Anna Wierzbicka (AW) makes Jesus’ doctrine of what she calls living with God, who is both a someone not like people and living, the key to all Jesus’ moral preaching, from the Sermon on the Mount to the numerous parables found in the synoptic gospels. For AW, the “kingdom” into which God invites us is not reserved for a posthumous future but is present as well in this world (“But [is the kingdom] in this world or the world to come? In my view, Jesus’ answer is clear: in both.” p. 18). “Eternal life” is nothing more than this same presence in God’s kingdom. God wants us to want to live with him and will reward us for this with his presence. Since want is a primitive, there is no need to define it; similarly, living with God is simply what is good for us, although we may not realize this and although it may not always appear to be in our immediate best interest.
Thus AW’s conception of Christianity, by reducing all terms to her minimal set, reduces the concrete imagery, the metaphoric and consequently history-bound context of these texts to a level at which no effective distinction between the material and the spiritual world is possible. For example, although in Imprisoned in English she lists “father” and “mother” among the “primitive” kinship terms, in the case of “God the Father,” she describes the metaphoric attribution of paternity as follows:
God wants to do good things for all people
God can do good things for all people (p. 189)
I don’t have time to discuss any of AW’s analyses in detail, but will give two examples from well-known parables, The Prodigal Son and The Good Samaritan, as well as her ultimate conclusion, to illustrate the tone and thrust of these readings as well as how their linguistic simplification is at the same time their reduction to the simplest ethical terms, which at this level become the simplest moral terms.
The Prodigal Son is a parable I assume we all know. I won’t go into the story itself, but just offer AW’s “translation” of its moral lesson into NSM, which seems to me to sum up as well as any single passage in her book the overall sense of Jesus’ doctrine concerning God’s love for humanity.
The NSM text below corresponds just to the first part of the parable referring to the prodigal’s return, not the second part about the resentment of the “good” son who remained.
- God wants to do good things for all people
- God feels something because of this
- All people can live with God
- God wants this
- When a person wants to live with God this person can live with God
- If a person lives with God this is very good for this person
- If a person doesn’t live with God this is very bad for this person
- Sometimes a person doesn’t want to live with God
- If a person doesn’t want to live with God, this person can not live with God
- God doesn’t want this person to think: “I have to live with God”
- God wants this person to think: “I want to live with God”
- When a person doesn’t want to live with God
God feels something bad because of this
- God wants this person to want to live with God
- God does many things because of this
- If afterwards this person wants to live with God
God feels something very good because of this
- God is like this
The second example, the Good Samaritan, another well-known parable, illustrates her interpretation of Jesus’ doctrine concerning our relations with our fellow humans:
- It will be good if you want bad things not to happen to other people,
as you want bad things not to happen to you
- It will be good if you think about all other people:
“these people are people like me”
- It will be good if you want to do good things for all other people
- If you know that something bad happened to someone
it will be good if you feel something because of this
- It will be good if you think at the same time:
“I want to do something good for this person”
- It will be good if you do something because of this
- If you know that something bad happened to someone
- If will be bad if you think:
“I don’t have to do anything for this person”
- It will be bad if you think”
“I don’t want to do anything good for this person”
- It will be bad if you think about some people”
“these people are bad people
these people are not people like me”
What I find most striking about these readings is that the childish simplicity of their language corresponds quite literally to the childlike innocence which Jesus always spoke of as appropriate to his audience (e.g., Matthew 18:3, “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven”), and whose minimalism reflects both its simplicity and its fundamental nature.
Finally, AW sums up the point of Jesus’ preaching:
. . . if the purpose of people’s lives is to live with God forever, they need to know how to live to be able to live with God.
One can say that Jesus provided two answers to the “how” question: one in his own life and person and one in his teaching; or rather, one answer in two different media, spoken and lived. . . .
Jesus’ ethical teaching offers signposts: “If you live like this you can always live with God.” Jesus’ own life offers a model: “if you live like this you can always live with God.”
A constant theme of GA is paradox, the unstabilizable disequilibrium created by a sign-system that not only can formulate “paradoxes” such as “this sentence is false” but that is paradoxical in its very origin, where signs confer significance as if it already existed. Thus it is of great interest that AW’s simplification of Jesus’s teaching reveals its paradoxicality with great clarity in its ethical dimension. Basically, God wants us to want to “live with him” and if we do, he will “do good things for us.” In this living with God we will want to do good things for others, even those (our “enemies”) who “do bad things to us.” But we must not think that God will reward us as a result of our good actions, but do them simply for the sake of “living with him,” not as a reward, but a good in itself. And in many places, AW’s Jesus tells us that we must not think of the reward we will receive when we do our good deed (whence the condemnation of the jealousy of the prodigal’s “good” brother). But we should not describe this objurgation as a pragmatic paradox of the same family as “be spontaneous” or “don’t think of an elephant.” On the contrary, this paradox is itself the sign of the sacred, something that GA can help us understand by relating it directly to the moral model.
The limitations of AW’s methodology become apparent only when, in Imprisoned in English, she takes up the question of language origin. Here she attributes to chimpanzees a set of “primitives” exemplified in the reasoning processes implied by their manifestations of intelligent behavior. She follows such thinkers as Tomasello in proposing that the chimps and their proto-human relatives already had “syntax” before they began to speak, and realized that as a result they “had something to say”:
Arguably, the [human] insight that “I can say things to people with words (spoken words)” was preceded by the realization that I may have something to say because at many times I have some thoughts in my head, and these incipient thoughts required some foundational words and syntax. (166-67)
This reasoning is simply a category error. There is no reason to refuse to chimps, or to lower animals for that matter, the capacity to “think,” to combine ideas/images in mental space in ways analogous to, even homologous to human thought. Yet as AW’s own researches have admirably pointed out, it is only because we are “imprisoned in English” that we consider that our syntax corresponds simply to the structures of reason, as did the 17th-century French authors of the Grammaire de Port-Royal. But every language has different syntactical nuances, and languages far from English, like the Australian languages discussed in the collective volumes, such as Semantic and Lexical Universals (1994) and Emotions in Crosslinguistic Perspective (2001), compiled to demonstrate the universal applicability of her NSM, have few parallels with English syntax. And yet when it comes to reasoning, every language embodies the same logic.
We should note in AW’s text a highly uncharacteristic hedging between the internally quoted passage, as thought by a human, and the following “that” clause, in which “I may have something to say” is “thought” by an intermediate creature who cannot speak but can somehow formulate thoughts in a form analogous to that of (English) language.
However commonly it may be done as a way of avoiding the need for a real hypothesis of language origin, I will not hesitate to say that it is simply absurd to conceive of language as the “expression” of “ideas” already “thought” before language existed. Conversely, once we have a plausible scenario for the origin of language, then the idea of reasoning in language becomes plausible as well. But this is possible only once the scene of representation on which we exchange signs undergoes what I call in TOOL the “lowering of the threshold of significance” to accommodate worldly matters in addition to those of our “ultimate concern,” which, as Girard rightly pointed out, is the need to control human (mimetic) violence, and which fall in all but the most recent cultures under the rubric of the sacred.
But although it could not be integrated into the methodologically rigorous system of NSM, the place of the sacred, and more concretely, of the Judeo-Christian God with his personal, central role, can be understood from the standpoint of GA as the most powerful anthropological elaboration of the originary use of the sign. AW scarcely touches on the fourth gospel and never translates into NSM its first verse: “In the beginning was the Word,” en arche en ho logos. In distinction from Girard, for whom this text, which is the epigraph to Des choses cachées…, provides the (tacit) reason why he never feels obliged to talk explicitly about language, GA begins from the elucidation of John’s fundamental intuition.
Yes, Jesus “is” language, because language is, like Jesus for a Christian, both human and divine, whether this divinity be posited as existing beyond the human sphere or simply as an emanation of it. Hence the God who wants to do good things for us, who wants us to do good things for each other, who wants us to want to live with him, and all the rest, is someone, because he possesses language, and yet not like us, because his possession of it is not dependent on mortal life and its fear of death. If we imagine GA’s originary scene in which the object of common desire is made/revealed as sacred, and by interdicting its own appropriation becomes by that same process both the referent of the first sign and at the same time its “subject,” the original that the sign can only represent, we will find that AW’s simplified religious language applies more directly to this scene than any more elaborate vocabulary.
All the terms to which AW reduces Jesus’ doctrine apply, without Procrustean manipulation, to our hypothetical originary event. That the key aim is “to live with God” is in fact a description of this scene, where the first humans find peace by “living with God” as the embodiment and referent of the sign through which they find unanimity and peace. That God loves us is easy enough to interpret if we apply my definition of love as the transcendence of resentment. He doesn’t want us to do good to seek reward, but because we want to live with him, just as the participants renounce the immediate “reward” that would come from appropriating part of the central animal for the sake of the peace and safety of the scene. That they later receive a “reward” in the sparagmos that divides up the animal is so to speak the originary model of Providence that maintains the Darwinian viability of the human and its fledgling system of representation, but cannot have been the motivation for their original renunciation, which was quite simply the desire to avoid the danger of conflict, which is to say, the transcendence of their mutual resentment. Similarly, love thy neighbor as thyself, even love thine enemy, are exemplified in the cessation of all rivalries in the unanimous expression of the originary sign.
Thus although, as a good social scientist, AW follows the consensus in adopting the usual boilerplate about thinking apes suddenly deciding to speak, the core of her semantics is fully compatible with the basic ethical and anthropological ideas of GA. She has not simply studied religion as a mode of socialization from the standpoint of evolutionary psychology—in which a thinker like Rodney Stark has produced some very valuable work—but provided us with a deeper understanding of the elementary constituents not simply of our vocabulary but of our fundamental ethical ideas and intuitions.
Let me end by thanking once more Adam Katz, who has been many times a source for me and for all of us of new ideas, perspectives, and readings, for pointing out to me the importance of AW’s work. As she is (at 79) alive and apparently well, perhaps if we hold the GASC in Australia in the near future, she might be invited to give our keynote address. I hate to play identity politics, but it would indeed be nice to see a distinguished woman thinker in this role.