Thursday, July 22, 2010

What is "Language of Appearance"

"Language of appearance" is a concept developed by fundamentalist Christians to explain some of the language in the bible.

For example, if the Bible says "The sun rose in the east" that should not be taken as literally that the sun was rising while the earth stood still. It simply "appears" to the average onlooker that the sun is rising, while we should know (assuming we went to school) that the earth is rotating and that the sun has simply come into view over the horizon from our moving spherical platform.

Obviously, nobody wants to get rid of "Language of appearance", as it would be clumsy to refer to every sunrise as a "sunstandingstillwhilewearespinninginacircleanditcomesintoview".

But how many other examples of "Language of appearance" do we have in our common speech? In checking Google, I cannot find any. Also, there is no entry in Wikipedia to explain "Language of appearance", which is why I decided to write this blog to fill in the knowledge gap.

For example, why would the comment "Up in heaven" not be "language of appearance"? After all, we know the Earth is spinning and that Heaven cannot be up any more than down. The reason it is not "language of appearance" is that there is no appearance of heaven being up. We only think heaven is up because the Bible tells us so.

Let's try another example. Why is the phrase "Snowflakes falling" not an example of "language of appearance", because we can really see that happening. The answer is simple, if something works pretty much as we describe it, then we are describing what we see is happening. To be proper "language of appearance", the appearance would have to be radically different in some way from what really is happening.

Here are a some real of examples of "language of appearance" that I didn't see on any Christian website. "Centrifugal force", is the force that appears to be pulling at us off a merry-go-round, while the reality is that there is no force pulling us off, it is only by hanging on that we are forcing ourselves to go around in a circle. Another example of language of appearanceis saying an apple falls from a tree. The reality is that the apple and the planet Earth are attracted to each other, and each one is moving towards the other, in proportion to their mass. But it's easier to say "the apple is falling". We say the astronauts are weightless in low orbit. In fact, if they stopped circling the Earth, they would drop like a stone. Because there is almost as much gravity in low orbit as there is on the surface of the Earth, but they appear to be weightless, or in zero gravity.

"Columbus discovered America" is another case of language of appearance, if you are a European. Actually, humans had discovered America long before Columbus. Columbus was not even the first European to find America. But it's easier to say than "Columbus ran into an America that other people discovered by mistake as he was trying to find a route to India".

Now what about Revelation 7:1, which refers to angels standing at the “four corners” of the earth, as if we were to believe the Earth is flat (and square).

This could be "language of appearance", as argued on the website, only if people have actually seen these angels standing on the corners of the Earth. I would call it "verbal imagery" rather than "language of appearance". On a spherical Earth, there is no place four angels could stand to represent the four corners. You could maybe put one at the north pole, and one at the south, but there is no East or West angel standing place.

Language of appearance would apply also to the time that God "made the sun stand still". But in fact, God would have had to make the Earth stand still, not the sun. It is not the motion of the sun that makes it rise and set and helps tell time, it is the rotational movement of the Earth.

This Baptist website has a lot of other examples, some of which are flat wrong.

"Relative humidity is 95 percent" is claimed by this website to be another case of "language of appearance". Actually, no, it is not. We cannot see humidity, and we are not breathing water. It simply means that the air is carrying 95% of the water vapour it is able to, and if it takes 5% more, you will start to see drops of water forming into dew, or fog.

"Airspeed" is not a really good example of language of appearance either, because everybody knows the air is not moving at that speed, it is the plane that is moving. The word was originally coined to mean "the relative speed of wing through the air". But if you close your eyes and stick your head out the window of the plane, it will feel like fast moving air.

When we refer to an airplane's Head or nose, it is not an example of "language of appearance". It is "verbal imagery", because nobody thinks there is a real head or nose on a plane. An example of my own might be "The foot of the mountain" where we know mountains do not have feet. This is a simple form of anthropomorphism, which means human qualities, thoughts and emotions to inanimate objects or animals.

Furthermore, "wind shear" is simply a description of something that has nothing to do with shears, and "pushing the envelope" is verbal imagery.

"Moon rise", and "Star rise" again are valid "language of appearance". But it is the same example as sunrise, all about looking at the sky from the rotating platform of the Earth, so I would hardly call this "pure emotional bias against the Creator."

It seems to me that the main reason that Fundamentalists promote the concept of "Language of appearance" is to selectively choose which bits of the Bible are literal truth and which they can ignore. The most famous examples are the denial of evolution, and the acceptance of the round Earth. I would call both of those "Language of appearance" but Evangelists call one the literal truth, and the other "Language of appearance". Creation is just as much "Language of appearance" as "sunrise", because it appears to us that animals do not evolve, as it happens too slowly for us to observe.

Most modern religions use the concept of "verbal imagery" rather than "language of appearance" to understand the Bible, and I think it makes a lot more sense. Especially when you consider how their concept of "language of appearance" seems to be misunderstood by the fundamentalists who invented the term and put together these websites.

1 comment:


    'Book of science,' indeed!

    What a crock of casuistry.

    The Bible is neither a 'book of science' nor inerrant. And any line of reasoning that attempts to rationalize its inherently phenomenological character is patently specious.

    A true 'book of science' would present aspects of the current body of knowledge which have withstood the repeated testing of independent observers.

    The 'Old Testament' is predominantly a collection of Bronze Age myths collected by a tribe of seminomadic pastoralists, and reflects the state of 'science' at that time. It has no more 'scientific' value, or inerrancy, than The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Egyptian Book of the Dead or the Matsya Purana. (Or the Koran, for that matter.)

    One simply cannot argue, with any consistency, that the Bible is 'literally true' while hedging one's bets with phenomenological hair-splitting.