when Donne is done

Came across this, and liked it, although without knowing all that much about the metaphysical poets.

A Hymn to God the Father

Wilt Thou forgive the sin where I begun,
Which was my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
And do run still, though still I do deplore?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.

Wilt Thou forgive that sin by which I’ve won
Others to sin, and made my sin their door?
Wilt Thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year or two, but wallowed in a score?
When Thou hast done, Thou hast not done,
For I have more.

I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by Thyself, that at my death Thy Son
shall shine as He shines now, and heretofore;
and having done that, Thou hast done;
I fear no more.

– John Donne


response to a comment

Sketchy thoughts on a series of intriguing questions about language and theology left in this comment.

  • 1) Do linguists believe in the confounding of language?

This is really a question for sub-fields of linguistics which I know next to nothing about (I suppose language typology and origins of language). In textbooks it’s normal to see the Genesis account of the counfounding of language at Babel dismissed, if it’s mentioned at all, in a word or two as a myth which needn’t occupy any time or thought in contemporary linguistics. There may be some current understandings which might loosely reflect what you’d expect to be the case on the basis of the Genesis account, but the relevant fields are too far outside of my own areas of specialism for me to really comment from a very informed perspective.

The only time I’ve encountered a respectful treatment of Genesis in contemporary linguistics is in a theoretical volume on the syntax of Mohawk by a professor at Rugters – this too is outside my field, but I don’t get the impression that his views are at all mainstream.

There’s also a less technical book by Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language which discusses the Babel story in some detail, but more as a piece of intellectual history than as a viable contemporary explanation for observable aspects of language.

  • 2) Is multilingualism without asking God for that gift an attempt to reverse the confounding of languages and is it ever successful?

Multilingualism is the normal situation for the majority of people in the world – ie, the ability to speak more than one language isn’t necessarily something that most people have to make a conscious (+/- prayerful) decision to achieve. So multilingualism does in fact successfully mitigate the effects of language diversity, and that’s a good thing, not something to regret (in the same way that any means of making life easier in the post-Fall world is in general a Good Thing).

  • 3) Why and how does God keep human language separated into distinct groups?

On the how – the field of sociolinguistics basically exists to document and account for the ‘how’ of sameness and difference across and between speakers – influential approaches include the idea of social networks and communities of practice which provide ways of thinking about how language is used both within and across groups of people who interact with each other. I doubt that many sociolinguists would see their data as demonstrating how God works, obviously, but that’s the same problem as interpreting any dataset in the context of scientific self-imposed restrictions on using explanations which rely on the doctrine of God or God’s providence.

The why is more speculative, but the purpose of the original Babel to keep a restraint on human ambition presumably still matters.

  • 4) Is the constant changing of language a reaction of human language against the Word of God?

Here I didn’t share the view of language suggested in the original comment – I wouldn’t see language as a living creature, but rather more of a tool, an instrument, a means of communication among humans.

The constant changing of language is just one aspect of the human condition – societies are in constant flux, whether it’s clothes fashions or music styles or interior decoration or anything else. It’s not necessarily a morally significant rebellion against God. The Scriptures themselves freeze particular varieties of language at particular points in their ongoing change too – the Scriptures are now fixed and changeless, but they were written in earlier and later forms of their various languages. Human hearers do react against and flee away from God’s Word, but I’d hesitate to say that you can see that rebellion in things like vowel rounding or unrounding, or the choice of blue rather than green for your sitting room carpet.

  • 5) Where does free will come into it?

I’m not sure!

Previous language-and-theology type discussion –

back to front

Two confusions spotted recurringly recently:

1) the idea that faith leads to regeneration (when in fact it’s regeneration that leads to faith)

2) the idea that believers are sanctified through doing their good works (when in fact good works are the outcome of sanctification).