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The Language Gap and God: Religious Language and Christian Education by Randolph Crump Miller


Dr. Miller is Horace Bushnell professor of Christian nurture at Yale University divinity school. He is the author of The American Spirit in Theology (Pilgrim, 1974.) Published by Pilgrim Press, Philadelphia and Boston, 1970. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Chapter 8. Bliks and Onlooks


Our survey of self-involving performative language leads to the conclusion that what we expect to happen in Christian education may be expressed in terms of self-involvement and commitment based on a changed way of looking on God and the world. In this chapter, we examine in more detail the nature of bliks and onlooks in terms of the ways in which they may or may not be shared or changed, holding to the next chapter the issues arising from a world view or metaphysics. From the educational side, examples of possible teaching include the use of models and qualifiers in biblical and theological thinking, the use of the name of God, and the ways in which words do things. This leads to a concluding section on education as initiation as suggested by R. S. Peters.

One form of onlook is what R. M. Hare calls a blik (See above, chapter 2. See also R. M. Hare in Antony Flew and Alasdair MacIntyre, eds., New Essays in Philosophical Theology, pp. 99-103; John Wisdom, Paradox and Discovery [Oxford: Basil Blackwood, 1965], p. 43, for a thumbnail criticism; C. Ellis Nelson, Where Faith Begins [Richmond: John Knox Press, 1967], p. 9, for a strikingly similar interpretation of "presuppositions.")

A blik, we may recall, is a pervasive, probably unconscious attitude toward the world and is the basis for any inferences or explanations of a seemingly factual nature. Hare distinguishes between insane and sane bliks. It is important, he says, to recognize that everyone has a blik. It is deep-seated in the personality structure; it may reflect a rigid self-system developed to protect a person from uncanny feelings of anxiety, as in the theory of Harry Stack Sullivan; or it may provide a kind of security which is threatened by the challenge and risk of any kind of change, especially one provoked by the gospel. Furthermore, a blik may be irrational, psychotic, and unreachable by normal communication -- and certainly unresponsive to logic.

A blik is not an assertion, not a concept, not a system of thought. It is what underlies the possibility of any kind of assertion about facts and their meanings. Hare writes: "Differences between bliks about the world cannot be settled by observation of what happens to the world. . . . It is by our bliks that we decide what is and what is not an explanation." Furthermore, because bliks are a basis for self-involving language, we care very deeply about our religious assertions. It becomes very important to have the right blik.(New Essays in Philosophical Theology, pp. 100-101.)

Hare also points out that people may agree about the facts and differ intensely about the interpretation:

The facts that religious discourse deals with are perfectly ordinary empirical facts like what happens when you pray; but we are tempted to call them supernatural facts because our way of living is organized round them; they have for us value, relevance, importance, which they would not have if we were atheists(Basil Mitchell, ed., Faith and Logic [London: George Allen & Unwin, 1957], pp. 189-90.)

Even in the Gospels, on the basis of the same evidence, some concluded that Jesus was sent from God and others that he was a messenger from Beelzebub.

In other words, we can share a manís blik to the extent that we can talk about the same facts. But if we do not share the same meaning, argument will not really help. Perhaps, as Frederick Ferré suggests, theology for Hare is no more than "statements made in a worshipful attitude about the epistemological importance of bliks." This provides us with a clue to the difficulties that theologians have when they attempt to enter genuine dialogue with each other, or that church school teachers face with recalcitrant students. Challenging a fixed blik may only increase resistance.

On the other hand, it may be that bliks are open to change. Bliks sympathetic to a Christian world view may be nurtured by home, church, and school, so that the person remains open to possible disclosures and commitments, as opposed to having a fixed blik resulting in a closed, rigid orthodoxy. Bliks, then, may be open or closed, strong or vulnerable, and sane or insane.

It is to be noted that bliks are deeply rooted in culture. Cultural anthropologists have discovered that the way one looks on his world is determined by cultural history, and that language cannot be simply translated without consideration of the cultural implications of seemingly identical words. As Northrop says, "It is only as different men use the same basic common concepts for describing, integrating, and anticipating the facts of their experience that they have a common culture."(F. S. C. Northrop, Man, Nature and God [New York: Pocket Books, Inc., 1962], pp. 35-36.)

This can be demonstrated by observing the familiar variety of cultures within a small American town. One congregation insists on a literal interpretation of the Bible, along with a separation from most of the social activities at the country club or motion picture house. Another emphasizes an odd type of dress, marriage within the communal group, and a vocabulary akin to King James English. A third lives very much in the world, mixes with nonchurchgoers at the country club, and makes its witness without emphasizing the differences among various groups. A fourth looks to the Vatican for many of its ideas, has recently put aside its Latin liturgy, and is beginning to use folk music in its worship. A fifth is seeking a new interpretation of black religion and is realigning itself for new approaches to civil rights.

These and other groups might be identified. They share a common heritage in the Bible, but their histories have been separated by many years of lack of contact at the religious level. If some of them come together for ecumenical dialogue, they are not sure what the others are talking about. On some issues, such as the Genesis stories, the Virgin Birth, birth control, sexual ethics, communism, the race question, the war, and many other issues, their bliks will be so evident that genuine dialogue will be impossible.

When, to this diversity of cultural conditioning and the resulting bliks among Christians, there are added the secular assumptions of the small town, the aspirations of the younger generation, and the mobility of the people, the diversity is even more obvious. The one unifying factor is that the people have been educated in an atmosphere that is not only secular but that reflects the easy assumptions of a scientific secularism, where all the answers may be found in terms of human knowledge.

If we look beyond the small town to the great urbanized centers, the diversity is multiplied. If we look beyond the cities to the nation, it is a wonder that people can operate on the same wave length, yet so pervasive is modern secularism that it has become a lingua franca. When we look to the wider horizons of other nations and cultures, the situation is almost overwhelming. The challenge of bliks faces us on all these levels.

An invitation to share oneís blik (See Paul M. van Buren, The Secular Meaning of the Gospel [New York: Macmillan, 1963], pp. 100-101.) is one way to interpret Christian education. Granted Hareís use and van Burenís adaptation of it, this becomes one form of hope for change. But bliks and onlooks are closely related, and onlooks may be the basis for an approach that is more helpful for communication of a Christian understanding of life.

Onlooks

An onlook, says Evans, is an expression of an attitude, an assertion of a way of looking on the world of experience. In some ways it may approach the meaning of blik. Let us take the standard blik illustration: "I look on all Oxford dons as murderers." As an onlook, this statement is open to investigation. Only if, against the evidence, the student persists in his belief, would we ascribe Hareís phrase "insane blik" to him. In other words, a "sane blik" involves the kind of openness to evidence that may alter oneís onlook.

If this looks too easy, however, and makes an onlook seem like an opinion based on evidence, we need to remind ourselves of some of the features of onlooks. They express commitment, for even if I have a strange belief about Oxford dons, I am committed to protect myself from them. They are autobiographical, for it is my way of looking and reporting. They indicate that I take up an attitude or posture toward the object of my onlook. They express a judgment or decision. They are, in short, self-involving and performative.(See Donald Evans, The Logic of Self-Involvement [London: SCM Press, 1963; New York: Herder & Herder, 1969], pp. 126-27.)

Religious onlooks are expressed in forms of analogy and parable, says Evans. When I speak of Godís glory, I am using a transcendental parabolic onlook. When I speak of his power, I am using a metaphysical onlook based on the analogy of human power. If I look on God as having his own authoritative, divine onlook, I do not assume that my onlook is identical with his. If I do move to the point at which I look on my onlook as identical with Godís, I am approaching Hareís insane blik that cannot be reasoned with(See ibid., pp. 254-56.)

The purpose of Christian discourse at one level, therefore, is to bring about a Christian or biblical onlook, for within this framework of fact and meaning the Christian is enabled to live in grace and faith. If the student asks why he should adopt this onlook, Evans answers: "Here the Christian will point to the Jesus of history and of Christian experience."(Ibid., p. 265.) But pointing is not enough. Evans continues, "Neither nature nor Jesus provide an adequate basis for a self-involving confession in God the creator unless they are interpreted in terms of a complex pattern of biblical or quasi-biblical onlooks."(Ibid., p. 267.)

If nothing can convince one to change his onlook, will he change it by "an act of faith"? But if he lacks a religious onlook to begin with, in whom does he place his faith? It seems to me that Evans leaves us with this dilemma: one must have a biblical onlook in order for Jesus Christ to provide a basis for self-involving language; one cannot gain this biblical onlook by exposure to God or Jesus outside this biblical onlook; therefore, unless there is already a biblical onlook there is no basis for Christian teaching.

But in Christian teaching something happens. In Evans language, a student may say, "I never looked on religion that way before." The statement of a religious onlook may be what John Wisdom calls "attention-directing." When one looks at an abstract painting, he may be confused. As he keeps looking, his attention is directed to some of the patterns, and he begins to look on it in a different way. He points out his discovery to a friend who has said, "I donít see anything in that blob of paint," and the friend then says, "Now I see." The attention-directing leads to looking on the painting in a new way, although the facts have not changed.(John Wisdom, "Gods," John Hick, ed., Classical and Contemporary Readings in Philosophy and Religion, pp. 423-24.)

So also the theist and the atheist live in the same world, and as they observe the same facts, they see different patterns of meaning. The student and the Christian teacher observe the same world, but one can lead the other to see the structure of experience in a new way.

This brings us up against the promise of the gospel that a man can become a new being in Christ. The promise of transformation, of conversion, of being reborn is at the center of the Christian tradition. It is the discovery of a sense of identity or integrity, usually involving a change of direction in oneís life. It is an enabling experience, whereby oneís direction, onlook, and commitment are redirected. It is the centering of oneís total self in trust in the divine being. Such experiences may be as dramatic as Paulís, as simple as having oneís heart "strangely warmed," as daily as the renewal of a slightly tarnished onlook at the end of the dayís work.

Normally one grows up within a Christian community and family. The growing person shares the way of attending to the reality in his life in the same way as his mentors and companions. It is said, for example, that much of the racial prejudice that develops in each generation is derived by contagion from the elder generation. The attitudes of parents, for example, as Bushnell writes, in terms of "character, feelings, spirit and principles must propagate themselves" in spite of the parentsí intentions or words (Christian Nurture [New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1947], p. 76.) Ideally, the children will acquire an onlook that is open toward religious faith and tentative in dogmatic statements of belief. This openness is not thought of so much as a protest against dogmatism as an insistence on the possibility of newer and richer insights and formulations of belief.

Such nurture in home and church, based on the love and acceptance of the student as he is, providing a basic structure for his life, insuring that he will be free to grow, assisting him in establishing his own authenticity, and offering him a life which shares the mystery of worship, will enable him to look on his world as Godís world. This onlook, shared from the beginning of his life, may become more his own as he develops. Thus, he will acquire the use of self-involving and performative language with less risk of infelicities.

The Christian onlook, which is hard to grasp from the outside, is commended by those who are concerned to live as Christians within the group. Much of this communication is in terms of the language of relationships, which may or may not be backed by words. When students are ignored, hurt, rejected, and misunderstood by those who claim to be followers of Christ, a negative onlook may begin to form. The child sees in the failure and hypocrisy of adults the misfires and abuses of performative language. But when relationships are sound, even when there are breaks in them, the healing and redeeming power of the gospel is at work strengthening faith and supporting onlooks. Such relationships provide the background for verbal teaching.

Method and Disclosure

We arc not concerned with all the methods of Christian education but with the use of language for the nurture and changing of onlooks. We can begin to utilize at this point some of the educational insights derived from our study of language-games, the logically odd use of ordinary language, the models and qualifiers, the figurative use of seemingly descriptive words, the poetic-simple, and self-involving performatives. In genuine conversation or dialogue, for example, when trust makes listening possible, a simple confession of personal faith, an autobiographical performative statement, may be called for. In response to the questions of the learners, the teacher may join in the search by sharing the biblical onlook, which may need to be established by careful Bible study, including attention to the Bibleís use of language. In examining the Gospels, the question may be opened for discussion by telling a story or recounting a parable or creating a modern myth.

For example, a group of high school students may be facing the standard but almost impossible question, "Is God good?" An affirmative is too simple and straightforward, and, as Ramsey has suggested, the reply of Christians would be that he is "infinitely good." This brings in the issue of the logically odd qualifier. God is not just "good and more," for that is not what "infinitely" means. So, if we follow Ramsey, we will start hunting for stories that may help to evoke a disclosure. Perhaps the first story is that of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, in which there is evil in the world to be known by man. This makes possible the insight into oneís own freedom to choose good or evil. The discussion at this point could move in a number of directions. One group might stay with Genesis and examine the stories of Cain and Abel, Noah, and the tower of Babel. Another might move to the analogy of father and children as found in the psalms: "As a father is kind to his children, so is the LORD kind to those who revere him (Ps. 103:13, G)," or in Jesusí teaching, "So if you, as bad as you are, know enough to give your children what is good, how much more surely will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him for it (Luke 11:13, G)." Or the questions may move toward non-man-made evil in a world where God is "infinitely good." The discovery of Job, as Walter Lippmann put it, was that "God is not like Job." (A preface to Morals [New York: Macmillan, 1929], p. 214)The qualifier "infinitely" places Godís goodness beyond any simile that man may use and stretches the analogy of goodness to its furthest point where the "light might dawn." There is no pious, easy answer to the issue of Godís goodness in a world where Satanic forces beyond manís power to cope are let loose. Yet Job is enabled to say:

"Lo, he will slay me; T have no hope;
Yet will I defend my ways to his face (Job 13:15, G)."

Here the integrity of Job is maintained in the face of a deity who opposes him. This is not trust in a deity who seems to do evil. Jobís wife, when she saw the evidence, said:

"Do you still hold fast to your integrity?
Curse God and die! (Job 2:9, G)."

His friends gave all sorts of pious but useless advice. Job, with access to the same facts, saw them in a different pattern, in which he found a basis for his own integrity and for his own understanding of the mystery of Godís incomprehensible ways.

A teacher and class could stay with Job indefinitely, going beyond the text to the play JB, or using a passage from Isaiah to illuminate Jobís point:

"But as the heavens are higher than the earth
So are my ways than your ways,
And my thoughts than your thoughts (Isa. 55:9, G)."

The important point to note here is that in this analogy heaven and earth are entirely separate categories, not brought together by modern space exploration. The usage must be seen in its original context in order to have currency in todayís world. If this difference is not comprehended, the Isaiah model must be discarded, for it will seem that Godís goodness is only more than manís, as a space module is more competent in space than an old piston airplane, and this is not what the qualifier "infinitely" means. Perhaps by now there will be a disclosure sufficient for the students at this point in their development.

If the students are seeking still further insight, the qualified model "infinitely good" might be extended to include "infinitely powerful" and "infinitely loving." The qualifiers are essential, for Godís power is not like manís power and his love is not like menís love; the analogical ascription is there, for we need to start with what we know about human power and love, but God is not like man and is not created in manís image. Perhaps the approach here is through looking on God as operating within the framework of manís freedom, and the story of the crucifixion and resurrection may lead to the discernment of Godís taking on himself the consequences of manís suffering and sin. The motifs of death and new life, of being lost and found, of alienation and reconciliation may assist in the process at this point. If a disclosure occurs, there will be a changed onlook leading to self-involvement at a new level, which can be reported in performative language.

Small children have trouble with the name of God, although they sometimes have strong attachment to the name of Jesus. ibis difficulty with Godís name was brought out in an experiment with a group of second-graders in an ecumenical setting who were being taught about the Jewish faith. Dorothy Dixon reports:

After studying Mosesí encounter with God who gave his name as Yahweh, the children seemed to enter into a personal relationship. Evidently it is difficult for a child to relate personally to the generic term God; whereas children can sense a real encounter with "Yahweh" who gives his name and who knows all his children from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to Ginny, Jeff, and Bryan! Songs with "Alleluia" in them became especially meaningful as the children realized that the word means "Praise be to Yahweh!" Spontaneously in their art work the children began adding such phrases as "Yahweh, we love you" and "We will follow Yahweh." (Dorothy A. Dixon, "Ecumenical Education for Second Graders," Religious Education, LXI [Sept.-Oct. 1966], p. 385. See Ian T. Ramsey, Religious Language [London: SCM Press, 1957], pp. 108-12.)

To call God "God" is like calling Jesus "god-man" or oneís beloved Elizabeth "wife." No wonder that piety has addressed itself to Jesus, Mary, and the saints, preferring these genuine names to Creator, Logos, or Holy Spirit! Of course, this approach, which may be helpful at the second-grade level or which may be fanciful thinking which will not stand up, is open to question biblically. "Yahweh" is just the word that the Jews refused to pronounce because it was so holy; and they substituted various euphemisms. This difficulty, which does not have a straightforward way out, makes one point clear: we need old and new models for God in todayís world.

We do not know Godís name, and this is hard to explain to second-graders. As Ramsey says, "only God could know his own name. . . . The inevitable elusiveness of the divine name is the logical safeguard against universal idolatry. . . . But YHWH witnesses to a religious situation for whose understanding we need personal categories."(Religious Language, p. 112) Mrs. Dixonís children were right, because the use of the name Yahweh gave them a personal handle by which they could think about God, but as they grow they will be ready for the further disclosure of the mystery where all that God will say is, "I am I," which is the ultimate tautology.

Words Do Things

Words do things. They sell every kind of merchandise, often with logically odd phrases, but more often with catchwords that are easily identifiable. They are repeated ad nauseum. This use of words is effective when it is based on motivational research, is meant to overcome manís resistance and to arouse his desires, and is aimed at encouraging action. It is deep-seated enough to affect his onlooks and sometimes gets down to unconscious bliks.

This comparison is not irrelevant to our thesis. One of the most effective advertisements on television several years ago showed a girl who gets into all kinds of trouble, perils from which an escape is unlikely, and who always lands in a Dodge automobile. Oneís attention is caught by the humor of the odd situation. Dirty and disheveled but obviously in a good humor, she then points at the viewer and says, "The Dodge Boys want you!" So we tell our logically odd stories about Jesus who is Savior and Redeemer, and at the end we say, "Christ wants you!" Both the Dodge Corporation and the church have discovered that in many cases the viewer changes his onlook and responds with a performative, by saying that he will buy a Dodge or by acknowledging Jesus as Lord.

This performative power of words to change a personís way of thinking, by providing a new center of attention whereby the pattern of his perception of facts is changed, by stimulating a way of looking on himself and his world, by evoking a disclosure of meaning for his life, should never be discounted. The facts do not change! The empirical evidence is available equally to the atheist and theist, the Buddhist and Christian, the Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, and Jew. But the onlooks differ not only in detail but in degree, and the question of truth remains as an expression of what is really there.

Direct discourse, based on the so-called facts, is never enough. Religious language has a richness that includes humor, hyperbole, fantasy, and appeals to the imagination, and yet it is grounded in reality. When Nathan told his little story about the poor man with the single lamb, which the rich man took in order to entertain a guest, David was deeply moved and became indignant, saying that the rich man should give the poor man four lambs and deserved to die. Against the background of Davidís sexual adventures with Bathsheba and the elimination of her husband, Uriah, Nathanís story was not objective but carried the punch line: "Thou art the man!" Here was existential self-knowledge made available, a disclosure of the meaning of the situation, and out of it came a confession and commitment by David.

This story has not lost its power or its relevance, because modern man is not different from David. He may express his attitude in terms of Playboy magazine, where his modern Bathsheba is found in the center foldout sheet, which provides a philosophical justification for such activity (although he would probably not resort to murder of a contemporary Uriah), or he may simply be a man who is aware of his masculine nature in terms of Jesusí words that if one looks on a woman with adultery in his intentions, he is already guilty.

When this story is placed beside that of Hosea, another disclosure may be evoked. For Hosea tells us that God is loving and forgiving, not simply in terms of the forgiving by Hosea of an erring wife, but in terms of prophecy. For it takes the story of whoredom and places it in a religious context, so that we are enabled to look on Israel (and ourselves) as a faithless wife forgiven by the Lord. Therein, we look on God in his relationship with all people, not only in Hoseaís time but throughout history. Thus, we are drawn more completely into a biblical onlook. (See ibid., pp. 112-16.)

Education as Initiation

The concept of education presupposes that some kind of change in the student will occur. R. S. Peters speaks of education as initiation. "Education," he writes, "involves essentially processes which intentionally transmit what is valuable in an intelligible and voluntary manner and which create in the learner a desire to achieve it, this being seen as having its place along with other things in life."("Education as Initiation," Reginald D. Archambault, ed., Philosophical Analysis and Education [London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965]. p. 102. See also R. S. Peters, Ethics and Education [London: George Allen & Unwin, 1966], pp. 46- 88.) This is something broader than instruction or training or even teaching, and may not meet all the criteria of what education is. Therefore, he prefers the term "initiation," which is a value-loaded term pointing to "worthwhile activities and modes of conduct." This is a slow process, because it includes not only knowing but doing as a goal for the student. He needs to know about Christianity, but he also must become competent as a believer. He not only must know theology, but he must also do it at his own level of competence.

Initiation then is a form of exploration, and

great teachers are those who can conduct such a shared exploration in accordance with rigorous canons, and convey, at the same time, the contagion of a shared enterprise in which all are united by a common zeal. That is why humor is such a valuable aid to teachers; for if people can laugh together they step out of the shadows of self-reference cast by age, sex, and position. This creation of a shared experience can act as a catalyst which releases a class to unite in their common enterprise.(Philosophical Analysis and Education, p. 107)

With this feeling of fraternity based on a common respect for persons, the class is free to explore, think, and act, and so to develop interests that are unsuspected.

Because it is a long process in which there is much hard work, the teacher should not expect an immediate response. Each session of a class does not end with a disclosure or a commitment. Many times, students will do nothing that has any effect on their lives, nothing approaching self-involvement or per-formative action, either verbally or physically. As Gabriel Moran writes, "The really deep values of Christian revelation are those that emerge organically over a long period of time." (Gabriel Moran, Catechesis of Revelation [New York: Herder & Herder, 1966], p. 125.) Premature commitment is more dangerous than no commitment. Children and young people may be said to be "on the way" and Christian maturity is a possibility only for adults. What Josef Goldbrunner calls the "theocentric crossing" is a gift of grace, when the disclosure does occur and the student responds. Slowly an onlook, autobiographical and performative develops, and one looks on the world as Godís. Such an onlook is metaphysical in its implications, and to this issue of metaphysics we now turn.

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