Our immediate awareness of the world comes through the five senses: sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell. What we gain in this way, however, is by itself a pretty chaotic welter of sensation. We cannot possibly give our attention to every bit of information that enters the sensory gates. In reality, our minds never become consciously aware of more than a tiny fraction of this information.
Before sensations can become useful to us, they must first be filtered or interpreted. In this act of interpretation, we select the sensations upon which our minds will focus. Ignoring the vast majority of the information that arrives through our senses, we focus only on the part that passes through our filter. These interpreted sensations become our perceptions, and from them we construct our knowledge of the world.
There is no knowledge at the level of sensation. No human has ever considered a brute fact. Before it rises to the level of consideration, every fact has always already been interpreted. Our minds have already begun the work of constructing reality (as we know it) before we ever begin to examine it.
The work of interpretation is pre-cognitive. It takes place before we are aware of it, and it is largely transparent to us. It is a given into which we find ourselves thrown. One of the favorite pastimes of philosophers and cognitive psychologists is to try to explain how this initial process of interpretation works. These thinkers want to examine the lenses (the grid or filter) through which we examine the factual world.
Most agree that a major component in the process of perceiving facts and interpreting the world is our mastery of language. On this account, we register facts in our consciousness by naming them. Words such as ball, Jack, round, toss, and blue raise specific objects and events to the level of perception. Each thing that we name comes to represent a point on our grid or map of the world. If this explanation is true, then the more refined our choices for naming, the more precisely each point can be located on our inner map.
To build up knowledge of the world, however, we must do more than simply register the points that represent the facts. We must also bring these points into relationship with each other. In other words, simple naming is not sufficient. We must also engage in the act of telling or predication. We have a notion of ball and a notion of blue. Telling permits us to connect ball with blue so that we can interpret this particular ball as a blue one. The predicate throw permits us to connect Jack with ball in a particular relationship: “Jack throws the ball.”
On this account of human understanding, the acts of naming and telling are the tools through which each person constructs an inner grid or map of the world. Naming and telling are the lenses through which everyone understands the world, and they are the technology for transferring what is on one person’s grid to another person’s grid. What I can name and tell for myself, I can also name and tell to someone else.
At some point, we begin to name things that do not reach us through our senses. Abstractions such as justice, freedom, courage, and virtue are not sensations that arise from the material world, but realities that inhabit the moral world. Just as we speak the material world into existence in our own consciousness, we also speak the moral world into existence. Furthermore, if we are Biblicists, we shall recognize that existence of the moral world is just as real as the existence of the material world.
When they are practiced by humans, naming and telling come with certain limitations. They are limited by human finiteness. They are limited by human depravity, which inevitably skews our perception of both material and moral reality. They are limited by the human lack of precision. Furthermore, they are limited by human inattention and by the inadequacies of human memory. We sometimes simply forget, and forgetting can suspend or even erase a part of our inner grid.
While these limitations cannot be overcome, some of them can at least be minimized. Limitations of attention and memory can especially be helped through the technology of writing. Writing is an external re-creation of the inner acts of naming and telling. Because it is external and permanent, we can go back and re-read a text when we have been inattentive. We can use it to remind ourselves when we have been forgetful. Even better, written texts allow us to create much longer chains of naming and telling than we could ever hold in the unaided memory. By employing the written word, we can construct larger and more detailed descriptions of the grid through which we view the world, and we can make these descriptions available for inspection by ourselves and others.
Perhaps most importantly, writing allows us to ponder large sections of our grid. We can compare one part to another for consistency. We can re-examine every bit of naming and telling for precision. Once we are skilled in the technology of writing and reading, we find that it becomes indispensible for the work of building and evaluating our view of the world.
Language in general and the written word in particular is the technology of thinking. When we write well, our naming and telling becomes precise and exact. We offer a clear picture of the world as we see it, because we actually see it clearly. When we write poorly, however, we are betraying that we have only a vague idea of the world. Murky writing is the invariable product of a foggy mind, of a mind that can neither name nor tell with exactness. People who cannot write clearly are not merely unable to say what they mean—they are unable to mean. Worse yet, they will derange the thought of anyone who attempts to take their writing seriously.
Special revelation is available to us only in the written Word. In other words, Christianity is a religion of text. Even non-textual aspects of Christianity (such as observance of the ordinances) are communicated and defined by the written Word. The written Word was God’s choice, and we have to presume that He made it for a reason. This being so, we might well ask what interest the local church ought to take in ensuring that its members reach a high degree of literacy. We might also ask what expectations a church ought to impress upon its leaders to become skillful writers and readers.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
May God Bestow on Us His Grace
Martin Luther (1483-1546), trans. Richard Massie (1800-1887), alt.
May God bestow on us His grace,
With blessings rich provide us,
And may the brightness of His face
To life eternal guide us
That we His saving health may know,
His gracious will and pleasure,
And also to the heathen show
Christ’s riches without measure
And unto God convert them.
Thine over all shall be the praise
And thanks of every nation,
And all the world with joy shall raise
The voice of exultation;
For Thou shalt judge the earth, O Lord,
Nor suffer sin to flourish;
Thy people’s pasture is Thy Word
Their souls to feed and nourish,
In righteous paths to keep them.
Oh, let the people praise Thy worth,
In all good works increasing;
The land shall plenteous fruit bring forth,
Thy Word is rich in blessing.
May God the Father, God the Son,
And God the Spirit bless us!
Let all the world praise Him alone,
Let solemn awe possess us
Now let our hearts say, Amen.