Are Symbols Arbitrary?
Recently there has been considerable controversy generated in a university classroom where the prof required students to create a sign with the word “Jesus” on it and then to step on the same. One student, a Mormon, refused and was disciplined for his refusal. The governor of Florida became involved but apparently the teacher has not been sanctioned in any way.
Now it emerges that, in the instructor’s guide apparently used by college professors (really? When did university professors and graduate students begin using instructor’s guides? But I digress), the author asserts
This exercise is a bit sensitive, but really drives home the point that even though symbols are arbitrary, they take on very strong and emotional meanings.
This claim begins to explain, ahem, what is afoot. Why on earth would a university professor ask his class to do something so provocative and moreover why is it that, apparently, only one person objected to the exercise? The prof was catechising his pupils in the dominant religion of our late modern age and most of the students were either afraid of the academic consequences of disobedience or already agreed with the premise: nominalism, i.e., the relation between a sign (signum) and the thing signified (res signata) is actually arbitrary. The corollary to this now widely accepted premise says that anyone who asserts a stable relation between sign and thing signified is only covering up a will to power.
You know about this debate and you’ll recognize it when we consider it in more familiar terms. First the secular then, in the next post, the sacred. When you hand a dollar bill (if anyone still does that any more) to a clerk, she accepts that bill as a symbol of 100 pennies. Considered on its own, not as a symbol, the materials that make the dollar are not worth 100 pennies, especially if those are older pennies with copper (they are now made of zinc). Why, then, does the clerk accept the dollar as if it were worth 100 pennies? Because the government says it is worth 100 pennies. From the 1930s through the early 1970s there was some relation between the dollar and an actual valuable commodity, gold but that relationship ended and now the dollar is backed by the “full faith and credit of the United States.” What that is worth is the subject of another post and perhaps another blog altogether.
Thus, in our current economy, when we hand a dollar bill to a clerk and he accepts it, we are practical nominalists. In that instance both clerk and customer assume the relation between the sign (the dollar bill) and the thing signified (100 pennies) is the result of a convention or agreement. We agree that the dollar is worth 100 pennies even though the dollar bill, considered as a commodity, is not actually worth 100 pennies. Theoretically, the dollar bill could be worth 50 pennies or 1000 pennies. The relation between them is arbitrary.
In the pre-modern era, we exchanged commodities. If one wanted something of value, one had to exchange something of equal or greater value but trading chickens across a counter became burdensome. Thus, we “rationalized” the economy, we substituted signs for the thing signified. Typically, however, we understood that there was a stable relation between the sign (a coin) and the thing signified or the coin might actually be made of valuable commodities (e.g., gold or silver). Put in medieval theological and philosophical terms, prior to the 1930s we tended to be realists when it came to money. We understood a close relation between the coin and what the coin represents. Since the early 1970s, however, we have become nominalists. We have agreed to a more fluid or even arbitrary relation between coin and commodity.
I’m not an economist nor do I play on television nor am I a “gold bug” exactly. I understand that there were certain deficiencies with the gold standard but there were also certain advantages. The main point here is to come to a clearer understanding of what nominalism and what its consequences are. My thesis is that many of us living in the late modern world, particularly those who are 30 and under, are nominalists and we do not realize it. Those who are over thirty are more likely to assume a more stable relation between signs and things signified, i.e., they tend to more realist in the the way they relate signs and thing signified. They tend to be less suspicious of assertions that “this is true.” To those 30 and under, the assertion that one proposition is true and the other false is more likely to ring hollow and raise suspicion that the person making the claim is really hiding an ulterior agenda. They are suspicious about truth claims because they already assume that the relation between signs (e.g., words) and things signified (e.g., truth) is fluid or non-existent.
Consider how the argument is being mediated to you: a computer. What is a computer? It is a glorified adding machine fiddling with zeroes and ones. Why zeroes and ones? Some decided to do it that way. It’s arbitrary. It could be ones and twos. Why is the keyboard the way it is? It’s arbitrary. There were other keyboards. Why are stop lights red, yellow, and green? It’s arbitrary. Things could be other than they are. Growing up in a fluid world, which Zygmunt Baumann has described as “liquid modernity” has created a generation of skeptics and doubters.
Scott Jaschik, who wrote on this controversy today, points out that the instructor’s guide does not say to “stomp on Jesus” but misses the point. He begs the question (assumes what has to be proved) and accepts the reigning nominalism, that there is no relation between the sign and the thing signified or that the relation is purely arbitrary. Juan Williams at Fox News does the same from an even more emotive, subjectivist perspective. The objection, that students were required to step on a sign and not on the thing signified, misunderstands the outcry (which is probably coming mostly from those over 30 and probably mostly over 40). Everyone can see that a sign is not the thing signified but we cannot simply assume, as Jaschik does (and as Jim Neuliep, the author of the instructor’s guide does), that the relation is purely arbitrary or that there is no relation at all. Note that Juliep has been leading this exercise for 30 years. That is significant because it is in that same time span that the radical decoupling of signs from the things signified has penetrated the broader, popular culture, including evangelical and Reformed communions.
An Example From the Sacred
It is widely held in our time that the relation between signs and the things signified is arbitrary. Traditionally, such a view has been known as nominalism. In the first installment we considered a secular example (money) to illustrate the problem of the decoupling of signs and things signified.
To give a sacred example, when a believer comes to the Lord’s Table to receive the bread and the wine, what is he receiving? If your first thought was “the body and blood of Christ” you’re headed in the right direction. On reflection, however, other questions follow? How do believers eat the body and blood of Christ? What is the relation between the sign (signum), bread and wine, and the thing signified (res signata), i.e., Christ’s body? There are four major options:
- The signs signify (testify to) the body of Christ in which he was conceived, obeyed, died, and was raised but they only signify. Thus the relation is purely intellectual or memorial.
- The signs signify (as defined) the body of Christ (as defined) and through them the Spirit feeds us on the body of Christ.
- The signs signify the body of Christ, which is locally present in, with, and under the signs.
- The signs become the body.
The first was Zwingli’s view. Yes, I’m familiar with W. P. Stephens’ argument but am not persuaded. Even in his most mature writings Zwingli never moved beyond a memorialist view. This is the view held by most post-Second Great Awakening American evangelicals and by many Reformed/Presbyterian laity.
The second was the view articulated by some of the second-century Fathers, Ratramnus and others in the 9th century, by most of the Reformed in the classical period (including Calvin) and is confessed by the Reformed churches.
The third is the confessional Lutheran view.
The fourth is the Romanist view, first articulated by Radbertus (in controversy with Ratramnus) in the 9th century and formally adopted at the 4th Lateran Council in 1215 and ratified at the Council of Trent in 1562. Contra the frequent claims by Romanists it was not taught by Irenaeus in the second century.
These views of the Lord’s Supper (holy communion, the eucharist) illustrate four different relations between signs and things signified. You can see immediately that how one relates signs to things signified has great spiritual, theological, and practical significance. In the life of the church many are unwilling to administer communion frequently because they think of the supper as a memorial or as a funeral. It involves an intense grieving process and the idea of enduring such a wrenching thing every week is too much to bear.
Those who think of the supper principally as a sacramental meal in which we are fed by the body of Christ mysteriously, by work of the Holy Spirit, are more likely to favor more frequent communion. The weight of the sacrament is upon being met and fed by Christ and upon the visible sealing the promises of the gospel. When we consider Christ’s death we must consider our sins, and that is sad, but the gospel is good news and the supper is fundamentally gospel.
The Lutheran view has much in common with the Reformed but by locating the thing signified within the the sign it threatens the very existence of the sign itself. As Ratramnus argued in the 9th century, our faith does not make Christ present but faith is essential to receiving Christ. No one receives Christ without faith. That would be magic. Since faith, trusting Christ’s promises is the sole instrument by which we receive Christ and his benefits (<em>sola fide</em>), those who locate Christ within the elements or who—even worse—claim that the signs become the thing signified destroy faith and thus, in their attempt to ensure Christ’s presence have actually, ironically, as it were chased him away.
Thus, we find ourselves between two poles, that which makes the sign essentially arbitrary and that which conflates the sign with the thing signified. A picture of a horse is not a horse. If one places that picture on the ground and saddle it, one will not go far. One has saddled a picture, not a horse. If, however, the only relation between the picture and the horse is in our intellect or in our memory of the horse, then the relation between the sign and the thing signified is fluid and unstable.
This is last option is the one I want to consider with you for a moment. Now, not everything is a sacrament. There are only two sacraments and a sacramental relation is different than the ordinary relation between signs and things signified. A picture of a horse is a sign but not a sacramental sign. There are no divine promises of salvation attached to the picture of the horse. Nevertheless, the relation between the picture and the horse is important.
The Hermeneutic of Love
One of the great and evil things that has beset the late modern world is the destruction of the hitherto stable relations between the sign (e.g., a word, a picture) and the thing signified. I’m grateful to my old friend Warren Embree for alerting me to this problem in the mid-1980s in discussions and later in Warren C. Embree, “Ethics and Interpretation,” PhD Diss. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1991). Much of that work was a reflection on Augustine’s account of the relation between signs and seals but it was also an argument for what he called a “hermeneutic of love” in contrast to the then wildly popular, late modern, deconstructionist “hermeneutic of suspicion.” In the second half of the 20th century it became quite popular to argue that there are no stable relations between signs and things signified, that the relation is arbitrary. It was suggested that those who argue for a stable relation between signs and things signified were really just asserting power over others, by seeking to control them through controlling the meaning of words. In short, part of the argument was whether the relations between signs and things signified is a matter of truth or a matter of power. Behind that argument lies an even more fundamental argument: whether God is, whether he has created nature and whether as a part of his creation he has willed a stable relation between signs and things signified.
The relation between signs and things signified was a matter of considerable debate through the middle ages. Peter Abelard (1079–1142) , for most of his career, taught a strong form of nominalism. This provoked a reaction from his critics (e.g., Bernard of Clairveaux, 1090–1153) and brought condemnation of his theology (for modalism in the doctrine of the Trinity).
There was another school of thought in the middle ages, realism, that identified the names with things named via their essences. For the realists (via antiqua) the intellect abstracts the universals from particulars (e.g., sense experience) of this thing and that. Those essences were said to belong to the divine being. This down and dirty summary is bound to upset historians of philosophy but the upshot is that the realists managed to put both God and the creation in a box of sorts. They set up a world in which things couldn’t be other than they are and the realist knew how they could be, how they had to be.
This realism provoked a reaction from nominalists such as William of Ockham (c. 1280–1350), who taught that the relations between names and things named is a mere convention. Where the realists said universals are real, Ockham and the nominalists (via moderna) argued that it is particulars that real and universals are illusory. This is why Ockham proposed his “razor,” to eliminate what he saw as unnecessary assumptions about the nature of being.
Contrary to the way the story is sometimes told, the Reformation was not product of nominalism. It is true that Ockham and others did make it possible to reconsider some long held assumptions but the Reformation itself was not a species of nominalism but neither was it a species of realism. How then did they relate signs to the things signified? On the basis of the divine nature and will. In Calvin, e.g., God’s Word is reliable because it is true to the divine nature. God wills what he does because he is what he is, i.e., his will is consonant with his nature. Thus, signs are the product of the divine will and the divine will is related to the divine nature. As a consequence, the relations between signs and things signified is stable because the divine will and nature are stable.
In the modern period, i.e., the early stages of neo-paganism, for those who accepted the renewed, Enlightenment assertion of the ancient, pagan maxim that “man is the measure of all things” (Protragoras d. 411 BC) the God of the Christian faith became, at best, a hypothesis, a limiting notion. Really the mysterious, dynamic, powerful God of Scripture and of the historic Christian confession became a remote deity incapable of knowing or being known. Still, the relations between signs and things signified was generally considered stable but now not so much because of what God had ordained or even because of the nature of God but because of the prevailing rationalism of modernity.
The late modern reaction to the rationalism (and empiricism) of the earlier phases of modernity has been a skepticism not only about the relations between signs and seals about even about our ability to perceive reality. As I began to suggest in part 1, the idea that symbols are “arbitrary” and have chiefly emotive value is rooted in such skepticism.
Why is such nominalism cruel? It is because it makes signs essentially meaningless. Without meaningful signs discourse is reduced to the will to power (rather than a search for truth). It begins with the assumption that truth is lost to us. It’s cynical. It destroys communication and communion between persons.
I was raised in a time that largely assumed a naive sort of realism and, as in the middle ages, the pendulum has swung to the other extreme. Today’s young people are being indoctrinated in skepticism about truth and signs. The very idea of nature or fixity, an essential assumption to behind a stable relation between signs and things signified, has come to be viewed with suspicion.
It’s easy, however, to see why stable relations between signs and things signified is so important. Here you are reading text about signs. If there’s not at least relative stability, if I, the writer, and you, the reader, cannot count of a relatively stable relation between signs and things signified then who knows what these characters mean and why you are staring at them?
Ironically, to the degree we accept nominalism we really are at mercy of the reader and the interpreter (“reader response” anyone?). As Stanley Fish said, there is no “text.” Absent the totalitarianism of the reader, what then? We must fly blindly to authority. In our search for liberty from fixity and authority we know find ourselves at the mercy of some superior authority: from libertinism to totalitarianism.
Some Christians are fleeing to Rome to overcome late modern skepticism. Of course, this move only postpones or relocates the problem. Rome claims magisterial authority to say what Scripture teaches but who knows exactly what Rome really says that Scripture teaches? Those documents (papal decrees, conciliar decrees etc) must be interpreted and they are arguably more difficult to interpret since they manifestly contradict each other. Then, of course, there is the gnostic appeal to a secret, unwritten apostolic authority. It’s hard to see how a secret tradition that, for all we know, exists in the imagination of a few cardinals does anything but add to the crisis.
Nominalism destroys perspicuity but that perspicuity (the essential clarity) of the biblical text was basic to the Reformation. For the Reformed confession the text of Scripture is inherently superior to the reader. As we understand it, the text forms us, it interprets us, it norms us. Late modern subjectivists would have us become the text, the norm but we are not “canon” (rule) but the ruled but that only works if the text is essentially, sufficiently clear and we can only talk about clarity (perspicuity) if there are stable relations between signs and things signified, if the world we perceive with our senses is sufficiently, reliably what we perceive it to be.
Of course that’s the way the world is because God, though utterly free, is not arbitrary. He might have willed differently than he did but we can trust what he has said because he reveals himself in ways that are consonant with himself. Nominalism is cruel but God is not cruel, he is love (1 John 4:8). The greatest sign of God’s love is his Son, the Word (John 1:1). About him we can be neither nominalists or skeptics. In him the relation between sign (“Word”) and signified is stable. It must be stable—the eternal Word incarnate, true and eternal God and true man. The Apostle John saw and touched the Word: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands….”
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