Faith and Language: Walter Hilton, St. Augustine, and Poststructural Semiotics

By Ringer, Jeffrey | Christianity and Literature, Autumn 2003 | Go to article overview

Faith and Language: Walter Hilton, St. Augustine, and Poststructural Semiotics


Ringer, Jeffrey, Christianity and Literature


Perhaps the greatest difference between the Christian tradition and post-structuralism is that the latter questions the former by declaring that there is no ultimate meaning, transcendental signified, or God the very foundation upon which Christian belief is structured. David Thomson in "Deconstruction and Meaning in Medieval Mysticism" writes that such disparity has polarized "the university community into proponents of a 'logo-diffuse' onto-epistemology and proponents of a 'logocentric' one" (107). According to Thomson, poststructuralism's skepticism concerning language has often shifted into skepticism concerning meaning. That is, while it is possible to make claims about language itself, making claims about meaning or the signified is impossible because, for the poststructuralist, such certainty does not exist--context is all there is. Thomson's insight is that one aspect of the Christian tradition, medieval mysticism, understood well the fact that human language fails to signify the divine. My purpose in this essay is not to argue against Thomson's claims. Quite the contrary, using Thomson's claims as a starting point, I intend to show that Christianity and poststrucrural semiotic theory can complement each other and that juxtaposing them can help to illuminate the manner in which language works in our world.

Thomson's essay provides a strong argument for reading the mystics through a deconstructive lens. What he does not do--and what I do not intend to do here--is to deconstruct these texts. I will not use deconstruction as a methodology. Rather, I employ it here as a viable description of the equivocally complex manner in which language works. It is not the only viable description of language, but, like structuralism, it holds a belief in the fact that signifiers produce meaning only in context with other signifiers--and thus that meaning is unstable and negotiable. Poststructuralist critical theory, as I will show, does not provide an apt understanding of the use of language concerning the Christian afterlife, but no theory can adequately describe such an unknown. St. Paul makes this quite clear in his first epistle to the Corinthians: "But, as it is written: That eye hath not seen, nor ear heard: neither hath it entered into the heart of man, what things God hath prepared for them that love him" (2:9). (1) These issues of ineffability and uncertainty are central to what Christian contemplative thinkers have struggled with over the centuries.

That is precisely the issue that I will explore here. The mystics, as Thomson demonstrates, held a strong belief in the limitations of language, a belief that aligns them with several aspects of poststructural thought. As a representative of late medieval English mysticism, Walter Hilton, in a popular devotional guidebook from the fourteenth century called The Scale of Perfection, writes about the contemplative search for "Jhesu" in a way that parallels what Jacques Derrida in Of Grammatology and Jacques Lacan in "The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious" centuries later would say about language--namely, that the signified is endlessly deferred. English medieval mysticism, however, is not the only branch of Christianity to have foreshadowed poststructural thought. Indeed, St. Augustine of Hippo, a fourth-century convert known for his Confessions and The City of God, frequently struggled with semiotic issues. In On Christian Doctrine, as I will illustrate below, Augustine propounds a definition of God that corresponds to what Lacan defines as the Real, an ineffable presence that Slavoj *i*ek in The Sublime Object of Ideology defines as both "the fullness of the inert presence" and "a hole, a gap, an opening in the middle of the symbolic order-it is the lack around which the symbolic order is structured" (170). Lacan's emphasis on the symbolic order, of which language is an integral part, aligns his theories with the deconstructive semiotics of Derrida, and these are the poststructural theories I hope to compare to excerpts from Hilton's and Augustine's texts. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Faith and Language: Walter Hilton, St. Augustine, and Poststructural Semiotics
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.