Lessl_Definition - Toward a Definition of Religious...

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Unformatted text preview: Toward a Definition of Religious Communication: Scientific and Religious Uses of Evolution Thomas M. Lessl Abstract This essay identifies three cn'terio that can be used to distinguish religious and non‘religious uses of communication. Religious com~ munication ( 1) is metaphorical. (2) irreducible to any nonfigurotive form ofexpression, and (3) identifies metaphysical referents that can be apprehended but not defined. This definition ofreligious expression demonstrates how scientific and religious uses of evolutionary met- aphor can be difl'erentiated. The tendency of public varieties of scientific communication to deal in the currencies of religious symbolism is noted frequently by scholars who work in the area of scientific rhetoric. Observing this in his earliest work, for instance, John Angus Campbell (“Polemical Mr. Darwin") concludes that the use of creationist metaphors in Darwin’s Origin of Species. represents the strategy of a cautious rhetorician to ameliorate the potentially devastating effects of a radically materialistic hypothesis. In a theoretically more elaborate follow up to this effort. Campbell ("Scientific Revolution”) concludes that the intermin— gling of religious and scientific symbols in Darwin’s expositions on natural selection have a complex significance. Campbell also contends that Darwin‘s use of religious symbolism indicates the extent to which scientific culture intemalizes a “religious granunar” that is the consequence of its close historical associations with natural theology. Lessl (“Science and the Sacred Cosmos”; "Priestly Voice"; "Francis Bacon") and Toulmin make similar observations of the tendency toward religiosity in scientific symbolization. While the foregoing body of research identifies and at least partially explains the persistence of religious ideas in scientific discourse, it also presupposes a definition of religious conununication that has not been articulated. This paper directly examines this problem of definition and shows why it should be a concern for those who study both religious and scientific communication. For students of scientific communication the persistent mingling of religious symbols with scientific ones raises questions about the persuasive role that the cultural grammar of religion continues to play in secular arenas. For those with more general interests in religious public address, this phenomenon raises important questions about what features distinguish religious communication from other forms of expression. Ordinary thinking about this seems to presume that: first. religious speech is something that religious people do (professional clergy, evangelists. rabbis and the like). and second. religion is expressed as doctrine or belief. But what can be observed in popular scientific discourse indicates 127 128 THE JOURNAL OF COMMUNICATION AND RELIGION that religious speech represents a specialized kind of symbolic transformation that may occur in any sector of the public marketplace. My purpose is to develop a definition that is adaptable enough to identify religious meaning in any discursive context. My operating assumption is that the term “religion” describes a particular way of making meaning. Thus. a linguistic or. more specifically. a semiotic analysis is capable of pinpointing its essentials. My essay outlines three features of religious meaning: (1) the expression through what semioticians call secondary signification or metaphor, (2) the irreducibility of these metaphors to any literal form of expression, and (3) the connotations of a metaphysical reality beyond ordinary experience. The Metaphoric Features of Religious Discourse The metaphoric features of religious speech are explained by means of Roland Barthes' (109—159) semiotic model, which accounts for what occurs when ordinary literal meanings are transformed into the figurative ones he calls “second-order significations. "1 A "literal" meaning. or first-order signification. occurs whenever two objects are related to one another in such a way that one signifies the other. In the vocabulary of semiotics. when any object, whether a word. gesture. or material article expresses the meaning of a second object, the first is called a signifier. The second object. which the first stands in for, is called its signified. Together. the associative totality of meaning that arises from this relationship is called a Sign. To illustrate this one might imagine that a woman is shopping for a greeting card and runs across one that displays on its cover a simple drawing of a lamb. To the extent that the woman recognizes the representational aspect of this signifier—the drawing itself—she will have become aware of its signified, that is. the subject that the drawing brings to her attention, namely a lamb. The global product, the whole experience of thought that occurs in the instantaneous association of signifier and signified, comprises a linguistic sign—the first order of signification. At this first level, the sign has nothing to do with religion. but it is likely that the sign—the unified meaning of drawing and lamb together—may itself become a signifier for something that is religious. Thus, at the very moment that the woman recognizes that the drawing is of a lamb, she may also infer that this greeting card signifies the Christian feast of Easter. In doing so. she moves beyond the first order of signification to the second in which the first sign, the unity of the drawing and the lamb that it signifies, acts as a signifier for something else. The woman at this point still recognizes that the drawing signifies a lamb, but she also recognizes another level of meaning. She thinks of Christ as he was proclaimed by John the Baptist: "the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world" (John 1:29). If she infers this meaning from the card she is thinking metaphorically. The previous sign becomes the signifier for what Barthes calls a second-order semiological system. The lamb. both drawing and subject together as a sign. now refers as a metaphor to the sacrificial meaning of the crucifixion in Christian theology. TOWARD A DEFINITION OF RELIGIOUS COMMUNICATION 129 Along the lines of the visual representation used by Barthes to show sig- nification (115). the relationship between first- and second-order significations can be seen in Figures A and B below. In Figure A the semiological components of the first order of signification appear in boxes 1. 2, and 3. The signifier is the drawing (1), the signified is a lamb (2), and the sign (3) is the unity of drawing and subject. Figure A. Linguistic Sign 3. Sign (a drawing of a lamb) When the perceiver interprets the image on the card metaphorically. as shown in Figure B, the ordinary linguistic sign (3) becomes the signifier (I) in a metaphorical sign that is built upon it. Figure B. Linguistic Sign 3. Sign Metaphoric (a drawing of a lamb) "- (ELEEELED sign I. SIGNIFIER S _ avror) (a drawing of a lamb) llI. SIGN (Christ as the lamb of God) The simpler language system. (1. 2, and 3) becomes the foundation for the secondary metaphorical system of (I. II. and III). In this process the simple verbal sign becomes the signifier for a vastly more complex theological referent. What was the sign (3) in the linguistic system—the lamb that is just a lamb on a greeting card—becomes in the metaphoric system the signifier (I) for Christ as Savior (II). The entirety of the Christian church's teachings on the meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection is drawn into the resulting metaphorical sign. Once this shift is made from sign to signifier, the meaning of the lamb as an 130 THE JOURNAL OF COMMUNICATION AND RELIGION animal falls into the background. Since this language is no longer the focus of thought, but only the means through which a new Christological meaning is accomplished, it is now merely a form and ceases to be the central meaning of the drawing (Barthes 117). The perceiver's focus of thought is no longer on the animal but on various prophetic topologies in the Hebrew scriptures: Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of lsaac. the Passover feast on the eve of the Egyptian exodus, and Isaiah's prophecies of the suffering servant. The per- ceivers's scope of meaning was limited when the lamb was just a lamb, now the perceiver is capable of constructing numerous theological implications. Barthes' model shows how one level of signification becomes the basis for another through metaphor. Tins observation by itself offers only part of what is necessary for distinguishing religious and nonreligious discourses. Many examples of second-order signification do not have religious meaning, yet all religious discourses are marked by metaphor in the sense described above. Thus metaphor is necessary but is not a sufficient constituent of religious communication. Two additional features must be identifiable in a discourse before one can ascribe religious value to it. The Irreducibility of Religious Metaphor The second feature of religious symbolism is its irreducibility to any literal form of expression (Burgess 3554366; Lewis 135—158: Sosicice 9345). The irreducible metaphor loses its apparent meaning in any effort to substitute for it a subset of literal alternatives. If a person uses the word “lamb” as a metaphor but not as a religious metaphor. its meaning may be reducible. For instance, while the word “lambs” is obviously metaphorical in the phrase “children are lambs," a person can express this sense of the term in a literal way. Perceivers lose little of its denotative meaning by saying that "children are innocent and trusting." But such is not the case when the word "lamb" is used in its Chris- tological sense. Alternative terms can be found within the Christian tradition that express the components of meaning conveyed by the word “lamb.” but these alternatives. terms such as "purity." "sacrifice" "atonement," are also metaphors and also irreducible. The criterion of irreducibility excludes a considerable number of metaphors from the field of religious symbolism. but countless metaphors satisfy this criterion without being religious. Metaphors are irreducible when their signified does not have strictly ostensible properties that a person can reference. The person trying to explain the meaning of Sigmund Freud's term “repression” (259—265) can only resort to imagery similar to what already is implicit in this term. the idea of “pressing back" or "hiding." Because Freud deals with inward experience. which is never ostensible, his terms are no more capable of literal expression than the Bible's references to “living water. " But neither are they religious. TOWARD A DEFINITION OF RELIGIOUS COMMUNICATION 131 The Metaphysical Connotations of Religious Metaphor Only a third component of religious metaphor. its metaphysical connotations, fully distinguish it from its irreducible scientific counterparts. Freud's psycho- analytical metaphors make complete sense without supposing that what they signify lies beyond nature. Despite the charge of mysticism that is sometimes made against depth psychology, Freudian repression presumably refers to a natural transaction between the conscious and unconscious minds. Although this transaction is not visible, perceivers take it to be nonreligious because natural causes can account for it. By contrast, the Bible’s metaphor of “living water" can only have a metaphysical referent, one capable of being apprehended but not described. The Bible's language, to borrow a helpful distinction artic- ulated by Janet Soskice, is not descriptive but still referential (145—61). “Thus when Christians say that ‘God is spirit' they are not." as positivists suggest, “giving a description of God, nor is the sense of their statement to be had by taking a definition of ‘spirit’ and applying it tout court, to God as an instantiating case" (153). The phrase ‘God is spirit' “denominates rather than describes God. . .” (154). The signified for a religious metaphor only is capable of an interpretation consistent with its discursive context when it is presumed to lie outside the natural. Religious metaphor points to what is above or added to the real—what is most ordinarily called the supematural or sacred (Durkheim 472). Thus in the earlier example, the religious meaning of Christ’s death is not simply its natural meaning but also its supernatural significance as a substitutionary death. This can be seen in the wholly different conception of time that is attached to the second meaning but not to the first. When Paul writes of Christ (Romans 6:8) that “our old self was crucified with him,” he is clearly referring to an event that transcends its own historicity to become a part of the reader’s life. The crucifixion becomes in this rendering a supernatural death. tied to but not identical with the historical execution of Jesus of Nazareth by the Roman g0vemment. In its metaphysical significance the crucifixion is a translustorical substitution that applies to all human beings. It defies any reduction to temporal causality, and its full meaning always is shaded to some degree by mystery. Because it points to something beyond ordinary experience, it can be pointed to, but it can never be fully comprehended (Schwartz 91). The signified in religious communication always has some transcendent on- tological grounding. Consequently, the person who tries to give a natural in- terpretation to religious symbols, will wind up either thinking absurdities—as when one tries to imagine a natural referent for “living water”—or simply with a non-religious meaning that cannot make sense in the context in which the symbol occurred. Thus the lamb, used in the previous example. can become a metaphor for any number of the abstract concepts, such as "peace" or “mildness. ” that often occur in secular adaptations of religious symbolism. This meaning would make no sense out of John the Baptist's declaration (John 1:29) that Jesus is the "Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!" Only 132 THE JOURNAL OIr COMMUNICATION AND RELIGION when perceivers interpret this “Lamb” as a divine purity breaking in upon history can they begin to make sense out of John’s declaration. In summary then, religious meaning is expressed through language that has three properties: first, it is metaphoric, second, irreducible, and third, capable of sensible interpretation only when its signified is taken to lie beyond nature in a transcendent domain of the metaphysical or sacred. It is in this last sense that religious symbols always imply a sense of the obligatory. The Bible cannot speak of living water without also inviting its readers to drink; neither can the prophet Jeremiah proclaim that the righteous are like “trees planted by the water" without his hearers feeling obligated to send their roots more deeply into the soil. Evolution as Religious Metaphor Scientific symbols can satisfy the first two of the above criteria and still retain their scientific integrity, but when their meaning has been altered in such a way that they fulfill all three, they will have become religious symbols. In the next few pages, I show how this happens with evolutionary symbolism. Evolutionary thought is expressed through first- and second—order signifi~ cations without giving up any of its scientific value. When used as first-order signs. evolutionary symbols refer to the simple fact of descent with modifi- cation, a process occurring in species as the consequence of environmental pressures; organisms survive if features adaptive to their particular environ- ment are passed on to their offspring. More often, however. evolutionary symbols—especially the word “evolution” itself—have a secondary or meta- phoric signification that comes from being enlarged to represent the totality of these biological changes, the vast "unfolding" of life from simplicity to com- plexity. In this broadened sense evolution is still scientific, but as a second-order signification that draws attention to what cannot be observed, it fulfills the first two criteria of religious symbolism. There is no literal way to describe the totality of change leading up to a species as it exists today. Neither can evo~ lutionists speak factually when they use words in an effort to comprehend the development of all life from the simple prom-organisms of the infant earth to the complex wholeness of the present ecosphere. Since these phenomena are so vast and hidden as to be imperceptible, they can be grasped only through something like a "seed" analogy. No one can consider the entirety of life so conceived without imagining it to be something like the growth of an acorn into an oak tree. These seed metaphors have not yet become religious symbols. It is only in other cases where evolutionary metaphors signify what cannot be presumed to be natural that they can no longer be regarded as scientific. In these instances evolution denotes a sense of purpose and a sense of moral value in natural events. John Angus Campbell (“Polemical Mr. Darwin”; “Scientific Revolution”) observes that this is a prominent feature even in Charles Darwin's original TOWARD A DEFINITION OF RELIGIOUS COMMUNICATION [33 treatment of evolution. Darwin slips into anthropomorphism. for instance, in the following passage from his Origin of Species: It may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing. throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad. preserving and adding up what is good, silently and insensiny working, wherever and whenever opportunity ofiers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life (84). Certainly Darwin himself did not believe that natural selection was a power that consciously sought the perpetual betterment of life. yet his words invited just such an idea. The reader, who does not know the materialistic convictions of the author. can only take words such as “scrutinizing” and “preserving,” and phrases like “adding up what is good" and “working . . . at the improvement of each organic being" to suggest that nature is a conscious and moral agent. These ideas cannot be reconciled with what actually is claimed about nature in the scientific theory that Darwin proposes. Like any other religious language. their signified lies beyond material reality. While Darwin only tempts his readers to draw religious meanings. other discourses require such inferences from their audiences. An example of this process of making religious inferences appears in the evolutionary metaphors of Jesco von I’uttkamer ('2), a high ranking NASA official. who celebrated Ronald Reagan's announcement that the United States would build a permanent manned space station in this way: It is possible that man's drive to explore and expand in space is no less than a logical consequence of evolution. Of evolution which manifestly. through billions of years, has brought forth a being equipped with faculties enabling it to take this giant step from evolution’s cradle (sic). Life's expansion into space could be a major goal of evolution and to serve this goal may then be the purpose of human intelligence and its creationHtechnology . . . (2). Those who read Darwin have the option of regarding his metaphors as mere ornament. an effort to pay lip service to the more orthodox religious beliefs of his readers. but von Puttkamer’s statements do not hear such a reading. This paragraph makes no sense if the reader. by some accident of interpre- tation. tries to strip away its anthropomorphic metaphors in search of a simpler scientific meaning behind them. The metaphors in this case are the meaning. They empower von Puttkamer's effort to give a religious sanction to unlimited technological expansion by making these human endeavors...
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