Faith and Language: Walter Hilton, St. Augustine, And Poststructural Semiotics.
Christianity and Literature 2003, Autumn, 53, 1
Christianity and Literature
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Perhaps the greatest difference between the Christian tradition and post-structuralism is that the latter questions the former by declaring that there is no ultimate meaning, transcendental signified, or God the very foundation upon which Christian belief is structured. David Thomson in "Deconstruction and Meaning in Medieval Mysticism" writes that such disparity has polarized "the university community into proponents of a 'logo-diffuse' onto-epistemology and proponents of a 'logocentric' one" (107). According to Thomson, poststructuralism's skepticism concerning language has often shifted into skepticism concerning meaning. That is, while it is possible to make claims about language itself, making claims about meaning or the signified is impossible because, for the poststructuralist, such certainty does not exist--context is all there is. Thomson's insight is that one aspect of the Christian tradition, medieval mysticism, understood well the fact that human language fails to signify the divine. My purpose in this essay is not to argue against Thomson's claims. Quite the contrary, using Thomson's claims as a starting point, I intend to show that Christianity and poststrucrural semiotic theory can complement each other and that juxtaposing them can help to illuminate the manner in which language works in our world. Thomson's essay provides a strong argument for reading the mystics through a deconstructive lens. What he does not do--and what I do not intend to do here--is to deconstruct these texts. I will not use deconstruction as a methodology. Rather, I employ it here as a viable description of the equivocally complex manner in which language works. It is not the only viable description of language, but, like structuralism, it holds a belief in the fact that signifiers produce meaning only in context with other signifiers--and thus that meaning is unstable and negotiable. Poststructuralist critical theory, as I will show, does not provide an apt understanding of the use of language concerning the Christian afterlife, but no theory can adequately describe such an unknown. St. Paul makes this quite clear in his first epistle to the Corinthians: "But, as it is written: That eye hath not seen, nor ear heard: neither hath it entered into the heart of man, what things God hath prepared for them that love him" (2:9). (1) These issues of ineffability and uncertainty are central to what Christian contemplative thinkers have struggled with over the centuries.
- Category: Language Arts & Disciplines
- Published: 22 September 2003
- Publisher: Conference on Christianity and Literature
- Print Length: 28 Pages
- Language: English