions were evidently not exclusive), we have at most 68% that either do not know or make holiness an invisible mental state, while the others have a metric. Some of those metrics are a bit fuzzy, such as "focussing on God" and "guided by the Holy Spirit", which may be mental attitudes as well, raising the percentage of gnostics to a maximum of 86%. Oppositely, we have at most 37% who insist on public actions: 12% talking about sinless behavior, 8% being born again (which we will take to be some sort of public confession), 7% reflecting God, 5% acting moral, and 5% practicing truth.
What then does "holy" mean, an attitude, an action? If it is one of those two, then how can Zechariah prophesy
that even the pots and pans will have inscribed "Holy to the Lord"; can a pot think, or a pan act? We turn for some advice to Webster's Unabridged (1996), and find this definition:
ho-ly, adj. 1. specially recognized as or declared sacred by religious use or authority; consecrated. 2. dedicated or devoted to the service of God, the church or religion. 3. saintly; godly; pious; devout. 4. having a spiritually pure quality. 5. entitled to worship or veneration as or as if sacred. 6. religious. 7. inspiring fear, awe, or grave distress. 8. a place of worship;
Note that not one of these definitions is either an attitude or an action. Rather they are an attribute or possession either placed upon or inherent within the object. In several of the definitions there is a connection to an act of worship surrounding the object. It's a huge disconnect. Webster's is supposed to tell us how the word is used, and when Barna takes a poll, he gets ten definitions that are not included in Webster's eight! Either the English language is galloping along faster than dictionaries can keep up, or there is some peculiar property of this word that resists definition and results in bad polls. Now if we took dictionaries from every decade back to 1900, I don't think we would see much change in the definition, which would suggest that it isn't Webster's fault, there's something peculiar about the word.
One more aspect of the peculiarity, is the use of "sacred" in the first definition, which itself is defined:
sa-cred adj. 1. devoted or dedicated to a deity or to some religious purpose; consecrated. 2. entitled to veneration or religous respect by association with divinity or divine things; holy.
It is a tight loop that has only two members, it is highly self-referential. What it tells us is that this word-family is defined very precisely, it doesn't fuzz out into different "language games", it has a hard, definite meaning, but one without easy referents. In other words, like the Supreme Court definition of pornography--"I know it when I see it"--the word lacks verbal support because it is a direct, non-verbal experience; it is sharp around the edges because it describes is highly contrasting black/white, immediate reaction.
Well, what is this reaction? The two Webster's definitions help us out: it's worship, which is the presence of God. Now the two aren't synonymous, since the presence of God produces only fear in those who are rejecting Him, but with the assumption that we are talking about believers, presence implies worship.
But isn't worship an attitude or an action, which was the rejected definition? Yes, it is both, but holy is not worship, holy is about the presence of God, which inspires worship. Hence, holy things are used in worship, dedicated to worship, specially prepared for worship. And since worship demands belief (a highly subjective response), Webster's finds it hard to phrase an "objective" definition.
Now wait a minute. we started out with the question how a person can be
holy; so how can the subject of worship also be the object of worship? Easy, by channelling (imitating, practicing, reflecting) the presence of God. If Barna can't find people who have ever met a holy man, it is not because they do not know what holy means, but rather that they instinctively know, and know they haven't met one.
Well, have we solved this silly exercise in words? Not exactly, because now the commandments of God have become a peculiar tautology. Is it true that "to be holy" means "to be part of the thing that one worships?" For if "holy" means "the presence of God", then the command to "be holy for I am holy
" becomes a tangled web of self-references. Either it means nothing--"without being in the presence of God, one cannot be in the presence of God"--or it sounds as if one is worshipping the self, some sort of Nietzschean solipsism. Yet neither solution has that other-worldly experience that makes "holy" so real and universal, that sensation that sends tingles up the spine. There is something about the holy that is outside ourselves, but demands our response. It is both objective and subjective. It is both universal and personal. It is recursive.
I have blogged a lot about this concept, and its significance for today, so I'll put in some links in this brief survey of the field. I first became aware of the concept by reading Douglas Hofstadter's 1978 book "Goedel, Escher, Bach"
, which were it not so long, I would urge everyone to read. His three title characters employed recursion in logic, art, and music to great effect, which was underappreciated in their lifetime. Kurt Goedel demonstrated the impossibility of Russell's program to reduce all of life to logic, removing the metaphysical foundation of both Modernism and Math. My seminary prof and Math PhD, Vern Poythress explains
why this makes Math just as much a religious enterprise as Ethics, despite a very common perception that Math is the most pure science of life (eg. John Derbyshire
That is, recursion has the divine ability to combat hubris, whether it be in Math, in Music, in Art or wherever it is found. In electronics, recursion is called feedback, and feedback introduces (in)stabilities that did not previously exist in a feed-forward system. In computing, Von Neumann demonstrated that recursion makes the output of an algorithm completely unpredictable. In literature, recursion is an essential component of myth. In politics
, recursion is the way in which the candidate becomes the people; it is the way the conservative
avoids the reactionary; the way the liberal defines himself. In linguistics
or philosophy, recursion is built into
the very brain. In every sphere of life
, recursion is the step after grammar, between logic and rhetoric, after learning the rules but between mastering and playing the rules.
With that insight, I began to employ this tool on Bible exegesis, beginning with the book of Job.
So much did I learn, that I began to suspect I had found Thor's hammer, or the Holy Grail. Genesis 1 & 2 takes on a whole new meaning
with recursion (and may even unite the three strands
of orthodox interpretation). Even the book of Ecclesiastes is showing some signs of cracking
with that hammer. But powerful tools are capable of even greater destruction, and as I began my long analysis of Post-Modernism
, I discovered that what gave deconstruction its mortal danger was recursion, what gave Nietzsche his popularity was recursion, what gave polytheism its power to (economically
& spiritually) enslave most of the world's population was recursion. Recursion is the siren song
of liberal theology
So whether we like it or not, recursion will be with us in this Post-Modern Century, and in the sphere of religion, (which subsumes all the rest), it is called the holy.
The Holy and the Profane
As we discussed above, PoMo uses recursion as well, but is polytheistic, unholy, or profane. So the simple use of recursion does not make something holy, it merely elevates above the plain, the straightforward, the ordinary. The difference is between legitimate and illegitimate recursion. Bertrand Russell, that arch-enemy of Christianity gives us two illustrative examples.
Once Russell was explaining that a logical argument doesn't break down if it assumes a false premise, but rather, it becomes too successful, proving anything. A colleague said "Okay, prove that you're the Pope." Russell replied, "Let us suppose that 2=1, and that the Pope and I are in the same room. But since 2=1, there is only one person in the room, so I must be the Pope." In making this argument, Russell is deriving its silliness by illegitimate recursion, as well as illustrating the dangers of false premises.
But Russell was also aware that recursion damaged his program of basing all language and science on foundation of logic. He gave the example of a certain village in which the barber shaved all the villagers who didn't shave themselves. Then he posed the question "Who shaved the barber?" For with recursion, language can go places that logic cannot, so it would appear that logic is a subset of language, destroying Russell's plan to eliminate metaphysics and religion from language by demanding logic.
Russell solved this paradox by outlawing recursive constructions, thereby making himself the arbitrary ruler of logic. But alas, he used language to define logic, and cannot therefore mistakenly conclude that logic defines language! For if he does, then he is not just the Pope, he is God, which is why Kurt Goedel methodically takes him apart on this. For when we base a recursive rule upon ourselves, we have assumed the mantle of divinity.
As a parent, there is nothing wrong with wearing this mantle with our children who ask "Why?" too many times--"Just because I said so!" But there is something deeply disturbing about generalizing this selfishness to all of logic or science. For if science is defined to be "what scientists do", then we have made them gods over their universal domain. If laws are defined as what legislatures do, then hang on to your wallet. If logic is defined as what logicians do, we are in deep trouble with the jury. For just as an operational amplifier can be wired for positive feedback or negative feedback, recursion can create wild instability or rock-solid stability depending on its validity. This then, is the difference between the holy and the profane, the first is a valid recursion while the second an invalid one. And this was the point Poythress makes about Math
, invalid recursion stalls progress, generates paradoxes, and sets up false idols.
I'm reminded of my brother-in-law's patent that enabled cheap flat-panel TV's. As a graduate student, he discovered a way to melt silicon on glass to make a thin layer of crystal-grade (epitaxial) silicon that is the starting point for the transistors that turn the pixels on and off. If even one of those transistors were to fail, a black pixel would appear in the screen. But even a small screen had 1000 x 1000 = million pixels, meaning that reliability had to be 99.999%. But the slightest crystal defect in the silicon would short out the transistor, so in the early days of flat-panels, dozens were discarded for every usable screen, making them very expensive. His invention was a way to melt the silicon and "move" all the defects into "lanes" away from the site of the future transistors. Reliability went up, prices came down, and he's had a busy career ever since.
In the same way, when we, like Russell, make an invalid recursion, we create a defect in our thinking, in our personality, in our culture that hinders our progress. Suppose, for example, that I teach a Darwinian survival at my family table, founding my behavior on my selfish indulgence by insisting that the oldest and biggest eat first. The smallest are left to starve or eat scraps, causing protein deficiency (kwashiorkor
), and mental retardation. Soon, my children will be surpassed by those families who teach better table manners, and the bad meme will die out. Alternatively, my children learn to steal food at a young age, and become the village outcasts, considered uncivil defective progeny of a bad father who will never admit his selfishness. Like the crystal defects, the problems are moved away from my table, away from my guilt, to become a barrier between families. As the village expands and grows, two tribes spring up where before there was one. And this difference may become wider with time, even passing into the mists of tradition where religion is born. The defects migrate to the edges, where they separate tribes, and instigate wars. What began as bad recursion, grows into a social chasm, and ends as polytheism. Polytheism is the natural result of collecting mental and social inconsistencies into a more manageable structural inconsistency. PoMo is the natural consequence of the profane, of guilt management, of sin.
In direct contrast to the profane, holiness is the valid recursion, the ethics that derives from one God who alone is the self-consistent I AM. It is the repudiation of all false recursion, the acceptance of the One, the True, the Beginning and the End.
In an earlier blog
I have said there are three things that are inherently recursive, inherently holy: God, Man and Language. Poythress makes the claim that Math and Science make no sense unless they are founded on God, so in one sense these are also aspects of the presence of God and therefore holy, but I would claim that it is possible to define Math without using Math, or to define Science without using Science. They can be formally constructed without recursion. But to define Man without talking like a Man is impossible. To define language without using language is not possible. And to define God without God's revelation is impossible (even with Platonic apophasis!)
Now God's relationship to Man is the definition of worship, of religion, whereas God's relationship to language is the definition of science, of philosophy. Webster's says that "holy" derives from the first relationship, and Poythress suggests "truth" derives from the second. But what is the relationship of Man with language? How does Man interact with the Word? In seminary they call this topic "exegesis", and so in the next blog we'll take up the subject of recursive techniques in holy exegesis.