The power of language: from hell to heaven (pt 1 of 2)


Isaiah (Photo credit: Missional Volunteer)

The power of language: from hell to heaven

How could language be important? In particular, how could the specific ways that we use language be important? If we shift our relationship to language itself, how could that be valuable?

First, consider that language can be the source both of human society and of personal agony. Can you imagine society without a complex set of words to organize huge networks of cooperation? No?

Was language important in the construction of the building in which you live? Was it important in the distribution of the food you eat (or the cultivation of that food)? Was it important in the development of the modern technology that you use or for the mining of the minerals used in high-tech devices like radios, telegraphs, satellites, airplanes, and the electrical wiring in your home?

Isaiah Mormon

Isaiah Mormon (Photo credit: More Good Foundation)

How about this: can you imagine a newborn human practicing the behavior of agonizing? If not, then why not? How about some other newborn organism of some other species? Can a dolphin agonize? A spider? A horse? An eagle?

Agonizing requires language. So does condemnation, paranoia, shame, and also the experience that is the result of the behavior of agonizing, called agony. None of these are innate to humanity. None of these experiences are possible for creatures that do not actively use language. Further, for someone who is clear about the nature of language, the practices of agonizing and shaming may lose momentum or even simply cease.

LBRP hebrew

LBRP hebrew (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the US, today is the celebration of Thanksgiving. Today, I am am thankful for language itself as well for a new clarity emerging in regard to language. The new clarity about language brings liberation from confusion about the nature of language.

How is that important? The new clarity about language also brings liberation from confusion about the linguistic origin of agony (as well as shame, paranoia, and condemnation).

Many words have been used to reference this liberation from confusion about language. Enlightenment, revelation, salvation, heaven, and grace are a few of them.

Do you have a sense that some words are more important than others? Do you consider some words to be more sacred or more powerful than others?

Created for an added image to the Hebrew langu...

Created for an added image to the Hebrew language page (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Considering that there are hundreds of distinct languages being used by humanity across the globe today, do you think that there is anyone who knows even a single word in every language? So, some words are going to be more powerful for you than others. In fact, some words will seem to you to have no power whatsoever because you do not even recognize them as words at all.

Further, there are dozens of distinct alphabets (as well as non-alphabetic systems of writing like hieroglyphics). Do you think that anyone could learn every single shape of every single form of writing that humans have ever used?

Which is the most sacred letter in any human alphabet? Which letter is most powerful?

Hebrew Alphabet in Rashi Script

Hebrew Alphabet in Rashi Script (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

People who speak English might answer “I.” Because that letter is used for self-reference (like “I am feeling great”), the letter “I” certainly has distinct importance to speakers of English.

However, consider that most of humanity does not know any English. Billions of people might not even know the letter “I” (which is also written as “i”).

Some Italians might even say that the letter “I” is very important because it symbolizes the numerical unit 1. Thousands of clocks have the Roman Numeral “I” near the top, right?

When counting as a child, I learned to make markings of a vertical line (like the shape of I or 1). I would mark up to four vertical lines and then make a new line through all four of the prior parallel lines. The new line would be diagonal like in the letter V.

What was the origin of the four parallel vertical lines and a fifth diagonal line? It was a visual “shadow” of the the simplest form of counting on fingers, plus a thumb.

How would I write a symbol for “thumb?” A relaxed open hand with the palm facing my face would make a shape like a V (between the thumb and the side of the palm).

If I was counting to ten on my fingers, I could cross my two thumbs and make an X. Other shapes that are easy to make with my hands are C and L. However, one of the very simplest shapes that I could make would be to extend a single “Index” finger, which I could record in writing as an “I.”

English: Sample page of Sefer Raziel HaMalakh,...

English: Sample page of Sefer Raziel HaMalakh, a medieval work of Jewish mysticism. No copyright. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why do I mention all of this about the letter “I?” To establish that the letter “I” has no fundamental importance whatsoever. It is just a code or a symbol. It represents something else. It is merely an indicator or reminder.

The only importance of I is relative to an individual human observer. The actual observer is obviously more important than the linguistic symbol for the observer (“I, Ich, Je, Yo” etc). The observer may or may not interpret some meaning for a particular linguistic representation (such as “I,” which refers directly back to the observer). Clearly, the letter I (or the sound of the spoken word “I”) does not mean anything to horses or spiders or earthquakes or electromagnetic storms.

In fact, language itself has importance only relative to a particular observer or witness. Words like heaven or sacred do not mean anything to a newborn, especially if the newborn is a duck or a cat or a goldfish or an amoeba, right?

So, I mentioned that we are talking about language as the source of agony. I mentioned that the linguistic behavior of agonizing is the source of agony. I did not mention yet that all that it takes to interrupt agony is to discontinue the activity of linguistic agonizing.

If I was going to talk about what in the Buddhist tradition is called “the Four Noble Truths,” then I might say more about the reality of agony, the cause of agony (which is the linguistic behavior of agonizing), about the removal of the cause of agony (which is to discontinue the linguistic behavior), and then also a few other items such as the correct way of mindful speaking and even the correct way of precise perceiving. However, I am not focusing on the Buddhist tradition as special or more sacred than any other.

דוגמא לגופן "פרנק-ריהל" הגופן ששימש ...

דוגמא לגופן “פרנק-ריהל” הגופן ששימש לדוגמא: Frank-Ruehl, של קולמוס. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am more familiar personally with the Hebrew tradition (and the two more recent branches of Hebrew tradition: Christianity and Islam). The ancient Hebrew prophet Isaiah warned about the mistaking of symbols as the things symbolized. In other words, it is not the physical book of written scriptures that is most sacred, but the lessons of what the scriptures record (which had already been an oral tradition of the Hebrews prior to the development of the Hebrew alphabet).

The written word for Divinity is not spoken aloud by orthodox Hebrews, not because the word itself is sacred in itself, but because what is represented by the word is so sacred. The word can be translated in to other languages and people could even argue and agonize about which word (or which language) is most “fundamentally” sacred.

That practice is called idolatry: focusing on the symbol rather than on what it symbolizes. Ancient Hebrews spoke about idolatry because it was a basic confusion among them; some people gave so much respect to the particular words or even to the sacred shapes like “the star of David” that the Prophet Isaiah labeled their practices as “vanity, foolishness, delusion.” Isaiah famously said that some people were worshiping only with their lips rather than with their hearts.

Other Hebrew prophets said similar things. In fact, the most famous Hebrew prophet, Jesus, specifically quoted the above warning of Isaiah (as recorded in Mark 7:6-13), while also referencing the prior Hebrew prophet Moses:

English: Hebrew Bible text as written in a Jew...

English: Hebrew Bible text as written in a Jewish Sefer Torah. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

6But he said to them, “Isaiah the Prophet prophesied beautifully of you impostors, just as it is written: ‘This people honors me with its lips, but their heart is very far from Me.’

7‘And in vain they pay reverence to me as they teach doctrines of commandments of the sons of men.’

8“You forsake the commandments of God and you keep the traditions of the sons of men: washings of cups and pots and many such things like these.”

9He said to them, “Well you reject the commandment of God that you may establish your traditions.” 10For Moses said, “Honor your father and your mother”, and “Whoever reviles father and mother shall die the death.” 11But you say, “If a man shall say to his father or to his mother, ‘My offering is anything that you shall gain from me.’ 12Then you do not allow him to do anything for his father or his mother. 13And you reject the word of God for the traditions that you deliver, and many things like these you do.”

Hebrew cursive

Hebrew cursive (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, we began by asking how could language be important. One thing that is only possible with language is the idolatry of thinking of language as more sacred than life itself. In other words, we can reject the creations of God (or neglect them) in order to worship human symbols (like a specific sequence in a particular language).

The fundamental value of humanity does not cancel the value of language (or of religious traditions). Humanity is simply the source of the importance of language (and reverence for particular religious traditions).


Before we conclude, we will repeat something we read earlier. Let’s elaborate a bit on it.

“Agonizing requires language. So does condemnation, paranoia, shame, and also the experience that is the result of the behavior of agonizing, called agony.”

(Go to part 2 to continue reading:

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