Sunday, 3 June 2012

Sunday Sermon: Logos I

Every, good morning. Thank you for this new week within which we can know you and serve you. Thank you for the gift of logos. It is also our gift to you, in text, speech and song. Amen.


I feel sometimes all I really want to write sermons about is logos, but apart from Read a Book and The Great Commission, I haven't really begun to discuss it. Part of the reason is that I know for a fact that I simply can not do it justice. But I'll have a go, as I think it is the real theological contribution the House has to offer all world religion, and a powerful and helpful personal idea as well. I'm sure it won't be the last time I try.

In short logos is language, and in particular written language, but all the writers, editors, linguists, grammarians, translators, philologists and literary critics together would, I'd wager, struggle to do that subject justice.

For logos is a singularity of rather awesome scale. It is the distinctive human attribute. It has a direction. That is, it is doing something over time. As well as growing it is striving to know everything, striving for the truth. In a sense it is an evolving incarnation of God. And we collectively, along with our literary and technological artefacts, are its temporal hosts for our time.

But, philosophically and in time, I want to go back a bit.

None of us, not one living creature, gets a fresh, unaffected environment. All of us are obliged to live amongst the increasingly various detritus of previous generations and, as we live life, the detritus of ourselves. We are obliged to account for it, engage with it, 'read' it, learn from it, make decisions thereby and hence to add to it. This is the two-way engagement with Every which every creature must endure.

It hasn't always worked out well. Cyanobacteria, a rather distant ancestor of pretty much all life on Earth, found that out the hard way when it oxygenated the atmosphere and wiped itself out about 2.4 billion years ago. But that opened the world up for our slightly less distant ancestors, who were quite happy with the oxygen, and on the whole they were much more interesting anyway, so things worked out there.

This inevitable cumulative process - life living in its own shit impact - may be one reason why evolution continued and was never able to find a happy stasis between disastrous mutation and costly adaptation. It's not that nature did not have a strong conservative streak. Finding balance is what it does if it's given enough time. But even if there was no other major impact so an ecosystem could have millennia to adapt into a perfect equilibrium, the environment slowly changes with the impact of the biology - leaving detritus, reorganising nutrients, carving minerals from the rock to build soil, clogging and altering waterways - so new niches come about and old ones are threatened. Biology must always retain its capacity to adapt, no matter how cozy things get, for ultimately it is obliged to adapt to itself.

One of the adaptations life made early on was to start impacting the world strategically or, in other words, reorganising their environment for their own needs. Easy examples are birds building nests or spiders weaving webs which don't merely provide for the respective creatures' needs but leave an organised detritus. Indeed they organise components in the environment into forms another creature might recognise as detritus of their particular species.

Webs, nests and mushroom rings don't last long though, and it is hard to argue that any design of, say, a spider web, was ever influenced by a spider looking at the other webs in the area. The very location of these existing features of the environment might though, existing spider webs hence becoming active agents in the placement of the next spider's web. Could birds' design be influenced, however subtly, by the design of existing bird nests? More so than spiders we might guess, but apart from changing materials as they become available, we would not expect the nests or the locations to change much. There is little ongoing, developmental, living culture of nest building, as far as we can see, but a portion of nest-building in some species may be learned, and part of any such learning must be the example of other nests being built. This detritus is already becoming creative, and a part of the world of meaning and knowledge.

Tool using primates were the ones to really open up the creative possibilities of not merely arranging the environment strategically, but being able to 'read' the impacts of other tool using primates in order to learn from them. Tool using cultures can be identified fairly distinctively by their tools and artefacts from very early on, due to the resources in the environment and the particular needs of the environment but also, increasingly, due to an accumulative culture of knowing through watching, 'reading' and learning.

To get a little bit less abstract I'm going to talk about a man (a preliterate but somewhat lingual man, say a neanderthal, we'll call him Neo) who is building a wall around a garden area to protect it from animals. Presumably this guy learned how to build walls from his parents and relatives. The particular culture builds lots of garden walls, so he grew up building the odd wall, usually in the winter time.

But that experience and those relatives are not all Neo brings to the task. To the extent that he engages life more meaningfully than survival, perhaps, there is another factor which might well influence him. He has a text. And that text is every wall he can see and has ever seen, some of them ones he helped build and some of them that have been there hundreds of years. He might spend some time studying his available text. He may see a flaw developing in a particular type of wall, he may want of a popular material and need inspiration to adapt, he may through seeking status wish to build the best wall ever, but the existing state-of-the-walls is Neo's unique text and it may impact his wall.

Pre-literate society is not renowned for its rapid development. It did develop though, however slowly, and in increasing active dialogue with its own increasing detritus. The huge enabling factor for this capacity for generational, cumulative learning was of course spoken language which, believe it or not, is the topic of this sermon. With spoken language humans adapted much faster than biological evolution ever allowed, even if it appears to us to begin ponderously.

Aside from being born, which we might call a creature's first initiation into the religion of Every (if we are being very loose and broad), the first religious initiation available to humans is learning their first language, learning how to speak and listen in aural symbolic patterns. The content of these sounds are arbitrary, abstract and cultural. That is, the words and grammars are learned by listening to others babble them even if a brain-language which needs to upload the going software for speech is in fact innate. (There is ongoing and fascinating research continuing on these topics). That's why people born in Japan will speak Japanese, regardless of where their parents are from, but they'll be able to communicate, more or less, the same sorts of things as children in England.

We like to call this learned part of language 'cultural' but it is, in a very real sense, religious in itself. I've often thought the bit of the Genesis story where Adam gets to name the creatures is about right. They only have names because we named them (but that name we use will not be the eternal name). And the only way our name will 'work' as a communicative bit of detritus is if other people 'believe' the same symbolic utterance represents the said thing (I'm thinking of a dog). There is good reason for language (evolutionarily, say), to have a word that means 'dog', but no good reason for a particular language, a particular word. They're all capable of being very good. We get our particular language from the ongoing aural detritus of our society. It's our religion and once bought into no other is conceivable, more or less.

Which is why I include language itself in my admittedly very broad definition of religion. In itself language may not constitute shared story, but that is its tendency, and in the earliest times of language the very narratives, not just the words, must have been shared very closely among a language group. Words don't really exist outside narratives. And all of the narratives surrounding Neo, say, are mythopoeic.

I am not the first to suggest that the origins of religion and language might be coterminous, just incidentally.

A major difference between an existing wall, which may have been built 200 years ago, and a word, 'wall', is that if no speaker says the word for a generation the word is lost forever. The existence of the word is dependent on a host of living memory, a living, procreating community. The word isn't 'just in Neo's head' though, because if it is not spoken in reference to its understood meaning repeatedly it is lost. It needs heads to be in but can only continue to exist if it is actually breathed between them, is actually made a part of the observable environment, however fleetingly.

And meanwhile without language Neo and his community probably would not even be surviving. They have become dependent on it like spiders are dependent on their webs. And they are not merely dependent upon it in order to survive in their current ecosystem, they are dependent upon it for their capacity to adapt (to an increasing detritus of increasing types, even if nothing else). Language - language in narrative - had become society's meta-memory and meta-computer.

I have gone on long enough for one morning, and I have not really talked about logos. Already, with life's interaction with its own cumulative detritus, I have discussed a possible philosophical and archaeological starting point for the idea of logos, as well as a possible engine for change and a pathway to more elaborate, semi-communicative change. Then I have talked about language which, though half a cultural artefact, with cumulative knowledge and increasingly interesting stories has started to look like logos.

But I still don't think what I have described deserves the term logos. That will have to wait to next week, when I sketch from here the origins of written language and written, popularly accessible and transmittable, stories. That's where logos goes off, as does religion and most everything else.

And if I might draw attention to the lyrics of a verse not in this version:

You say I took the name in vain
Well I don't really know the name
But if I did, well really, what's it to ya
There's a blaze of light in every word
It doesn't matter which you heard
The broken or the holy

Everything, thank you for this opportunity to teach what I have to teach. I pray that I bore few and deceive none. Bless all my readers, those that think well of my words and those that don't. So be it.


  1. this one deserves a third read, which I haven't done yet. Being one who is intrigued with language, you've got me here. But it's a long stride. I agree that common language, dialects, bring people together. Language also divides. I love the space beyond the language, a difficult space to find that is always right here. Now.
    I'm sorry, I don't mean to be obscure

  2. I don't feel out-obscured Fay, - :) - and Logos isn't everything. I do argue that it attempts to take the shape of Everything however, as a sort of a mediator by which we may explore Everything. And it is beautiful and powerful, and an undeniable part of us all. Cheers.