Past and Future: Connected by Speech

“The times’ great vehicle is speech. The broad river of speech over the centuries links all generations of men, and the ‘languages’ of the past still help weave our future… Speech has indeed to do with time: it survives those who speak, it bridges death, it is the carrier of the human spirit. We are all both heirs of speech and its testators. We cannot help but be.”

“Christianity is not a religion but a process in time.”
~Freya von Moltke

“Without speech man would have no time, but merely be immersed in time.”
~Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy

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We are not just in relationship with people who are alive at the same time as us. We are continuously in relationship with the people who came before us and those who will come after us. And this relationship with the past and the future is not limited to space.

I was surprised the last time I was in India, when my host, Joseph, and I visited a medieval Muslim fortress. To research the base, named Golconda, I looked it up on Wikipedia. The Wikipedia article had the name, Golconda, written in the state’s native language: Telugu. I quickly noticed how similar the letters were in the Telugu spelling to how I would spell the word in the Cambodian language: Khmer.

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The first letter, , in Khmer, gives the “G” sound, and is very similar to the Telugu letter. The second letter provides the “L” sound: in Khmer; again, very similar to the second letter in the Telugu spelling. The third letter, looking like a backward “S”, gives us the hard “C” sound: in Khmer. The last letter I recognize is the “D” sound at the end of the Telugu spelling, which is in Khmer.

Both Telugu and Khmer are descended from Sanskrit. In fact, Sanskrit was introduced into what is now Cambodia by Indians in the first and second centuries BC. Sanskrit originated in India. Or did it? A once popular theory taught that Sanskrit was brought into India, along with the caste system, by the mysterious white race called the Aryans. Hitler thought that the Germans were the true descendants of the Aryans and adopted what he considered the symbol of that “superior” race: the swastika. The swastika is actually an ancient Hindu symbol and is commonly seen on temples in India.

India is really the mother country of South East Asia. When my Indian host, Joseph, visited Thailand, he too noticed words that were the same as what he saw in India — Apsara for example: a word found in India, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, and other Buddhist nations which refers to a female water and sky spirit. The famous Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia is a Hindu temple. Hinduism was abandoned in Cambodia centuries ago and replaced with Buddhism, but both Hinduism and Buddhism came into Cambodia from India.

Hinduism itself is not a religion; it is a collection of many religions constantly changing over time. Joseph defines Hinduism in one word: chaos. The name Hindu was given to the “religion” by the British, who could not figure out any concrete way of defining it. The British got the word from the Persians. Ancient Persia stretched all the way to the Indus river, which runs west of India. Anyone living east of the Indus were called Indus (Indoos) by the Persians, giving us the word Hindu.

With language, we can draw a line all the way from Cambodia, through Thailand, and into India and beyond, not just through space, but through time as well. This line connects us all in a relationship which we can’t fully understand yet.* If the realm of space has all but been conquered in our day, then the next frontier to conquer is time. This won’t happen with time machines; it will happen with speech and language.

Tribes and Language

Our belief systems and capacity for knowledge are limited by our language. The smaller the vocabulary of a language, the less the adherents of that language are able to conceive of and develop new ideas. Like in the novel 1984 by George Orwell, the language of Newspeak is used to control the people, and this is done by decreasing the vocabulary.

“‘It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well. It isn’t only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms. After all, what justification is there for a word, which is simply the opposite of some other word? A word contains its opposite in itself. Take “good,” for instance. If you have a word like “good,” what need is there for a word like “bad”? “Ungood” will do just as well — better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of “good,” what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like “excellent” and “splendid” and all the rest of them? “Plusgood” covers the meaning or “doubleplusgood” if you want something stronger still. Of course we use those forms already, but in the final version of Newspeak there’ll be nothing else. In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words – in reality, only one word. Don’t you see the beauty of that, Winston?…'”†

I once read an article about western psychiatrists working with post-Khmer Rouge Cambodians suffering from PTSD. The main frustration of the psychiatrists was that there were no words in the Cambodian (Khmer) vocabulary which properly defined the condition the patients were suffering from. The limitations of the Khmer language prevented the patients from fully understanding what they were experiencing. [Update: Reading Steven Pinker is causing me to rethink some of these ideas.]

Languages keep tribes of people divided. You can only know what your vocabulary allows for. This doesn’t just refer to your general spoken language – like English – it refers to your definition of certain English words and concepts in comparison to how other English speakers would define those same words and concepts. In order for tribes to combine into one group, a common language, with common definitions, would have to be developed and adopted. A common language (words, beliefs, ideas) will create a common worship center as well, which is essential for a group of tribes to join.‡

Like at Babel, all the people spoke the same language, and as a result, they all worshipped the same gods and had the same philosophy of life. The division of languages not only caused confusion because they couldn’t understand each other’s words, it caused confusion also because they no longer believed the same way, or thought the same way. This didn’t all happen at once of course, but over time the different languages created greater rifts between the tribes.

Once you’re limited to the vocabulary of a certain tribe, any new ideas coming from without the tribe will first have to be translated into your own tribal language. If there are no words to express the new ideas in your tribal language, you will either outright ignore the new ideas, or the new ideas will change to fit the language of your tribe. If the new ideas are changed to fit your language, they will also change to fit your current belief system. So, even if the new idea opposes your beliefs, once translated into your language, it will work to support your beliefs. The original intent of the idea will be lost.

Two African natives, S. and K., go to the wood to gather honey. S. found four big trees full of honey, whilst K. could find only one. K. went home bewailing his ill luck, while S. had been so fortunate. Meanwhile S. had returned to the wood to bring away the honey, was attacked by a lion and torn to pieces.

The relatives of the lion’s victim at once went to the soothsayer to discover who was responsible for his death. The soothsayer consults the oracle several times and declares that K., jealous of S’s rich harvest of honey, assumed the form of a lion in order to avenge himself. The accused denied his guilt strenuously and the chieftain ordered the matter to be settled by the ordeal of poison. Matters then followed their usual course — says [a European] explorer’s account — the ordeal was unfavourable to the accused, he confessed and succumbed to torture… The accusation appears quite natural to the soothsayer who formulates it, the prince who orders the trial by ordeal, the crowd of bystanders and to K. himself who had been transformed into a lion, in fact to everybody except the European who happens to be present.

It is clear to us that K. had not actually experienced turning into a lion and tearing S. to pieces, and so at first he denied having done so. But he is confronted with an overwhelming case against himself. The interpretative framework which he shares with his accusers does not include the conception of accidental death; if a man is devoured by a lion there must be some effective reason behind it, such as the envy of a rival. This makes him an obvious suspect and when the oracle, which he has always trusted, confirms the suspicion he can no longer resist the evidence of his guilt and he confesses having turned into a lion and having devoured S. This closes the circle of the argument and confirms the magical framework in which it was conducted, and it thus enhances the powers of this framework for assimilating the next case which will come under its purview.§

Within the confines of a tribe’s language, there will be its own justice system. No matter how nonsensical it may appear to the outsider, even the accused will agree with a verdict against him as he himself holds to the same belief system as his accusers. Tribes are bound within their own circular reasoning. New ideas are not able to penetrate this reasoning from without, nor are they able to take seed and grow from within. Only the presuppositional beliefs of the tribe will survive.

In order for new ideas to form within tribes, a systemic logic must be formed to support those ideas. New ideas, all alone, presented to the tribe on a one by one basis will not take root; they will not be understood. A new idea must be built on the framework of less radical pre-existing ideas, and those built on even less radical pre-existing ideas, and so on. This is the systematic step ladder on which the new ideas can climb.

True ideas must last, and false ideas must disappear. For this to happen, ideas cannot remain vague. They must be defined and then put to the test in practical reality. If the idea stands up to the test it will remain.

I can use the practice of speaking in tongues in Charismatic churches as an example. From my observations, most Charismatics have only a vague idea of what they’re doing when speaking in tongues. There is no agreed-upon definition of what tongues truly is within the Charismatic church. Some say there are two different kinds of tongues, others say three, some say one and what modern Charismatics do today is what the disciples did in Acts 2. Some say one does not have the Holy Spirit if they don’t speak in tongues, others would disagree with that, but would say that one is a less mature Christian without tongues.

Like a tattoo or a piercing, tongues is a tribal marker. It separates Charismatics from all other Christians. It is a circular belief within Charismatic theology. In order to determine if it is a true idea or not, first it must be clearly defined within the entire Charismatic movement, then it must be practically applied to the personal lives of the members of the tribe. It will either disappear or its true purpose will be discovered. If it is a true idea and its purpose is clearly known, it will then be an idea able to pass on to other tribes as it is no longer merely a tribal marker. As long as tongues remains vague, its true nature will not be discovered, and it will remain a simple tribal marker easily rejected by non-Charismatic tribes.

The language of the Charismatic church prevents itself from discovering the true nature of tongues. In fact, tongues itself is an unintelligible “language”. Is there a vocabulary to tongues? Are there rules of grammar? If there were, the language could be translated. What can tongues say about itself? Do Charismatics speak in tongues because they have nothing to say? The same kind of problem exists in all Christian tribes, each with its own limiting ideas and customs.||

One can choose his own tribe or one can be chosen for a tribe. To choose, one must increase his vocabulary to the point where he understands a wide range of ideas. He can then choose which ideas he thinks are best for his well being. With a limited vocabulary comes a limited mind, and limited options.

“Once we teach our children English, we have already separated them from the stem of the human race and made them into Americans [or Canadians, or Britons, etc.], which is very dangerous, because it is a limitation. It is one way among many, and that is why the role of Christianity in the matter has been to warn the parents that along with making their children speak Egyptian, Latin, French or English, they have to instil into this limitation, by the Christian first name, the broader message of telling the child: ‘Yes, you may speak English, but that is not the whole story; you remain a part creature of the whole creation, despite the fact that we allow you now to march along this narrow road of Americanism.'”¶

When an English speaking Canadian gives his child a biblical name, he’s teaching that child that he belongs to a greater and larger world than just Canada, than just modern times. Notice the name of my Indian host mentioned above: Joseph — a biblical name given to him by his Christian father; a name which has constantly reminded Joseph that he is not just an Indian, he belongs to a much larger world, family, and history.

Language connects people in powerful ways. The old saying is: A picture says more than 1000 words. That’s true even for pictures conveyed by words. And these pictures connect tribes. For example, in Canada if a friend was getting involved in some activity that was potentially destructive for his life, like getting involved with a married woman, I would say to him: You’re walking on thin ice. Everyone knows what that means in Canada, but few in Cambodia would understand. In Cambodia I would say to my friend: You’re walking through a mine field. Both these metaphors are saying: It’s not a question of if you’re going to get in trouble, it’s a question of when. But, I learn a lot about life in Cambodia with the minefield metaphor. Has anyone ever been in danger of stepping on a mine in Canada? Does anyone there know the fear of walking through a field which has not been de-mined? Does anyone in Cambodia know the foolishness of walking on a frozen lake in early spring? But because the metaphors mean the same thing, a certain amount of understanding can be developed — a connection between tribes can be made.

Here are some other Cambodian metaphors/proverbs:

Seeing the elephant defecate, do not strive to defecate like the elephant.

When the tree falls, the monkeys scatter.

Negotiate a river by following its bends. Enter a country by following its customs.

The elephant that is stuck in the mud will tear down the tree with it.

The immature rice stalk stands erect, while the mature stalk, heavy with grain, bends over.

With water make rivers, with rice make armies.

You don’t have to cut down the tree to get at the fruit.

Don’t let an angry man wash dishes; don’t let a hungry man guard rice.

Don’t take the straight path or the winding path. Take the path your ancestors have taken.

Only the spider can repair its own web.

When reading these one will try to think of equivalent metaphors in his own language, and a connection is made between two tribes. Notice also, that as you read these metaphors, you picture them, and play them out in your mind. You can see the angry man roughhousing the plates; you see the rice stalk bending over. You are thinking and seeing the same thing the original writer of the proverb was thinking and seeing. You are experiencing his life, and he’s been dead for possibly a thousand years.

The Four Phases of Speech

When I read literature from the past, I am not just reading it in a detached analytical way. Take the book of Isaiah for example. When I read it, I am there with Isaiah when he says, “Here am I! Send me.” I am there when Isaiah carries out his calling, preaching to and warning the people of Israel. I am there when Isaiah completes his task and is able to say, “Lord, for better or for worse, we have completed our task and have spoken to the people.” And I am there to see Israel dragged off into captivity into Assyria because they did not heed the words of the prophet, and I can stand back and analyze that result. I am connected and in relationship with Isaiah and Israel. I am the last part of the story.

“Human speech never was intended for expressing platitudes like ‘the weather is bad,’ or ‘come,’ or ‘I am happy,’ or ‘the moon rises.’ Human speech corresponds to the construction of our brain so as to permit the transfer of acquired experiences to the race. Speech enables us to gain times and spaces for ‘settling’ a question. Speech connects the departments of experience. The event which is expressed can only be expressed in four phases.”**

Rosenstock-Huessy describes there being four phases of speech,†† which I will lay out in this table:‡‡

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Thou must is looking forward to the event. I am is living in the event. We have looks back on the event. He did looks at past, present, future as one.

In the first stage, one sees himself, not as I, but as Thou. My four year old son often refers to himself in the third person: “Noah ate a lot today!” He does this because he sees himself through the eyes of others, namely me – his father. But, as he grows and matures, and his ego develops, he will see himself more and more from within: the I. However, no matter how old or mature he gets, whenever a higher power calls on him, he will at those times see himself from the point of view of the higher power — he will see himself from without: the Thou. “The hero never is: he is prejective because he is made over into a new realm of experience and has not yet any ‘feelings’; hence the hero is ‘Thou’; to himself the hero appears as the instrument of God…”§§

When one is called by a higher power (which might be God, a powerful idea, a passion, lust for a woman, or whatever drives a person), one is singled out for the calling, he is alone, but it can’t stay this way — he must bring others into his world. He does this by courting, convincing, pleading, and prophesying. He doesn’t know if he will be successful, but he must try. He goes from being the Thou to being the I, driven by his own emotions and ego. He calls people into his own experience.

If he is successful, he reaches the perfectum. “The subjective pressure of a deep emotion is transformed into the narrative of a past whenever the hero’s ‘thou’ and the subject’s ‘I’ can be tranquillized into a ‘we'”.|||| He can now look back and say, “We have accomplished something together.” His declaring of an event completes the event. “Thus, the tale of an event is the tail light of the event. Nothing has happened which is not reported back as having happened. History is not arbitrary staring at bygone things. History is the articulation of the event itself in its participants; as the event goes by. It proves its passing by being told as a tale. The historian certainly is not the onlooker of an event but the last man whom the event produces.”¶¶

“The fourth phase of speech is the spirit’s death.”*** Once I’ve completed my task, what left is there to do but to look at it objectively from the outside? There is no more calling from the higher power, there is no one left to convince, there is no job left undone. I am free now from the first calling. “If we call the impetus by which a total experience subjects one man to the four phases through which the experience is realized ‘spirit,’ i.e., a breath of life, then phase four is the phase in which the spirit dies but the specimen recovers. If phase four did not abstract us from our spells, freedom could not exist to start a new phase. In phase four we expire one act of faith so that we may be inspired again.”†††

These days, especially in western thought, we tend to live in the fourth phase. We look at light and analyze it scientifically — “Light is made of waves and particles.” But we ignore the first three phases: 1) “Let there be light;” 2) “Let us praise the light;” 3) “The sun has risen.” When we do this, we disconnect ourselves from the relationship we have with the past, and consequently the future as well.‡‡‡

A helpful illustration is to think of a great piece of music, like Beethoven’s 5th symphony. Most people I think have never listened to the whole symphony, but I’m sure everyone would recognize the opening notes. Those opening notes are a powerful call: “People! Listen to this.” When you hear those notes for the first time you are not analyzing, you are not feeling anything yet — your reaction is much like Moses’ reaction when seeing the burning bush: “What is this? I will turn to see.” Then, once you’ve settled in to listen, your emotions come into play; you are drawn into the music and you feel the passion of Beethoven with Beethoven, with the orchestra. Thirdly, the piece comes to an end, and it does not end on a strange note leaving you wondering what happened to the flow of music — it ends precisely when it should end; the final notes cry out, “We are finished! It is complete!” And finally, the fourth phase allows you to look back on the whole piece and say, “That was good. What’s next?”

You cannot enjoy Beethoven’s 5th if you don’t experience the piece through all four phases. You cannot be connected in relationship to the past if you do not experience the lives and events of your ancestors through the four phases of speech. Speech connects us all.

Every time I study history, if it is good history, I relive the four phases with those people who came before me, and because of that I am connected in relationship to those people. This is why stories are so good for learning history. This is why the Bible is written as story.

Unfortunately, most western history books written today are written by historians who believe that they can have no bias. They are stuck only in the fourth phase. It’s not possible to have no bias, so, to hide their bias, they use the most dry and unimaginative language possible in their writings. For example, here is an excerpt from a contemporary history book describing the introduction of Christianity into the Roman world:

“In the first centuries of the Christian era, while Christianity was expanding in the Empire, it was increasingly the speech of much of the population on the western borders of the Mediterranean. A religion which employed Greek and Latin, and especially Greek, had advantage over rivals which did not and might gain an Empire-wide hearing.
Important also was the religious and moral hunger which characterized much of the populace of the basin of the Mediterranean in the centuries in which Christianity was having its early development.”§§§

Now, here is another excerpt from a history book, concerning the same time in Christian history as the example above, written in the 19th century, by an author who didn’t care about his bias:

“In the cheerless waste of pagan corruption the small and despised band of Christians was an oasis fresh with life and hope. It was the salt of the earth, and the light of the world. Poor in this world’s goods, it bore the imperishable treasures of the kingdom of heaven. Meek and lowly in heart, it was destined, according to the promise of the Lord, without a stroke of the sword, to inherit the earth. In submission it conquered; by suffering and death it won the crown of life.”¶¶¶

Notice how the second history draws you into the story and life of the early Church. In this one excerpt we see the call of God on the Church, we see how the Church would carry it out, and we see what the final result will be, and putting that all together we can objectively analyze it. In the first excerpt, however, all we see is the analysis.

There is a lot of good information in the first history book, but how long can one read a book like that and stay awake? To be forever trapped in the fourth phase is to be forever dead.

In his essay, Politics and the English Language,**** George Orwell points out this problem much better than I have…

I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

The example of modern English is purely objective. When the living experience of time is ignored, and the only goal is to objectively analyze in the present “objectivity (becomes a) god. It would treat all realities as things external to the mind, things in which we as thinkers have no roots, and which may accordingly be touched, weighed, measured, and manipulated without reference to the common destiny in which we and they are jointly bound. This may do for physics. It will not do for human society.”††††

God could have just written the Bible as a textbook, explaining everything we need to know and do objectively. But instead, He wrote a story. When one reads the Bible, he is put into that story. He becomes a part of the story. The story’s past is his past, the story’s future is his future. And when one knows his past and future, one knows what to do in the present.

“When man rises above his future, which is imminence of his death, and beyond his past, which is reminiscence of his origins, he enters the present. From the conflict of end and origin, of death and birth, the present results for those who have the courage not to blink but face the abyss before and in back of them… Without participation in the life of the Word through the ages, we remain ephemeral.”‡‡‡‡

I am constantly in relationship with all those who came before me, and all those will come after me. This relationship spans across and conquers time through my speech and everyone else’s speech. We are all connected through the stories of our lives told and retold, lived and relived, throughout all the ages.


*For more information, see: Indo-European Languages – Ancient History Encyclopedia – found here.
Also see: The Tower of Babel Account Affirmed by Linguistics – found here.
†Orwell, George, 1984 (Signet Classics [New American Library]: New York, NY., 1949), pg. 51.
‡Much contemporary worship music is lacking in lyrics. How does this effect the worshippers? For example, click here.
§Taken from: The Stability of Beliefs by Michael Polanyi. Click here to read.
||These days there is much disunity in the Church. This began at the Reformation. Clearly, the Reformation was a good thing. Sometimes disunity is necessary (think Babel). But, it is also clear that God does not want the Church to remain in disunity indefinitely or until Jesus comes back (see John 17). I don’t criticize speaking in tongues here to create disunity — I myself am affiliated with a Charismatic organization (that’s why I criticize it). For there to be unity, the tribal markers either have to disappear, or become something that can be accepted by all Christians.
Not all Christians need to be exactly alike, there should be differences in culture (a Christian empire). But I would argue that tribal markers are not an attribute of culture, rather they are an attribute of family. The Church, while having many differences among its family members, must be a unified family — something tribal markers prevent as they create separate families.
I don’t want to make too big a deal of tongues — it serves as an example.
Church unity will not happen quickly, but it does need to happen eventually.
¶Rosenstock-Huessy, E. I Am an Impure Thinker: Tribalism, pg. 124.
**Ibid.: The Four Phases of Speech, pg. 55.
††Ibid.: The Four Phases of Speech, pg. 53-64.
‡‡Note on the word “preject”… Is “preject” a word? To Rosenstock-Huessy it is. My understanding is that it means: the “pre-project” — the event before the main event determining if the main event happens at all. For example, a father’s call to his son, and his son’s positive response, would be a “prejective” action. If the father didn’t call, or the son didn’t respond positively, nothing would happen. “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” — “Here am I! Send me.” — This is the prejective action for Isaiah (Isaiah 6:8).
§§The Four Phases, pg. 57.
||||Ibid., pg. 57.
¶¶Ibid., pg. 58.
***Ibid., pg. 59.
†††Ibid., pg. 59.
‡‡‡Ibid., some of this is taken from pg. 59.
§§§Latourette, Kenneth Scott A History of Christianity (Peabody, MA.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003), pg. 22.
¶¶¶Schaff, Philip History of the Christian Church, Vol. II (Peabody, MA.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2002, originally published in 1858), pg. 335.
****Read Orwell’s essay here.
††††I Am an Impure Thinker: Teaching Too Late, Learning Too Early, pg. 93.
‡‡‡‡Ibid., pg. 94.

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