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