Monday, December 29, 2008

Universal Language in the Bible

Comenius and the Principle of Universal Language
Part I; Scriptural Grounding

By John Taylor; 2008 Dec 28, 17 Masa'il 165 BE

Chapter Fourteen of the Panorthosia is concerned with a "Universal Language, Why, And By Whom, And How It Should Ge Introduced." The translator points out that Universal Language is also the subject of Part III of the Consultatio. Since I do not have access to the Consultatio, I will just consider this chapter, along with a small number other parts of the Panorthosia that touch on this theme.

I should point out from the start that ever since the birth of modern science, starting with Descartes and Bacon and going right through Pascal, Leibniz and on to the present day, the idea of a perfect language for all humans has inspired the greatest minds, many of whom devised their own candidates for the perfect artificial language. This ideal did not come out of a vacuum; it was inspired directly from Holy Writ, as we shall see in Comenius's treatment of the subject. For example, Comenius cites Zephaniah,

"Then will I turn to the people a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of the Lord, to serve him with one consent." (3:9)

Nor was Comenius the only one to notice that Adam in Eden was given the job of naming each new creature of God's creation right after it was revealed to him, in effect making up his own language.

"God brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them... And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field." (Genesis II, 19-20)

Adam's prelapsarian language was supposed to have remained universal until human arrogance built the tower of Babel, which split human linguistic creativity into many branches.

"Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth." (Genesis 11:9)

Comenius was born in war-torn Moravia and was uprooted by brutal suppression when still a young man. He saw with his own eyes the bloody results of strife and disputation, much of which was not only based on religion, politics and ideology, but also on Babel's fruit: multiple languages. He witnessed how the multiplicity of languages in that region worsened an already dangerous mix of cultures.

As always, though, Comenius did not start from personal experience but from first principles. In the opening paragraph of this 14th chapter he points out that although he places under Christ every one of the three categories of philosophy (what we now call science), religion and politics, language is such an all encompassing tool that it should properly be elevated to an even higher category, that of the Holy Spirit. "... all languages should become one supreme language under one supreme teacher, the Holy Spirit." (Comenius, Panorthosia, Ch. 14, para 1, p. 207)

As I should have mentioned at the start of this discussion of the Panorthosia, Comenius differs from the vast majority of modern Christians in that he sees the Millennium not as something imposed by absolute divine fiat but as something that Christians would have to earn for themselves. He starts the book off with Zachariah's words: "To him who disposes his way aright will I show the salvation of God." (1:3, Vulgate) Thus it is up to mankind to imitate the example of Adam and come up with their own names for God's creation, thus forming a perfect language. Prophesy is no mere prediction but a project for the believer to enact. He mentions, for example, this as scriptural evidence of the principle,

"I will yet pour out doctrine as prophecy, and leave it to all ages for ever." (John 5:39)

Also unlike the ossified faith of most moderns, Comenius understood that change and growth is a basic characteristic of spirit. Faith must grow along with the Spirit and Word. God's creativity is inexhaustible, and the fact that we are always having new thoughts reflects that. Similarly, the language we speak will also sooner or later have to reflect this creative attribute of many arising out of One,

"Truly inexhaustible treasures still lie hidden in the depths (and they must be brought to light from day to day) since the natural world still keeps many things concealed; and in the sacred text of God a greater and profounder portion of His mysteries is unknown (Eccles 24:33), and from the hiding-place of our Spirit there come forth daily new and priceless treasures of priceless thoughts. Accordingly, the words of Christ to the Jews who put all their trust in Moses, 'Search the scriptures', must be extended to all God's books. The story of Nature, the text of Scripture, and the register of Universal Ideas are man's alphabet, displaying the mystic meanings and the inter-play of God's wisdom to the sons of a more mature Wisdom." (Ch. 11, para 9, p. 178)

Comenius for this reason emphasizes that a universal language should not be an old one but a new artifact, in view of Christ's words,

"No man putteth a piece of a new garment upon an old;... but new wine must be put into new bottles." (Matt. 9:16-17, Luke 5:36-37)

In this sense, as in many others, the understanding of Comenius is almost perfectly consonant with the Vision of Baha'u'llah. In the penultimate paragraph of the Aqdas Baha'u'llah places the responsibility of devising a universal language squarely on the shoulders of the "members of parliaments throughout the world," predicting that carrying out that responsibility will be one of two signs of the full maturity of the human race.

John Taylor


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am not sure I understand the Tower of Babel comment. One language for the World? One World Government?

An interesting video can be seen at Professor Piron was a former translator with the United Nations. Detail on the Esperanto language can also be seen at