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.