Sunday, 24 June 2012

Sunday Sermon: Logos 4

Every, good morning. Thank you for all things. Bless our dance and help us to do thy will. Amen.


Today, to complete the series introducing an expanded idea of the 'Word of God', of Logos, I am going to talk about the journey of the word itself. I'm hoping the journey serves a double purpose, both for the information about the word and its meanings, and for the illustration of Logos that the word itself provides.

It was in the Hellenistic layer of Logos which I introduced last week that the word logos (λόγος) arose. It did not mean language, though the word dialektos, which does mean language, is based on the same stem as logoslego (λέγω), 'I say'. Yes, that's right, all of this is made of lego.

Importantly logos did not ever mean 'word' in the sense of 'a word in a sentence'. The term for that was λέξις (lexis), but yet again you can see the common stem.

Originally it seems to refer to the internal thought behind the externalised utterance - a sort of perfect platonic form (albeit before Plato) of that which we are attempting to say. My trusty Liddell & Scott Greek dictionary has a long list of meanings (and there are longer ones - no doubt there are books written on the word), but its very first definition is, "The word by which the inward thought is expressed," and this seems to be close to the original meaning of the twist on lego.

Heraclitus (early 5th C BC) was the first to make a special fuss of the term, though without changing its meaning particularly. Interestingly to pantheists he said, "Listening not to me but to the logos it is wise to agree that all things are one." Possibly he was the first to suggest that logos was an independent, universal entity.

It was a slippery word. But its importance increased with its variegating meanings. For Aristotle it was part of an elaborate system and meant something close to 'logical argument' (as contrary to emotional arguments - pathos - or arguments appealing to the morality of the speaker - ethos). By the time the word got to the Stoics and to Philo it had been divided up into types or aspects of logos, one of which was the creative principle of the universe, and hence was a philosophical challenge to traditional religion.

It was Philo of Alexandria who, pretty much contemporaneously with the Jesus saga to the East, first introduced logos into Jewish philosophy though, to be sure, he did it in Greek and probably couldn't read Hebrew. And here meaning dances between the languages for in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament that Philo (and the Hellenistic world, though there were other Greek translations) referred to has the Hebrew for 'word' in 'the Word of the Lord' translated not as lexis but as logos, in several places. Philo fully celebrated this apparent harmonising of Greek knowledge with the very breath of his Hebrew god. And so logos entered the Bible through translation.

And the Jews were to hurl logos right back at the Greeks, ironically not as a transcendent principle as we might have expected vis-a-vis Yahweh but in Greek form, incarnated as a god-man. An author I read recently heavily used the metaphor of ideas having sex and producing progeny. In my imagination this is an ideal example as we see a new meaning emerge from this Greek word entering a foreign belief system and bearing the Hebrew-Greek baby Jesus. (Incidentally one of the stoics' logoses was logos spermatikos, the universal law of generation.)

One of the most compelling, seductive verses in the New Testament is the opening verse of the Gospel of John, written in the second century AD. It's with its living world of meaning of the word logos in mind that we should read it if we want to gauge its full impact. "In the beginning was logos and logos was with God, and logos was God. The same was in the beginning with God." So far we have pretty much a Stoic/Philo conception incidentally, which would have been familiar to the whole Hellenistic world. The radical bit which was to steer the meaning of logos for the next two thousand years, is in verse 14: "And logos became flesh and dwelt among us."

In my mind, this verse, or this idea anyway, won the ancient world to this hybrid Judai-Hellenism called Christianity. There was a bit more to it of course, but this was the philosophical fit, without which the practice and teachings of the early church would not have taken in the Greek cities. It was in these Greek cities that Jewish communities had themselves already been seduced by logos after all, through the Greek translations of their own literature along with their rich philosophical environment. And the Greeks themselves, great consumers of others' wisdom, were exposed to these extraordinary ancient writings of the Jews through the same translations, with its transcendent, rather Platonic God and its universal narrative that now included them.

If you've read my last few sermons about Logos you'll know that like John, I do see logos as a creative principle that is implicit in the universe even before the origin of humans or language. It is a generative principle in the universe itself, of which neurology, consciousness, language and story are sequential flowerings. But of language it is not the words themselves - which are merely shared symbols, matters of religion - which are Logos but the mechanics of language, the innermost grammar and rules, just as with consciousness it is not the meat of the brain which is logos but the mechanics of the neurological system.

Logos then is a word for a universal generative principle, a principle by which symbolic expression between agents might collect, store, accumulate, trade, transmit and develop information systems. It is also the sum total of that accumulated system. It is not a mystical idea as it is being properly researched in my view by neurolinguists and many other fields, but it is full of mystery, as well as being a critical and a universal idea. It is an idea that theology needs to thoroughly re-examine if it is to be relevant.

For the big picture is that Logos has become flesh, and furthermore that through it, the child of Everything if you like, Everything has become flesh. Through the symbolic, metaphoric world of language and story we are harbingers of the generative principle of the universe. Logos has ballooned beyond the capacity of our collective living minds of course and is stored and constantly rearticulated with revision in books and on the internet. But we remain its living conduits through time, without which Logos would become dust. We are the steppingstones along logos's pathway, and it is bigger than us. We are born with the legacy of Logos and die leaving it a bit further along than it was, whether we play a part in that or not.

And so where does this leave Jesus? Obviously a man can't be Logos, and I've talked about the danger of idolatry elsewhere, but am I saying he wasn't special, that he wasn't in any particular way logos incarnate? This is where I am going furthest onto a limb I think, because I think Logos has a sort of directionality and logic whereby a very new way of seeing something - a new constellation of words and ideas - can coalesce inside a human brain subconsciously and appear to leap ahead of itself. These days I think this normally happens to thousands of people fairly simultaneously with your average new idea, but it's the best explanation I have for the idea of the prophet, the muse, or of genius, and thereby yes, I think Jesus may have been a particular incarnation of Logos, but no more than Socrates or Charles Darwin. He was inspired, if you like, and if I ever use the word, this is what I mean by inspiration. It doesn't leave any idea immune to ongoing scrutiny.

Way back among the earlier Hellenistic writings so many of the meanings of logos - a proposition, an argument, a ground, a plea, a position, an expectation, an account, a reason - might be summed up as an active packet of language, an utterance meant to have an impact. Another word for that is 'spell', and there is a sense in which the word is permeated by a sense of active power. The reason I bring this up right in conclusion is because my final proposition is that understanding language is the key to breaking the spell, whether it is the spell of propaganda or advertising, of persuasive individuals, of group think; the spell of the logo. It is also the key to our own power, individually and collectively.

Logos is such that we may be wholly passive to it, and it will control us almost entirely, or we may be very active in it, which we should see as an enormous responsibility. It is our bigger self, our higher collective purpose. However inadequately I have presented the idea in these past four sermons, the least of my hopes is that I cause readers to consider this idea anew. The Logos has not finished with logos.

Everything, thank you for this opportunity to expound such lofty themes to my fellow humans. I pray that any who read my words benefit by doing so and are in no way deceived by my words. Bless all my readers. So be it.


  1. Thanks again, Hamish, for the weekly provocation:

    So, let me see if I've grasped your concept. In summary, you seem to be saying that logos is three things. Firstly it is a universal generative principle. As you describe it: "a principle by which symbolic expression between agents might collect, store, accumulate, trade, transmit and develop information systems." (paragraph 12).

    Secondly, it is the accumulated sum total of these systems - all of our *texts*, all of our ways of storing and transmitting them, reading, and resisting them even. So logos is the possibility of *text* and the (limitless) realisations of that possibility.

    Thirdly it is an "active packet of language, an utterance meant to have an impact." (paragraph 15). Does this include all utterances - Which might include random comments made to each other in private, joking around with mates, or even words spoken aloud to oneself for company, comfort or for seeking clarity - or do you mean utterances that are recorded in *readable* form, be that literature, research, movies, songs, and billboards? (I wonder where social media might be placed on the spectrum of utterances?) Is this 'active packet of language' a link between the generative principle and its accumulated systems?

    I am intrigued that the idea of the Word becoming flesh, as I learned in Sunday school as meaning God became human via Jesus - might actually be interpreted as a universal generative principle becoming incarnate through the ideas that coalesce within a human and lead to new insights/understandings - and that this can occur simultaneously among several unconnected individuals. This would seem to have implications for our current understandings of intellectual property.

    And of course, I'm very interested in your conclusion: the individual and collective responsibility to engage with and resist this thing, logos, that is both within and without us. Like breath.

    I love you and your great big questions.
    Love, Dawn x

  2. Thank you Dawn. You grasped the concept well with the first two of the three meanings. Chronologically the third meaning is one I educed from very early meanings of logos, and I took a risk at being misunderstood by referencing it right in conclusion in order to make a broader point with it.

    But of course, who am I to say Logos does not mean those earlier meanings now? Any more than someone can say that you (Dawn) no longer mean the three year old girl in mid-West USA of some time ago. In everyday use people who use your name will normally be meaning you, now, naturally enough. In a way that's what I'm trying to do for Logos - give it a biography of meaning, none of which it loses entirely, but also trying to define what it is now in its current maturity, and where it appears to be going. I hope that made sense.

    Every utterance between people is, of course, part of the mnemonic and contemplative machine that I am calling Logos. Literature has the distinction of far greater impact. To even think something in words, whether it is as banal as "I am hungry" or as aggressive as, "Marmaduke Jones is a dick," is to cast a quiet spell upon your own being, and practices to gain control of thought would appear to have some solid rationale here. To say it out loud between people can of course have a much greater impact, and you are likely to directly influence the dance of things adjacent to you. To write it down - let's say on Facebook - is to have the greatest impact of all. With a face reddened by bitter experience I daresay we should be very careful about what we write down, even in our diary. "Words are powerful" is not a mystic idea in my mind but one that is being subjected right now to all sorts of scientific investigation.

    Even after these four sermons I don't think I've done this subject justice. To do so, I think, a writer would have to be very cognisant in the sciences of language. I'm working on it by reading a lot about language but I know I'll never have the understanding of a linguistics scholar, for example, and there are many such fields on the coalface of language in different ways. As I read what I do read however, I am constantly bombarded with the intuition that there is something personally powerful in such understanding. That here is an area where science and research may directly make an enormous contribution to spiritual practice. Perhaps my lazy hope is that others more competent and disciplined will pick up the theme.

    I can dig the Jesus thing if Jesus is seen as a kind of break-through prophet, symbolically the first liberal, the first to "fulfil" (not abandon in principle), "If you don't hurt me I won't hurt you" for "I forgive you your faults and you hopefully forgive mine but even if you don't God (or the universe, the nothing, whatever) does". It is an enormous psychological step for an individual, let alone a community. Note that in this particular sense the vast majority of modern people, globally, are Christians and people with a pre-Christian moral/legal outlook (in this special sense) are generally considered backward.

    As far as I can see there are two political implications of this teaching of Logos. One is as you say, intellectual property rights, which I think the idea of Logos undermines at least. The other is a renewed emphasis on the need for literacy and education.

    I love you too Dawn. x