Groanings Too Deep for Words

My personal spiritual journey includes experiences of God talking to me; words of knowledge or discernment; praying in tongues and prophetic utterance. But I do not see myself as a charismatic or Pentecostal Christian. Nor do I think these experiences are more profound than insight gained from reading and studying the Bible. Well, maybe the time God talked to me should be reserved as a more profound experience; especially since it didn’t occur as a result of ingesting psychedelic drugs.

Recently I discovered an online dialogue about these experiences stemming from T. M. Luhrmann’s book, When God Talks Back. I think she has given us some great insight into the psychic mechanisms by which we encounter God. Here is my attempt to add two cents worth to that discussion: We need to recognize a distinction between discursive and non-discursive thought.

In her classic work Philosophy in a New Key, Susan Langer said that all language has a form that requires us to string out our ideas as if we were hanging them on a clothesline; even though these ideas may actually nest one within the other like layered clothing on a cold, windy day. This property of verbal symbolism is called discursiveness. And only when our thoughts are arranged discursively can they be spoken. “Any idea which does not lend itself to this ‘projection’ is ineffable, incommunicable by means of words.” Langer added that this was why the laws of reasoning are sometimes known as the “laws of discursive thought.”

Non-discursive expressions of our inner mental life are not linguistically structured. They exist in an incommunicable, largely unconscious mental state of emotions, feelings and desires. Some expressions of this inner mental life are seen in tears, laughter, or profanity. Langer said this leads to two basic assumptions: 1) that language is the only means of articulating thought, and 2) everything that is not speakable thought is feeling.

Langer then said that human thought is like a tiny, grammar-bound island in the midst of a sea of feeling. This island has a periphery of “mud”—a mixture of factual and hypothetical concepts broken down by the emotional tides into a “material” mode: a mixture of meaning and nonsense. Most of us live our lives on this mud flat. In artistic moods we will take to the deep, “where we flounder about with symptomatic cries that sound like propositions about life and death, good and evil, substance, beauty and other non-existent topics.” I’d substitute the word “immaterial” for Langer’s term “non-existent.” She then said:

So long as we regard only scientific and “material” (semi-scientific) thought as true cognitions of the world, this peculiar picture of mental life must stand. And if we admit only discursive symbolism as a bearer of ideas, “thought” in this restricted sense must be regarded as our only intellectual activity. It begins and ends with language; without the elements, at least, of scientific grammar, conception must be impossible.

Building on this discussion, I’d agree with Langer that conscious thought, which we use to structure the world around us, is essentially discursive. Our unconscious thought life of feelings, emotions and desires is then mostly non-discursive and largely not available to us, unless it somehow manages to press its way through to the conscious, discursive world.

A biblical expression of this distinction is found in Romans 8:26: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”

There is a human tendency to give greater significance to discursive impressions that appear suddenly, fully formed out of our unconscious thought life. I think this is true religiously as well as psychologically. Oftentimes these insights appear while the person is concentrating on something entirely different; and also when they are dreaming.

Charismatic and Pentecostal Christians see discernment, prophetic utterance and speaking in tongues as miraculous manifestations of God’s presence. But they could simply be unexpected encounters with God that take place as they go swimming in the sea of their immaterial, unconscious thought life.

Psychological theorists such as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung similarly place a high value on the content of dreams as manifestations of the unconscious thought life of the individual. But they are no more significant that the material gathered by the practice of discursive “talk therapy.”

Have you ever given too much importance to impressions that appear suddenly in your conscious thought life?


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