I imagine that most of us are looking through the binocular lenses of scholarly specialization and Christian faith as we seek to understand the January 6 attack on the Capitol: a day of infamy that will be a defining moment in our students’ lives, much as 9-11, the Challenger explosion, and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. still serve for earlier generations.
One of my specialties, the semiotic theory that informs film studies, seems especially appropriate in these distressing times. Often called “the science of signs,” semiotics explores how context affects the very way we see signs, as when a society actually sees a tan as ugly in one century and beautiful several centuries later. One of the fathers of semiotics, scientist and philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839 – 1914), therefore discusses how the communities with which we identify shape our habits of perception, as when a Protestant might actually see a statue of the Virgin Mary as idolatrous whereas a Roman Catholic would see it as a pointer to God’s saving grace. It’s not about interpretive subjectivity; it’s about the way we see.
Peirce therefore suggests that we see signs in one of three ways: as an index (pointing to what caused it); an icon (representing what the object is or does); or as a culturally-constructed symbol. Consider, for example, current facemasks: most people see them as indexes of a virulent disease, many also viewing them as icons of concern for others’ health. Some, however, see them merely as symbols of government oppression. Though Peirce is much more complex than this example, actually coming up with nearly 60,000 classes of sign, his basic triad of Index, Icon, and Symbol inspired film theorists to discuss the plural ways that signs function on the movie screen.
More relevant to our present moment is Peirce’s suggestion that habits of perception change when “collateral experience” forces people to look with different eyes.1 Indeed, many of us view the U.S. Capitol with different eyes after the collateral experience of January 6. A building once seen as an icon of governmental stability now symbolizes, for many, a polarized America. This does not mean that Peirce is a relativist, denying the existence of universals. Instead, he asserts that human reason is fallible in its understanding of “the real,” which does indeed exist apart from our thoughts about it.2 To better understand “the real,” then, humanity needs what medieval scholastics called “science”: a commitment to expanding our understanding of truth. What we need, in other words, is Christian scholarship.
In his essay “Logic as Semiotic: The Theory of Signs,” Peirce established a “scientific” mind as having “an intelligence capable of learning by experience.”3 As Robert Corrington explains, “Both the scientist and the theologian rely on a common body of inferential strategies in coming to conclusions about the ultimate explanations of things.”4 In other words, both the scientist and the theologian hold onto the fundamental beliefs of their community while also opening themselves to new ways of understanding reality, creatively suggesting new signs for old truths: signs that might change the very way the community perceives reality. A good example of Peirce’s “scientific” mind appears in my December CSR blog, where I recount how Sayers employed new signs for the Gospel message in BBC radio plays about Jesus, which C. S. Lewis considered one of the most important influences on his spiritual life. Nevertheless, Christians in 1940s England excoriated Dorothy L. Sayers for not using the traditional signs of King James English in her scripts. Christians were fixated on traditional signs more than on the truths to which they pointed.
In an 1877 essay called “The Fixation of Belief,” Peirce explores the way people fixate on political and religious signs, as when antebellum Christians denounced abolition as the false teaching of intellectual “elites” who ignored the Bible’s endorsement of slavery.5 Of course, intellectual “elites” in our own day echo similar “fixation of belief” anytime they refuse to allow political conservatives to take the podium on a university campus. Umberto Eco, influenced by Peirce, calls such fixation the “Fundamentalist fallacy,” which he sees “instantiated when one assumes that his/her own philosophy is the only valid philosophy . . . (and demands a universal agreement on such a statement).”6
Though concerned about fixation of belief, whether coming from the right or the left, Peirce did not repudiate belief itself. Instead, he argues that
Faith is not peculiar to or more needed in one province of thought than in another. For every premiss [sic] we require faith . . . This is overlooked by Kant and others who draw a distinction between knowledge and faith. Wherever there is knowledge there is Faith. Wherever there is Faith (properly speaking) there is knowledge.7
Not coincidentally, Dorothy L. Sayers made the same point to a non-Christian who protested her BBC radio plays about Jesus. Not much different from the fixated Christians who sent her hate mail, the skeptic wrote a nasty letter impugning Sayers’s intelligence because her plays legitimized the miracles of Jesus. Christians and skeptics were merely opposite sides of the same fundamentalist coin. In response, Sayers wrote,
One act of faith must, indeed, be made before one can accept Christianity: one must be prepared to believe that the universe is rational, and that (consequently) human reason is valid so far as it goes. But that is an act of faith which we have to make in order to think about anything at all. . . . Admittedly, we cannot prove that the universe is rational; for the only instrument by which we can prove anything is reason, and we have to assume the rationality of things before we can trust or use our reason. . .; without that act of faith we could not live or act.8
Sayers’s use of new signs in her radio plays, then, exposed “fixation of belief” in both Christians and anti-Christians, a fixation that Sayers identifies with Judas in her radio plays. Fixated on proper signs of behavior for a Messiah, her Judas obsesses over the Triumphal Entry, considering it evidence of improper political leadership. Judas, in other words, trusts his own certitude more than he trusts Jesus. Not coincidentally, the sign certitude appears nowhere in English translations of the Bible, whereas forms of the word faith and faithful appear over 350 times. We are called to faith, not certitude.
This leads us to an overwhelming question: if “faith without works is dead” (James 2:17), how can we assess the proper works of faith, both religiously and politically? Peirce answered such a question with the words of Jesus: “By their fruits ye shall know them.”9 The context for Christ’s statement bears repeating: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. . . . every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit” (Mt 7:15-17, NIV). These days, however, it seems that people cannot even agree on good versus bad fruit, which leads us back to the need for Christian scholarship. By studying works of the past, not only works of literature and philosophy but also the workings of science and technology, Christian scholars can assess strengths and weaknesses in habits of perception, modeling “intelligence capable of learning by experience.”
Capable of learning by experience, we might contrast the “fruits” of January 6 with another march in Washington D.C.: the one led by Martin Luther King, Jr., in August of 1963. King avoided the “fixation of belief” in his famous “I have a dream” speech by praising the strengths of America even as he exposed its weaknesses. Rather than encouraging acts of violence he manifested fruits of the spirit. Resisting Judas-like certitude, he modeled hope for change, as though in acknowledgement of that important verse to the Hebrews: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Heb 11:1).
In contrast to the fixation of belief, Peirce suggests we consider “fixing belief,” in both senses of the phrase.10 For me, this means affixing my faith on orthodox doctrine, which was fixed into place at the first four Ecumenical Councils (325 – 451 CE), while at the same time “fixing” my beliefs—seeking to fix them—by assessing how contemporary signs of Christian truth have been warped by traditional cultural practices, as when Christians denounced abolition as “un-Biblical” and women’s rights as “un-Christian.”11 January 6, then, might serve as a reminder to Christian scholars that we are called to the fixing of belief.
- For a more substantive explanation of Peirce’s paradigms and their relevance to Christianity, see Crystal Downing, Changing Signs of Truth: A Christian Introduction to the Semiotics of Communication (IVP Academic, 2006), chapters 7 – 8. For “collateral experience,” see pp. 202 – 203.
- The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, vol. 6, ed. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss (Harvard University Press, 1931-58), 495.
- Peirce, “Logic as Semiotic: The Theory of Signs,” in Philosophical Writings, ed. Justus Buchler (Dover, 1955), 98.
- Robert Corrington, An Introduction to C. S. Peirce: Philosopher, Semiotician, and Ecstatic Naturalist (Rowman and Littlefield, 1993), 47.
- Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 49.
- Umberto Eco, “Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language,” in Reading Eco: An Anthology, ed. Rocco Capozzi (Indiana University Press, 1997), 7.
- C. S. Peirce, “A Treatise on Metaphysics,” in Peirce on Signs: Writings on Semiotic by Charles Sanders Peirce, ed. James. Hoopes (University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 19.
- Sayers to L. T. Duff, May 10, 1943, The Letters of Dorothy L. Sayers, Vol 2, ed. Barbara Reynolds (Dorothy L. Sayers Society, 1997), 401.
- Matthew 7:20, KJV, in Peirce, “Pragmatism in Retrospect: A Last Formulation,” Philosophical Writings, 271.
- Peirce, “The Fixation of Belief,” in Philosophical Writings, 12, 13.
- “Unchristian” is the word Queen Victoria used to describe “women’s rights” in 1870.