The semantics of religious experience


So it goes ...
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I am increasingly interested, being led here by a tutor, from 'simple' religious symbolism to the semantic and linguistic aspects of religious experience. Obviously I believe that religious experience is 'real', but when Moses saw the burning bush, was it actually a burning bush, was it a symbol that approximated a burning bush, was it a burning bush to symbolise something other, or was it something that semantically Moses, or more precisely his audience, had no suitable linguistic referants to translate in any other form more meaningful form.

For example, to pick up on Z's text I am drawing a parallel between 'super-intelligent beings' as a post-modern secular society would classify them, and God, gods, angels/demigods, heroes etc., as a pre-modern religious society would classify them.

I'm dabbling my toes in semantics, linguistics, the cognitive sciences, and this bit on cognitive linguistics leapt out at me:
'Finally, cognitive linguistics argues that language is both embodied and situated in a specific environment ... that language and cognition mutually influence one another, and are both embedded in the experiences and environments of its users.'

and this:
'Linguistic inquiry is pursued by a wide variety of specialists, who may not all be in harmonious agreement; as journalist Russ Rymer put it: "Linguistics ... is soaked with the blood of poets, theologians, philosophers, philologists, psychologists, biologists, anthropologists, and neurologists, along with whatever blood can be got out of grammarians."'

and this:
'Diachronic linguistics ... examines how language changes through time ...'

I am particularly interested in the development of Christian theological language in the meeting of Hebrew (existential) and Greek (philosophical) culture ... for example the development of Trinitarian Theology, which required terms like 'essence', 'substance', 'person', 'being', 'soul' and of course 'theos' and 'logos' to be redefined to try and explain something rationally, that itself lies beyond the capacity of the reasoning faculty to comprehend independently, if we allow that 'Revelation' signifies that data which cannot be deduced by the function of human reason alone.

... and vaguely wondering if any of this makes sense?

Perhaps I am a reductionist/rationalist first and foremost. I tend to look for the obvious meaning before invoking the supernatural. And so i see the metaphor of the burning bush as descriptive of the actual nature of the bush (ie contact with that species caused severe itching/burning) rather than as a symbolism rich in esoteric meaning. But language is so fluid and dynamic, it varies from street to street, community to community and so on up. It is constantly evolving so that parents often cannot tell what their own kids are talking about. So much more spurious to infer we know with any certainty the true meanings of words written in antiquity. And regardless of the intent of any author or orator lets face it people take their own meaning according to their own experience and slant. This combination of the dynamism inherent in language and an individuals disposition to drag from it what he/she wants renders all interpretation as possibly very wrong. Something I strive to bear in mind at every turn.

Not sure this comes anywhere near a decent reply to your thread, which would prove my point, at least in regard to me :p


It does actually. The reductionist/rationalist dimension should not be ignored, if religion cannot provide a rational argument/alternative — not necessarily a rational proof — then it lacks a very real dimension.

But we have to take the synchronic and diachronic perspectives, what Scripture says, and how the receiving community and the world reacts to it? Then we have to balance that with the David Koresh-type 'cultic' effect — by which I mean that a 'cultural' response is no necessary guage of what is regarded as the 'truth' of experience in a wider context?

It's late...

I would agree that it is wise to come at things from as many angles as possible before reaching any fixed opinion and even then hold it open to change subject to new information. How many can truly profess this to be the fact of their every reasoning tho? We all cut corners.

I think the synchronic overtures of scripture are as lost to us as Atlantis. We can only understand the diachronic interpretations we learn within the environment of our age and even then we apply them according to our preconceptions based on the system of belief we individually hold dear. They are myriad. To me this is a cause for celebration not despondency, it shows human ingenuity and creativity knows no bounds.

I'd also like to throw in the issue of translation. Even if you can read hebrew, the translation for a word that you have learnt may not convey the connotation that it would have done to the original writer. (Is this what you meant by synchronic overtones Tao? Sorry - I'm not up on the jargon :eek: )

On the burning bush question there is actually a bush (members of the Dictamnus genus) that will spontaneously burst into flames on a very hot day. So there is always the possibility that the voice came out of an unignited Dictamnus bush, which due to its alarming habit, is quite likely to have been named 'burning bush'. Indeed, that is still its common name.

What book are your quotes from Thomas?

I love the way language is a living thing - though that does make for an awful lot of problems :).
Hi IQ :p. as indeed you do have.. you are spot on. Have to admit I had to use the dictionary before replying to Thomas. But hey I learned 2 new words!!

The bible is full of that yes? burning bush or metaphor? never knew about the burning bushes...plants that give off gas that can be lit...I want one!!

But there are many more yes...sea of reeds...did Jesus walk on, or along the water...
Whoops, sorry folks ...

The quotes are from wikipedia under the relevant topic titles (one of the tutors on my course discounts anything quote taken from wiki as a source).

My own tutor ended a crit of an essay on the origins of the Pentateuch with the following:

"As your concluding reference to Rhetorical Criticism suggests, the Zeitgeist has moved on from the trench warfare between the fundamentalists and the scientific determinists, both of whom, in their wildly differing ways, assume that reality is univocal. The new intellectual frontier is the semantic web, quantum physics and the high probability universe. Time to reach for Heidegger, Derrida and Lacan."

He has a quite unique way of writing, you're never immediately sure if your essay was a work of genius, or a pile of crap!

I've been reading a bit of Paul Ricoeur on language, but am trying to put things in order, the subject is, to say the least, broad.

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Hello All:

My opinion Thomas is that your tutor is spot on regarding the context of linguistic imagery. The whole exercise is determined in our brains with regard to the time and place contexts of the event in question. And the new sciences and philosophies that go along with them are forcing us all to seriously question what "reality" really is .

Maybe it was autumn, maybe the bush was a sumac which turns flame red in the autumn, maybe a quantum magician entered another dimension (should I dare call it the bush dimension?) and threw his/her voice into Moses' cortex, maybe it's all a symbolic representation of today's world in the beginnings of a global warming so profound that bushes do erupt spontaneously due to mere static electricity discharges, maybe the story of this was hurled backwards in time for the ancient Hebrews to relate in their sacred writings?

All of these interpretations and more are possible according to the differing views of the realities around us. But try as we may, we cannot go back to the mountain with Moses and discover the "real" context which surrounded the actual event, if it really occurred. But "something" did happen to the man Moses or the story wouldn't be there in the first place.

Like it or not we are all embedded in a space/time fabric that enfolds all life in our locality, and the linearity of events cannot be altered, but their interpretive aspects can be at least be partially understood through effective and lucid mythmaking and storytelling.

Toot Sweet...flow....:)
Can we know the real at all, d'you think?

(I obviously think 'yes').

Ahhh...the real. I've always held fast to the opinion that it is what one's brain and heart in combination leads one to experience. So as much as we'd like to pin down objective versions of reality to serve the masses, it is and always will be an individual and subjective set of experiences. But then my belief also is that's how we were designed and made.

OK —

But what if we move beyond the individual to the collective?

Can we not then ascertain the real beyond the empirical? I would argue that to say 'no' is to be hostage to the philosophy of Kant and of the Enlightenment?

There might be much in it, and indeed there is, but has not gone unchallenged?

I'm really just poking around here, Flow ...

I think the 'real' is what the story tells us about God and our relationship with God. Was there a literal-factual burning bush? An ark with all the animals? Manna from heaven and loaves and fishes? Wrong question. Does God touch us in ways that are powerful, life-changing, real? Absolutely. I know that's a rather shallow explanation of an image/experience as magestic as Moses and the bush, but I've not thought about that particular example very much. I hope though my approach to such events in the Bible is at least minimally explained by this poor example of mine.
I'd tend to agree with your take Luna. The traditional stories bear the messages of that which is unfathomable in human terms. The stories relate others, in the past, with the divine, and from that we learn to interpret our own unique experiences. But of course we all view our experiences in the world in unique ways because of our diversity. I'd venture that religion tends to try to bring unity of vision to our interetations of the stories. Anything more that that is speculative IMHO.

Hi Thomas...It's altogether a good thing to "poke" around. Even though I do not think it was the intent of the originator of the "Gumby" phenomenon to name his best friend "Pokey" because he poked around, I do believe that he was named thusly because whatever he did (Pokey that is), he did slowly.

Gumby has always been at the top of my heros list...mostly because he's thoroughly green and is very flexible.

interesting topic, here's my pennies worth... :)

the hardest thing is to describe religious experience, sometimes it is made easy by the portrayal of known figures, yet mostly one may only make an approximate example of similes. for example one vision i had was described in esoteric text as a wreath surrounding the deity, yet in my version it was a circle of energy which at the time i would not have referred to as a wreath. however upon reflection and after seeing images which described a similar thing it became apparent that the same thing occured.

so the burning bush to me would have been aetheric fire which burned with a sphere like appearance, the bush could have been ‘stems’ from which each flame emanated as if each flame was a leaf. we know that 'stems' [meridians] in the spiritual body are like arteries of the soul and carry aether and information between the centres etc, thus it would make sense to me that these stems were similar but manifest purely for that vision which moses had. there may not have even been an actual bush although i suspect that there were and that was the base of the image.
this is just my interpretation of course.
Can we know the real at all, d'you think?

(I obviously think 'yes').



And once comprehending would we wish to be drawn back into the maya and illusion of all that is not real....... No.

Truth is clean and fresh, now as it is.

- c -
I think the 'real' is what the story tells us about God and our relationship with God. Was there a literal-factual burning bush? An ark with all the animals? Manna from heaven and loaves and fishes? Wrong question.

Yes ... and no. Scripture scholarship has covered great grounds since the flat rejection of revelation by the empiricists — especially the distinction of 'genres' in the texts, so there are in fact 'real world' answers to the questions you pose: In short, how 'real' are the events described in Scripture? There's a big difference between literally 'real' and mythically 'real'.

Does God touch us in ways that are powerful, life-changing, real? Absolutely. I know that's a rather shallow explanation of an image/experience as magestic as Moses and the bush, but I've not thought about that particular example very much. I hope though my approach to such events in the Bible is at least minimally explained by this poor example of mine.

In this instance I might observe the explanation is not shallow at all, but clear, and thus conceals its depth of faith.

All that means is the water is not as deep above the bedrock of faith as it might be for a theologian, and only because theologians like swimming in deep water. Same faith. How deep the water is makes no difference to the bedrock. Some of our saints, who are exemplars of 'what a good human being should be' in anyone's book, were far from deep.

From a semantic viewpoint however, putting faith on one side and looking at how we order knowledge, this comes down on the side of subjectivity, does it not? I am being pedantic, but not from the axis of faith, but from the axis of semantics, and in the absence of material evidence, we have to look at the community in receipt of the given text to determine how they viewed it.

An example:A really telling aspect of the Gospels is that Jesus appears to perform miracles, make prophetic announcements, and indeed deliver a new Covenant, in His own name, which is utterly at odds with the Jewish prophetic and priestly traditions, and Hebraic monotheism as a whole. It would be much more likely that if the disciples were trying to present Jesus as the new Messiah, they would not have departed from the formulae of their Scripture — the Old Testament. But they did, so we must ask why, and the simple answer is that Jesus Himself claimed such, and they believed it.

Dei Verbum states:
"This plan of revelation is realized by deeds and words having in inner unity: the deeds wrought by God in the history of salvation manifest and confirm the teaching and realities signified by the words, while the words proclaim the deeds and clarify the mystery contained in them." (DV 2)

The document goes on to say:
"By this revelation then, the deepest truth about God and the salvation of man shines out for our sake in Christ, who is both the mediator and the fullness of all revelation." (DV 2)

Which is logical and reasonable, if the data of Revelation is accepted as objective fact.

A contrary view might therefore be, that nothing in Scripture is real, except those bits which the individual believes speaks to him or her personally. An extreme form of sola scriptura. This argument takes as axiomatic that objectivity lies beyond the capacity of the individual. Christianity — and indeed any faith — argues otherwise. One could similarly argue that the Buddha never actually existed, but rather is an atchytypical figure or title encompassing a body of knowledge — that Buddhism is an intellectual construct of a given community.

I don't want to get too caught up in the actual content of Scripture, that's why I posted to Philosophy.

What I did want to point out at this stage, is that the 'old fashioned' secular view of Scripture as something to be read and interpreted personally and subjectively is actually a thesis that has an increasing body of argument against it.

It is viable, but it is no longer as authoritative as it was a hundred and fifty years ago, and poses a number of questions that have to be resolved, if not to be assumed or taken on faith (and a faith without foundation) alone. If I were to argue theologically, it would be over those questions, not over the data itself. Jesus established an Apostolic Tradition, precisely to ensure the correct transmission of His teachings.

The fact that we tend to construct reality according to ourselves is most evident in how we see ourselves, compared to how others see us, and the fact that invariably no two others see precisely the same 'me'.

But this does not mean that man can not know the real? Or that the real cannot make itself known as such?

I would argue yes, and consequently argue with Flow that the stories themselves are fathomable, and this is their meaning and purpose — even if they point to the Unfathomable as their cause.

(Hence I also argue against sola scriptura, as even those denominations which adhere to it, nevertheless have their own idea of orthodox, heterodox and heresiarch...)

If I accept that scripture derives from the data of lived experience, from subjectivity alone, then the experience is prior to the story, which is then a construct that validates the experience (I believe Fairy Stories do precisely this, and thus overcome some unfortuate but common psychodynamic situations — the step-parent being a classic). But if such is the case, there is no need nor evidence of Revelation.

Dei Verbum states:
"In His goodness and wisdom God chose to reveal Himself and to make known to us the hidden purpose of His will... " (DV 2)
St Thomas argues that this is a statement of faith, and cannot be proven. If one accepts it, Scripture says one thing, if one does not, Scripture says something else.

One cannot argue the subjective interpretation alone, and maintain the validity of Scripture, because the same argument also stands for someone who insists that they can read Divine messages concealed in the numbers in a railway timetable, or messages to kill embedded in the lyrics of popular songs.

Therefore one must argue the objective reality and interpretation first — that transcendant truth has been revealed to us — and then one can weigh one's subjective against tradition, the lived faith, belief and experience of the community to whom the Revelation was entrusted. Without that, as a scholar said, each one of us invents a Jesus to suit ourselves.

Still rambin' around ...

If I am reading you right and I don't wish to put words in your mouth as this discussion of yours brings us closer in thought than we ever have...

There exists a transcendent truth.

We can't prove, don't know what happened or didn't happen.

But there exists a transcendent truth.

We don't know if it is historic fact or mythically real.

But there exists a transcendent truth.

And in all this we can learn and grow....but we can be released from the literal, and revel in the metaphor.

But as your path is different than mine, your understandings are different from mine...why can't our understandings of the text be different yet compatible...if we can't determine for ourselves what the scripture means to us....than we are right back to arguing whose beliefs are right and who holds the key.