The Origin of Language and the Nature of Salvation

The theory of Noam Chomsky and of René Girard set forth a different focus on the origin of human language, with Chomsky focused on the necessary preexistence of a “language module” (a black box containing the capacity for language) and Girard focused on mimetic rivalry, and through the scapegoat the rise of a symbolic and sacred order. For Girard the capacity for language would be driven through the need or circumstance in which symbolization resolves or suspends generalized violence, while for Chomsky the leap to language and symbolization requires an already existing innate capacity. For Girard, the societal need would give rise to the capacity, which should be traceable through its unfolding grammatical impact, but (as discovered in the wake of Chomsky) syntactic complexity is equal across all known languages and there is no residual sign within language of an evolving capacity or complexity. There are no “primitive” languages, which supports (though not decisively) Chomsky’s picture of an already existing capacity necessary to language. This may be a long way around to posing the question of whether, with Girard, we can trace the origins of language to its implication in violence, or whether as with Chomsky, there is no determined origin for language, violent or otherwise? Are humans always negotiating the problem of violence as part of what it means to speak, or is violence subsequent to and not a necessary part of human language?

 In theological terms, are humans stuck in a violent metaphysics because their language fosters this singular orientation? Are we so steeped in a meaning derived from violence, whether conscious or unconscious, that there is no conceptual ground from which to make out or discern an alternative? Or can Girard be supplemented with Chomsky so that, as in the biblical depiction, humans begin with an uncorrupted capacity for language which is corrupted by what is done with this capacity.

 In Anthony Bartlett’s depiction, Girard’s theory of mimetic rivalry and the discovery of the scapegoating mechanism, are a necessary step in evolutionary development,[1] which would seem to be on the order of Hegel’s depiction of the necessity of the fall for cognition or the Calvinist notion that sin and evil are a necessary step in salvation. The nearest equivalent is Lacanian psychoanalysis which attaches human personhood to a primordial but necessary lie. Is Girard’s depiction of human deception, in mimetic rivalry and the scapegoat mechanism, a necessary step in human evolution or a misstep in human de-evolution? It is a question that Bartlett makes worthwhile, but even his own cumulative evidence points to a more nuanced Chomsky-like biblical depiction. In fact, his book can be read as giving clearer support to this slightly different premise.

 Either way, revelation would necessarily entail a radical departure and breaking in, and to the degree that theology has girded itself with a Greek philosophical understanding it has a hidden and necessary violence at its origins. This is the charge Bartlett levels at the Thomistic understanding of God (along with Anselm or any theology which would employ Greek philosophical thought). As first cause of everything (being), according to Bartlett, “God here reinforces a hierarchical order of origin, authority, and, necessarily, violence.”[2] Only the unadulterated Word intervenes so as to foster transformation beyond scapegoating and violence, and it is only the cross which brings about this semiotic transformation (an alternative meaning with an alternative center).  In Bartlett’s description, the concept of god carries the metaphysical baggage of violence (with all this entails in terms of religion and human institutions), while the God of revelation infiltrates and challenges this conception.

Bartlett lines up the linguistic turn in 20th century thought to make the case that semiotics, or the study of signs, reveals a dependence on negation, otherness, absence, or nothingness, which is inherent to the sign system. The theory of Ferdinand de Saussure, Jacques Derrida, Martin Heidegger, and John Deely, converge on the notion that “being,” which cannot be posited apart from its apprehension in language, already contains the antagonistic otherness of the sign. There is no being apart from its sign, and the sign contains or sets forth meaning in its separateness from the biological world. Both being and the sign refer to an extended, infinite, otherness. “The world itself is the ‘other,’ rendered present in a sign, yet strange, infinite, congenitally open itself, by virtue of the mysterious, ‘nihilating’ event of the sacred.”[3] In Girard’s terms, the original murder is hidden in the sign as that which is negated and this compelling emptiness or otherness requires another sign, so that the signifying chain covers over the original absence (murder), as in Derrida’s “deferral” of meaning (to define one word requires a multiplicity of words – ad infinitum), or Heidegger’s and Hegel’s nothingness (the other over and against which all else, something, derives its meaning). The conclusion: to imagine God on the basis of the sign of being is to project violent mimetic desire and sacrifice onto God.  

The question is whether Bartlett’s notion of the origin of language actually fits his Girardian reading of the Old Testament, or does it fit better with Chomsky’s model combined with Girard and a more traditional reading of Genesis. Is there room in violently determined language for the understanding that the Old Testament already fosters, in part and in shadows, the understanding culminating in Christ (e.g., in the story of Joseph and his brothers, in the depiction of Solomon’s wisdom)? Bartlett pictures the creation account in Genesis as containing an original peace which stands in contrast to other creation myths and he quotes from the prophetic tradition depicting the revelation of God as completely over and against human understanding. As he puts it, “How could the experience of violent mimetic crisis leading to sacrifice give any authentic sense of the God who said, ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’ (Isa 55:9).”[4] The question is, how can God’s voice break through to his human prophetic vessels? If, in the words of Giambattista Vico, the world of human beings, including their deployment of signs, is made by human beings, then what room for the voice of God in human language.

A differently nuanced understanding, which would accommodate both Girard and Chomsky, is to picture the human predicament, not as endemic to the origins of language, but concerning, rather, the orientation to language. The biblical picture poses the possibility of an original image or an original language untainted by violence (an image we can see in every child). The original connection to nature and to God, however one might read Genesis, points to something other than a total incapacity or a total lack of access to reality. This fits what we find in both people and the Bible. Humans are inherently capable, no matter their race, religion, or place of origin, of developing deep and abiding insights about reality, though they are still given over to violence and the world of unreality indicated by Girard. The biblical nuance is of a capacity that is obscured by assigning to language (the knowledge of good and evil) an inherent capacity for the divine (for being like God and escaping death) that displaces God. But what the biblical picture (aligned with both Chomsky and Girard) allows for and points toward is human agency (self-deception) at work in the deception and displacement.  

Bartlett’s theory, like the notion of total depravity, considers human understanding tainted at its source. In turn, what God has brought about is not simply a reorientation to or within language but a whole new mode of code making. “If there is a God and this God cares for the world, then it is by changing the actual root dynamic of our codes that God intends to save us.”[5] If he means by this that the orientation to law and language, and not language and law per se, are the root problem from which we are saved, this is a deep insight that accords with the New Testament. But if he means that language per se is the problem, one wonders if this fits his own semiotic picture of meaning as something which arises between signs (within language) as part of the dynamic of language.

As both Saussure and Claude Lévi-Strauss conclude, it is not the signs or the terms themselves, but the relationship between terms which bear meaning. This moveable or transposable middle (between terms) allows for meaning in the opening to the possibility of a lie. Both possibilities arise as there is no necessity, biological or ontological, in the arbitrary sounds or signs that make up language. There is an arbitrariness to language and human culture which is “inevitably” codified into laws, which make the arbitrary “essential” to the culture and to what it means to be human. The big lie is to imagine this arbitrary and ever dynamic sign system can be frozen into law and made to serve as an unchanging stairway to heaven. The biblical depiction of a stone tower reaching to the heavens captures the notion of language set in stone as the avenue to God and life. It is not a problem that people speak, make laws, and build towers, it is that they imagine their arbitrary and limited understanding is of eternal, life-giving significance.

 Lévi-Strauss applied Saussure’s insight to kinship relations, to indicate that what was important was not any specific relationship but pairs of relationships or oppositional pairs which control other pairs in endless correlations and inversions. For example, a familiar relationship between father and son was paralleled by a rigid taboo between brother and sister; or this could be inverted among a different people with a close relationship between brother and sister and a rigid one between father and son. As Lévi-Strauss explains, “A kinship system does not consist in the objective ties of descent or consanguinity between individuals. It exists only in human consciousness; it is an arbitrary system of representations, not the spontaneous development of a real situation.”[6] Yet, by definition the arbitrary kinship system of a particular culture is protected by sacred immovable boundaries definitive of a people and equated with what it means to be human.

 In biblical terms, the problem is not a particular law or set of laws, but the problem arises when these laws are equated with sacred boundaries marking off life and death or “we the people” from the surrounding non-people. These laws, by their very nature, were subject to being inverted and subverted among other people or tribes. This arbitrariness and human origin of law is a continuous refrain among a segment of the prophets. The laws regarding sacrifice, marriage (polygamy, divorce), food laws, or the code surrounding the Temple and its priests, are pronounced non-essential in this minority report. “For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice, and in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.  But like Adam they have transgressed the covenant; There they have dealt treacherously against Me” (Ho 6:6-7). The covenant concerns a loyalty and knowledge which cannot be codified, and the failure to keep covenant involves mistaking the arbitrary for the essential and losing what is essential.

Bartlett develops this semiotic nature of language, or the relation between terms, as key to his understanding of the work of Christ. In a meditation on John, the book of signs, he demonstrates that Christ reconstitutes the human sign system by emptying it of violence. This culminates in his intervention into the sign or taboo of consuming human flesh and blood. “The primitive semiotic boundaries against eating human flesh and drinking blood could only be undone by a revolution in human and theological meaning, when a particular flesh and blood became an event of absolute nonviolence and peace.”[7] The shift from a sacrificial system which would feed God (human flesh, animal flesh, etc.) to one in which God is the food, marks the ultimate intervention into human prohibitions. The point is to overturn a fixed, law-bound meaning attached to violence and to open a semiotic register free from violence. “’Eating and drinking Jesus’ are signs then of an entirely new semiosis and anthropology, and it is only by meditating continually on the total collapse of the old human way that they are saved from being simply an outrage.”[8] As Bartlett points out, this was quickly returned to the sacrificial form of sacred by Anselm and a major portion of the Western church, so that the gospel is veiled. (This veiling seems to fit with a truth that was not an impossibility, which Paul describes as veiled by the law, but which is permanently unveiled by Christ (2 Cor 3:14).)

In conclusion, Bartlett explains the work of God is to bring about a semiotic shift, “Because human meaning is constructed originally out of violence, its inversion and subversion in the nonviolence of the cross constructs at once a new fundamental relation and, therewith, a completely new possible universe.”[9] This conclusion does not make allowance for human agency as portrayed in the OT (indicated in the arbitrariness demonstrated in language and culture) and it assigns a necessary role to violence in the development of meaning and language. I would question whether Bartlett requires this origin story for the key part of his argument. One could concur with the latter half of his statement (which includes most of the argument of his book), that it is the inversion and subversion, a necessary possibility within language, which Christ enacts in his incarnation. Perhaps this is not “a completely new possible universe” but the completion of creation realigned with its foreordained purpose found in the original Logos.

To state it plainly, Girard’s theory still holds in my understanding, but not omni-competently (an explanation of everything) so that it may describe universal historical developments which are not tied to syntactic or semiotic evolution (an explanation for language) but to a universal human failure overturned by Christ.


[1] Anthony Bartlett, Theology Beyond Metaphysics: Transformative Semiotics of René Girard (Cascade Books, 2020). I have to thank Tim, again, for the gift of this fine book. Bartlett unifies and makes accessible the turn to semiotics as itself a significant theological indicator. So, this initial critique is in no way a dismissal of the book or even the theory Bartlett is setting forth, but I think the theory needs slight revision.

[2] Ibid. 91

[3] Ibid. 97.

[4] Ibid. 98

[5] Ibid. 129

[6] Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, 50. Quoted in Bartlett, 35.

[7] Ibid. 171

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid. 162

The Semiotics of Church

In Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus, Plato presumes writing is a step removed from meaning in that the memory and mind of the reader are disengaged and that the sign system, the dead letter, absorbs the living word of speech. Plato notes that writing is offered as a remedy (a pharmakon) by the Egyptian god of writing but the word contains a warning in its three possible meanings: remedy, poison, and scapegoat. Perhaps in the pharmakon reside the very origins of meaning with the remedy to the poison summed up in the scapegoat (the problem of violence overcome in scapegoating violence). Plato privileges speech over writing, but Derrida notes that Socrates would counteract the pharmakon of writing with the knowledge “graven in the soul.” In other words, Socrates is offering another pharmakon to counteract the pharmakon and he can do this as poison and its cure are always contained in the sign system – whether of writing or speech. Meaning arises in this medium of signs through what Derrida calls différance, in that the play of the differences (soul/ body, good/ evil, inside/ outside, memory/ forgetfulness, speech/ writing, etc.) playing off of one another, not simply as opposites but as a point of comparison, is the resource of the dialectics of meaning.

René Girard, in appreciation of Derrida’s analysis, connects the pharmakon to a prior original violence (the scapegoat, like the pharmakon, contains both the poison of violence and the cure). The surrogate victim or scapegoat symbolically bears all the weight of evil (the chaos of total violence) and its cure – the sacred – in which the victim becomes the god. According to Girard, the invocation of the sign of this event – the original signification – opens up the symbolic space giving rise to human language and society.

To describe the process in biblical terms is to posit an even more ancient origin, prior to Derrida’s identity through difference and Girard’s scapegoating mechanism, or prior to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and prior to the first murder and the first city. Two signs and two symbolic orders are represented by two trees in the Garden of Eden. The first tree contains life as the sign of God’s presence. It is under the sign of this tree that the ordering and naming activity of Adam, in what is sometimes described as the role of co-creator, is carried out. In this differentiating there is not an identity through a violent difference, as all difference (male/female, and the difference of the creatures from one another) are part of a unity of life and creation.

One can project forward and recognize unity, nonviolence, peace, and love are part of this original creative Logos (the semiotics of Adam) restored in the church. That is, the semiotics of the Logos will bring about an end to meaning built upon difference (light/dark, life/death, Jew/Gentile, etc.). The sign of the tree of life restored in the future kingdom brings about a unified humanity – “the healing of the nations.” The curse of death and violence are undone under the sign of this tree (Revelation 22:3-4). In Paul’s depiction, this unified humanity is represented by Jew/Gentile unity which comes about in a new mode of doing identity in the church. No longer do the binaries of Jew/Gentile, slave/free/, or male/female serve as a mode of doing identity through difference, but in the church, there is unity that contains these differences (as in the first and final appearance of the tree of life).

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil, as Derrida noted, is the original sign of the semiotic order of identity through difference. This system of signs is deadly in that it becomes its own origin of meaning, the first foundationalism, which cuts off from the meaning contained in the semiotics of life. Here in the biblical picture, as Girard recognizes, there is a sign system of death in which the first city arises from the original murder (Cain kills Abel and founds a city). The cultures of death are built upon a meaning and power of death established through violent and sacred difference – sacrifice or founding murder.

The understanding that culture is built upon a founding murder and that Christ reverses this order, is inclusive of a new order of meaning – a semiotics of life. I believe this provides the proper context for understanding Paul’s conviction that apparent dualisms (former modes of doing identity) such as death and life, present and future, height and depth, are no longer able to separate us from the love of God (Ro 8:38). Life has overcome death, Christ has filled the heights and depths (Eph 3:17), and time itself is now intersected by the eternal one. These things, taken as the foundation of an order of meaning, did indeed separate from God. Now, in Christ, they are taken up in a new order which comprehends or encompasses these differences and fills them with a love which surpasses this knowledge (Eph 3:17-19).

This is an order of meaning which confounds “the rulers of this age,” as they cannot understand it. It was, after all, in their own wisdom, their own order of meaning, that they “crucified the Lord of glory” (I Cor 2:8). As Louis Berkhof has described it, the crucifixion exposes the deception behind what was presumed to be ultimate reality. The scribes were assured that the law necessitated his death; the priests crucified him to honor the temple, and the Pharisees crucified him in the name of piety. “Pilate, representing Roman justice and law, shows what these are worth when called upon to do justice to the Truth Himself.  Obviously, ‘none of the rulers of this age,’ who let themselves be worshiped as divinities, understood God’s wisdom, ‘for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory (1 Cor 2:8).” With the crucifixion this false order of meaning is unmasked (unmasked as false absolutes and false deities) through their encounter with the Truth; they are made a public spectacle. The power of his resurrection defeats the “rule and authority, power and dominion,” of these rulers as they depended upon the power of death which he has defeated (Eph 1:20-21). Resurrection is inclusive of a new order of meaning no longer bound by the identity through difference, the lie or false wisdom which killed him.

This is why, for Paul, grace works in and through truth, as it is defeating the obstacle of meaning founded upon a lie (Col 1:6). Paul refers to this lie as “empty deceit,” which may be articulated through “philosophy” or “human traditions” (Col 2:8). These meaning systems, deployed by “the principalities and powers,” are coercive – passing judgment in regards to time (new moons and sabbaths), in regard to food and drink, through “elemental principles,” ordering life through a perishable order of meaning (Col 2:16-17).  The principles and wisdom of this world are the means by which rulers, the authorities, and the powers of this dark world, exercise their power. Theirs is a power for darkness in the two-fold sense that it obscures the truth through a lie and it deals in the darkness of death. Christ has blotted out this hostile semiotics (“handwriting of ordinances” in the KJV) which “was against us, which was contrary to us.”  “He has taken” all of this “out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” and simultaneously “He disarmed the rulers and authorities” and “made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through the cross” (Col 2:15).

Summing up Paul’s notion of the principalities and powers, operating according to a failed wisdom, a deceived philosophy, a disobedient world order ruled over by a spirit of disobedience (Eph 2:1-2), this amounts to a semiotics of death. The logic and wisdom of this world are challenged by “the manifold wisdom of God” and this wisdom, through the Church, is “made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms” (Eph 3:10). The witness of the church to this alternative order of meaning continues to unmask the quasi-divine authority of those structures – those world powers, those realms of religious and ethical rules and rulers, those orders of thought that deal in oppression and death. Christ has unmasked those powers and the church (where it is truly the church) ensures, through its alternative order of meaning, that the exposure continues.1


[1] Thank you to Tim who gifted me with the book that sparked this line of thought – though I am still working through it: Virtual Christian by Anthony W. Bartlett.