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Jalapeno Peppers and Sacred Texts

posted by Gus diZerega

Do the words we use to describe
something powerfully influence what it is we actually experience?  Years ago, when I was first studying
German, I was amazed to learn their word for the taste of a hot pepper was
scharf.’  It made no sense to
me.  In other contexts scharf
translates into English as sharp, like the blade of a knife.  Why not the word ‘heiss‘ which is
German for hot, as in the weather is hot?

Years later I had several close
German friends and colleagues who were as fluent I English as I am.  I got curious, and asked them whether,
now that they were fluent English speakers, they agreed with me that ‘hot’ made
more sense than ‘scharf‘ as a word for the taste of an jalapeno pepper.  Unanimously they answered “no.”  One elaborated that he found the word
‘hot’ used in that context the strangest thing he had to get used to after
coming to the US.

Both ‘hot’ and ‘scharf’ are
metaphors, words with more basic meanings which are adapted to describe
something else because of an important similarity, and George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have effectively argued that, at bottom, most of our thinking is metaphorical,
ultimately rooted in bodily experience. 
So words derive their meaning from their relationships with other words.
But on first take most of us would assume that the world to which words
ultimately refer is itself in some sense just what it is. 

At this point the question of how
peppers taste begins to get very interesting to me.

The metaphorical similarities that
‘hot’ and ‘scharf‘ identify with the taste of an jalapeno pepper are different,
so different that it is only with a significant effort of the imagination that I can see how ‘scharf‘ applies to a
pepper’s taste, and apparently my German friends have a similar problem with
‘hot.’  While most languages I have
inquired about tend to use their equivalent of hot or sharp, not all do.
Spanish uses the term ‘picante‘ but in Spanish the weather is never ‘picante’ and the blade
of a knife isn’t either, although maybe its tip could be- I dunno.  Friends
who speak Spanish tell me that ‘picante’ has reference to experiencing pointed things that

Now, for me, here is where it gets even
more interesting.  Let’s say
there is this experience we have when tasting jalapeno peppers.  We use metaphors to describe the taste,
because that is  what we and the Germans do.  Each metaphor points to some aspect of the experience, but
they point to different aspects.  A child learning a language simply
accepts that this is the term, and integrates it unquestioningly, and as their
fluency grows the word takes on the shades of the other words with which it is
metaphorically connected, what my friend Jim calls “The Dance of the

In the process of gaining fluency
that dimension of the experience becomes perceptually dominant.  Young German and young English speakers
learn to live in different worlds, even
if their pre-linguistic experiences were presumably identical.  Once learning to experience peppers in
that way, they continue to do so and in time have difficulty understanding how
the other metaphor could apply.  Socialization and hypnotization have a lot in common. 

If something so basic to our encounter with the world as taste can
be so strongly influenced by the subtleties of language, what else can?  Speakers of different languages to some
degree live in and experience different worlds.  Becoming fluent in another language involves learning to live
in a different world, although if the experience  of my German friends
is indicative, one may never be able to live equally completely in two
worlds.  One will always be home.

Sacred Texts

So far as I know, powerful
spiritual experiences are universally said to be beyond words.  People try and put them into words when
they talk about them, but seem always to say that ultimately words do not do
their experience justice.  Certainly
that has been my experience. 

When we combine this widespread
testimony with the fact that we learn to live in different linguistic worlds
that can importantly shape even how we experience such basic phenomena as
taste, I think the implications for learning about spirituality are
profound.  The one I want to close
on is that there can never be a complete translation of a spiritual experience
from one language to another, because the experience is never able to be
completely incorporated into the experiencer’s language.  That language
takes its meaning from living within the complete linguistic world of the
writer.  Outsiders reading a
translation are at least two steps removed from what the original writer was
trying to communicate.

It is easier to translate a
detached description of someone else’s experience, but that is even farther
removed from accessing the originally experienced reality.  There is even more room to get it wrong because the person doing the initial description is not the person having the experience.

We Pagans do not have sacred texts.  Some people, particularly many scholars,
see that as a shortcoming.  A
sacred text would certainly make blogging easier: how does verse 23 of chapter
4 in The Book of Gerald apply to my situation today?  And to yours?

Increasingly though, I see it as a

Comments read comments(12)
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posted May 29, 2010 at 12:00 pm

I like it and thanks for posting it.

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posted May 29, 2010 at 3:05 pm

A remarkably insightful article. Good job.

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Marlon Hartshorn

posted May 29, 2010 at 4:44 pm

I think it’s a strength as well not having one book with all the answers. That is the genesis of dogma & that’d be the absolute downfall of Paganism. Have u read Pagans in the Promised Land? The author argues (& it’s a good book IMO) that federal Indian law was incredibly biased based on cognitive models the European settlers utilized & extend down even to this day. In other words, their “justification” for taking Indian lands was based on a cognitive bias, not on any real claim. It was unfair. The Indians have gone crazy trying to live like we do. This idea is important that U bring up though, that overly literalistic interpretations of sacred books just don’t fit, they do not work, they don’t make rational/logical sense or even intuitive sense. They are not practical & they hurt people in the long run, being used to justify horrific evil acts & stupidity. I still have a very old newspaper article from 1989 or around then about the word in the Bible for rope & camel being confused. I think language is based on telepathy; without that, we would not have languages. It’d B interesting to see how language differences affected human behavior to the point it made them do different actions over others! Amazing how powerful that is.

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Gaarik Hamr

posted May 29, 2010 at 5:57 pm

I would certainly agree that Paganism has no unifying book like the Bible which prescribes dogma and doctrine, and that this is a strength, but I do not agree that Paganism has no “sacred texts” at all. Sacred in the fact they are set apart, describing the world-view and cultural experiences and beliefs of many of the ancient religions that we emulate as Pagans. Books like Lebor Gebora Eirenn, the Mabinogion, the Rig Veda, and texts on Cuchulainn, the Poetic and Prose Eddas, and others. They may not be our primary experience with religion, but they never-the-less inform our current culture of Paganism; books such as the White Goddess drew inspiration from these sources, and groups such as Asatru, ADF, and Celtic Reconstructionism look primarily to them for guidance in recreating their Paganism from ancient roots.
Just my two cents. Otherwise, a very well-thought out article which has much that should be heeded.

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posted May 29, 2010 at 7:21 pm

Despite different languages using different terms and sets of relationships among terms to describe how jalapenos taste, we do make an assumption that the tasting process is common to all human beings. Speakers of different languages do not undergo different taste processes on the molecular level, even if they describe them with different languages.
We humans, in other words, serve as our own constant frame of reference.
We also typically assume that we all encounter/experience deities and powers in the same manner.
Since you employed taste as your example, let me mention that, due to a childhood injury, my own sense of taste is incomplete compared to most. When learning to cook, I had to add spices according to feedback from other tasters and pay attention to measurement because I could not “season to my own taste.” And serve a dish many others would appreciate or enjoy.

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posted May 29, 2010 at 7:56 pm

Our lack of a definitive revelation-based holy text is a magnificent strength for us. That, and the lack of a clergy caste, are the only things that allow our religions be a gateway to divinity rather than the door to a prison cell. Of course we have many inspired texts, some of which are being written even as we speak.
The distinction is that we have no text which anyone can say convincingly is the ultimate, inerrant “word of God.” We don’t need any such thing. That process of “revelation” is not some static periodic thing that happens to appointed prophets and saints, nor is it subject to approval or review by clergy. It is a living dynamic process that happens, or can happen, at EVERY ritual or working or meditation. I don’t need some pontifical council to tell me what God(ess) has to say. I walk with them everyday and on Full Moon, we are inseparable.
We don’t use written third-party transcripts to facilitate communication between a mother and her son or two lovers or lifelong best friends. Why would we ever need such a thing for our gods? Having canonical texts and bishops and flourescent-lit central offices with spokesmen would no doubt make journalists and interfaith councils more comfortable, but that’s not why I practice Wicca…

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Marlon Hartshorn

posted May 29, 2010 at 9:57 pm

I really think that the reason we have religions is because we were brought here from ET’s who were also homo sapiens just like us, and we’ve always wanted to figure out a way to get that back, the love, the technology, all of it.
As far as perception goes, I’ve learned from Seth that no two people construct the same reality at all, even on a molecular level obviously. We do not even perceive the same objects. You only perceive your own constructions in this material plane (not true on the dream plane where you CAN perceive the constructions of others). So even though we each construct our own jalapeno, we can have myriad different experiences of taste physically & psychologically. I’ve often thought food was highly connected to sex, an interesting parallel. Some languages just have different concepts that don’t translate. I’m sure there are hundreds of examples of what Gus has brought up. It’s all relative to the perceiver.

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posted May 30, 2010 at 2:49 am

Language is one of the types of symbol by which our encounter with immanent Divinity is experienced, reflected, communicated, and lived out. Other symbolic expressions include action (ritual, dance, and drama, for example)and behavioural codes. The well-known triad of “Creed, Cult, and Conduct.”
Language, as a symbolic mediation of our experience of the Ultimate, may take the form of sacred texts, doctrine, and dogma, but it may also take the form of myth, saga, legend, and lore. Where some people err is in presuming that the latter types of symbolic expression are in some way deficient or inadequate as compared to the former.
The importance of the understanding of the symbolic nature of religious expression, particularly in the context of inter-religious encounter, has been discussed in an interesting way by Michael Amaladoss in his essay on double religious belonging and liminality. It can be found on the Internet at http://www.sedos.org/english/amaladoss_8.htm
Captcha: “also bread” I wonder how they do that.

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posted May 30, 2010 at 3:13 am

I had a very similar experience with Japanese. The Japanese word for “hot”, in this sense, is “karai”, or “spicy”, and Japanese find it bizarre that we say “hot”, especially as we then have to distinguish between hot hot food (eg. curry) and cold hot food (eg. Bombay mix). I actually now feel the same, and feel more at home with “karai”. However, “karai” also means “dry” with respect to wine, and “bitter” with respect to beer, which I in turn find bizarre.
I think this is about taxonomy. We are presented with innumerable objects and sensations, and have to categorise them in order not to have to use a separate word for each individual object. We thus have to decide which criteria are important for those categories, but these criteria differ between different languages. I read about some language, I think it was Native American, that uses the same word for all flying objects – birds, flying insects, bats and aeroplanes – and then subdivides that category. That seems bizarre, but something similar seems to have applied in Ancient Hebrew, if you look at the dietary laws, with locusts classed as birds. Also, in British English, we say “ladybird” (your ladybug), so “bird” must have included flying insects at one time in English.
I think a lot of words for organisms have only been fixed since the acceptance of evolution. For example, when we say “fish”, we now mean an animal that can be taxonomically classed as a fish (chondrichthyes or osteichthyes), but older words, with “fish” in compounds (starfish, shellfish, jellyfish, etc.) show that it was formerly used to mean anything that lived in water. In German, “whale” is “walfisch”, and, when we say that whales are mammals, not fish, that only makes sense with the modern definitions. Japanese people, on the other hand, find it odd that we use words like starfish and shellfish for creatures that are clearly not fish, but many insist that whales are fish (“sakana”), but eels are not, because they use the word to mean things of fish shape (the political thing about whaling aside).
Similar things apply to items of clothing, parts of the body, and so on. I think it’s rare for words in unrelated languages to map precisely onto each other, so when one learns a word, one should identify it with that object rather than with the word in English. Eg. the Japanese dictionary says that “kuchibiru” means “lip”, but the border of kuchibiru is where the soft part meets ordinary skin, whereas the border of lip is about an inch from the mouth – we describe a moustache as hair on the lip, whereas hair on kuchibiru sounds grotesque (there may be a racial element to this, as East Asians have soft lip parts extending further out than whites – I wonder what the definition is like in African languages, as their lips extend further out still?). Sometimes, in Japan, people pointed something to me, and I literally couldn’t see what they were talking about, because the words don’t match.
PS. In British English, “sharp” can be used for taste, but to mean something very sour, like limes, say. Don’t you use it like that in US English?

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posted May 30, 2010 at 4:09 pm

Dear Gus:
I’d like to suggest a different approach to texts. My own spiritual path is highly centered on textual contemplation and lectio divina is a main practice for me and has been for many years. What I’d like to suggest is that books are natural; I mean to say that books are just as much a part of the natural world as are plants and mountains, stars and rocks. That books are created by human beings is similar to beavers creating dams or birds making nests or oaks creating acorns. There is, therefore, nothing inherently alienating about the written word.
There are a number of spiritual traditions that are text centered that are not oppressive. In Taoism the Tao Te Ching has been a work central to that tradition for thousands of years. In Confucianism the Analects, the Great Learning, and other works, have a similar place of reverence. In Jainism its Sutras are the basis of its tradition. In the monotheistic tradition there are approaches to its sacred texts that do not entail using those texts to clobber others.
For some of us a text-based approach functions as the gateway to the divine. Karen Armstrong, the great scholar of monotheism, has written eloquently about how she was simply not able to access the divine through meditative or ritual approaches, but that through the study and contemplation of sacred texts she is at times able to have an experience of its presence. Many of us have found this to be the case.
This does not invalidate the comments made above; rather it is a different way of looking at how a text-based tradition can work in a positive manner.

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Glen Hopkins

posted January 4, 2011 at 7:19 pm

Text-based tradition is somewhat complicated to others, however this would not harm you. Your belief still depend on how your bring up yourself. You are the only one who can really decide for yourself. When you wish not believe in your family’s tradition, you can do so,as you are the only who will be able receive the consequences of actions.

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Glen Hopkins

posted January 4, 2011 at 7:20 pm

Text-based tradition is somewhat complicated to others, however this would not harm you. Your belief still depend on how your bring up yourself. You are the only one who can really decide for yourself. When you wish not believe in your family’s tradition, you can do so,as you are the only who will be able receive the consequences of actions.

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