an absolute necessity

Private, personal, secret prayer is a work of absolute necessity, says Thomas Brooks:

Private prayer is a work of absolute necessity, both to the bringing of the heart into a good frame, and to the keeping of the heart in a good frame. It is of absolute necessity, both for the discovery of sin, and for the preventing of sin, and for the purging away of sin. It is of absolute necessity, both for the discovery of grace, and for a full exercise of grace, and for an eminent increase of grace. It is of absolute necessity to arm us, both against inward and outward temptations, afflictions, and sufferings. It is of absolute necessity to fit us for all other duties and services.

For a man to glorify God, to save his own soul, and to further his own everlasting happiness, is a work of the greatest necessity. Now private prayer is such a work …

Thomas Brooks, The Secret Key to Heaven. Banner of Truth edition 2006, p97-98. First published 1665.

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on (the) bus

Any time I sit downstairs on the bus, I am vaguely disturbed by the sign behind the driver’s head. Should it be:

(1) We will press for prosecution of anyone who attacks our staff.

or:

(2) We will press for the prosecution of anyone who attacks our staff.

Please help.

for the non-scientists among you

I’ve just got back from the harrowing experience of spending a whole day as an arts/humanities minority in a roomful of chemists and biologists. The amount of misunderstanding with which linguistics is viewed by Those Sorts of People is quite astonishing, and I’m not even part of the linguistics camp that thinks that generative grammar has any obvious right to be considered a science. Quote of the day: “That’s what science is all about after all, defending your position with arguments, I don’t know what it’s like for the non-scientists but as a scientist you really need to have evidence …” Funny, because even generative grammarians have been observed to make arguments in the past, and some phoneticians have on occasion actually gone so far as to measure things. And even draw graphs. Honestly, there are times when the desperation to be inclusive really outweighs any possible benefits and just becomes downright patronising.

its kind of personal

Boy, I don’t know if I’ve ever been asked this before. I’ve just told the world, via the Laodiceans, that for private devotions I’d schedule a minimum of 15 min morning and evening and more typically half an hour. Does that sound about right for anyone else? Assuming you’re willing to share, obviously!

clauses, delicious and nourishing

Listened to Steven Pinker on Andrew Marr’s Start the Week this morning after a tip-off – the very first thing he said was hilarious and then the whole discussion veered off on a tangent about gender differences in swearing practices. ‘Yes,’ he proclaimed, in answer to Marr’s starting query about what he meant by the term ‘verbivores’ in his new book, ‘We subsist on words!’

I know the man is a famous professor and I know he writes beautifully and I know there’s a Facebook appreciation society in his honour and I do actually think that at least one chapter in the Language Instinct is worth reading. But still, we don’t subsist on words. It’s the same kind of superficially appealing but ultimately contentless metaphor that can be seen in the work of certain other famous academics in which they postulate the existence of a ‘language organ’ – a figment which a couple of articles by Everett have established is at best a theoretical construct, considering that, unlike other human organs such as hearts and limbs, it is actually invisible – it can’t be seen and can’t be located. At least spoken words do have physical properties which can be objectively measured, but unfortunately they still don’t provide much in the way of sustenance.

Language isn’t an organ, thought isn’t made of stuff, verbs can’t be devoured, and although I’m sure Pinker’s latest publication will be a stimulating read, the obsession with (abstract) form at the expense of communicative function which characterises the school of thought to which he belongs is neither the only possible way of thinking about language nor even the most fruitful. Please do bear that in mind should you venture to read the book.

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Everett (2005), ‘Biology and language: a consideration of alternatives.’ Journal of Linguistics 41: 157-175
Everett (2006), ‘Biology and language: response to Anderson & Lightfoot.’ Journal of Linguistics 42: 385-393
Pinker (2007), The Stuff of Thought.

it’s possible to know

I’ve just been reminded that I was going to pick up on a point that bothered me in this now somewhat ancient discussion (among the hundred and one other things which only time and argument-fatigue made me skip over). Specifically, I deeply disagree with the viewpoint expressed in reply 44, which I’ll abridge here for memory-jogging purposes (hopefully without misrepresenting it, but being open to correction since it’s always risky to summarise other people’s arguments for them):

“Since all our knowledge comes through the senses, and since we have no sense knowledge of God, all our “knowledge” of God is through faith.”

“In this present life we have no way of knowing God. You can’t touch, taste, see, hear or smell Him. You can hear about Him. You can know about Him. You know He is there, because you believe what you have heard about Him – but it’s not a knowledge like knowing that Orkney is north(ish) of Scotland because you have sailed there …”

“The “knowledge” of God we have at first is what we hear of Him. Then if we love Him, because we have heard and believed, He will make us even now like unto Him, and so we know Him better – but this is all through faith, otherwise we would not know what this new knowledge was of, if that makes any sense.”

One major difficulty which I have with this view is that it makes the Christian life sound like something which lacks one of the most important things that is rectified when a person is converted – ie the knowledge of God. And the second difficulty is that it makes faith sound like a substitute for knowledge, when faith could not exist without a reliable and certain knowledge of the truths that save the soul.

To elaborate.

(1) The process of converting a soul is a process which includes enlightening the mind in the knowledge of Christ, and salvation is a matter of reconciling the sinner to God. Both ignorance of God and alienation from God are characteristics of an unconverted state. Prior to conversion, people have only the vaguest and most uncomfortable ideas about God, if they accept that he exists at all – even if they are familiar with the doctrines of the scriptures, that God is holy and good and kind and merciful towards sinners, these are not things which attract them to him in any meaningful way – people prefer to remain at a distance from God, thinking as little about him as possible, and keeping up as much of an estrangement from him as they can.

This is all changed when a soul is saved – in salvation, the sinner comes to know by experience things which he or she had only heard about previously – knowing by experience that God has mercy on sinners (because he has had mercy on me, a sinner) is a characteristic of a saved soul, in contrast to a simple familiarity with the propositional truth that God has mercy on sinners. This is actually very closely analogous to knowing that Orkney is in the north because you’ve sailed there – the sinner that is saved has tasted and seen that God is good, or, to keep the sea-faring metaphor, has been actually brought to the haven that their storm-tossed soul desired to see, Psalm 107:23-32. And additionally, this knowing of God is a very personal relationship between the sinner and the Saviour. It is illustrated in scripture by various human relationships – between family members, husbands and wives, friends – but it goes much deeper than any and all of these. It takes the redeeming work of Christ, the pardoning work of the Father, and the regenerating work of the Spirit, to get a sinner to know God – but when God does save a soul, his salvation entails that the sinner he is saving will indeed know him, really and truly and personally.

(2) In terms of the relation between faith and knowledge, it is not the case that faith is a substitute for knowledge, as if the fact that someone knows God (in the sense I was just talking about) means that their knowledge disqualifies them from being able to believe in him. Rather, faith takes hold of God just as he is revealed – if he didn’t reveal himself, we would remain utterly ignorant of him, but since he has revealed himself, we have to take that revelation on his own authority and believe him on that account (ie, we are required to believe him on the authority of his own word).

In other words, if you believe at all, you have to believe in things that are revealed. Faith has to come up to what God has revealed in scripture, and it can’t stop short of anything less than what God has revealed in scripture. There are things which we are required to believe even though we can’t fully understand them (such as the truth that there are three persons in the Godhead, and these three are one God), but in these cases, the only warrant we have for believing them at all is the fact that they are revealed. The kind of believing which exists without knowledge is probably better called speculation, or imagination, or wishful thinking – knowledge of the truth is a crucial prerequisite for faith, just as the revealed truth itself, because it is after all the truth of God and spoken on God’s authority, is what gives us the warrant or right or basis for believing (- it is the only thing that gives us that warrant, but it is an ample warrant, of course).

not one shred

From a book I wish I’d read sooner. Remember the continuity versus parsimony question? Never mind parsimony for the moment – here’s more on continuity.

“In order to gain the theoretical rigour he wanted [in the field of child language acquisition], Pinker (1984) invoked the theoretical tools of lexical functional grammar. But since these tools were developed to analyse adult language, and since children’s language on the surface does not look like adult language, he had to make the continuity assumption: underneath, the language of children is structured by the same abstract categories and rules as that of adults. This was a mistake. There is not one shred of evidence for the continuity assumption. The reason children’s language does not look like adult language is that it is not like it in terms of the underlying representations involved; children’s language is structured by much weaker and more local linguistic abstractions. Perhaps, then, we should abandon the continuity assumption and instead adopt the developmental assumption that whereas the processes working at different developmental stages are constant, the actual structures and representations involved are different at these different stages.” (Tomasello 2003: 323-324)

Having made this point, Tomasello goes on to discuss how his proposed theory of child language acquisition is construction-based, rather than word (or morpheme) based – acquisition is a process of mastering ‘utterances’ (in his terminology) from a communicative point of view, not a process of establishing the units of a formal grammar:

“This means that we can posit our own kind of continuity in the process of child language acquisition. In this case, however, we are not talking about a continuity in linguistic representations across development, but rather a continuity of the processes by means of which human language users, at all stages of ontogeny, are storing linguistic units of various kinds and at the same time making many kinds of abstractions across them as well.” (Tomasello 2003: 326)

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Tomasello, M (2003), Constructing a Language: A Usage-Based Theory of Language Acquisition. Harvard University Press