Reading Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is a bit like going down a rabbit hole or passing through the looking glass. Nothing is as it should be; everything is turned around or upside down. At the heart of this sermon we find the so-called Beatitudes. Next to the Lord’s Prayer, these eight aphorisms are probably the most widely known verses from the New Testament. Found in the Gospel of Matthew (5:3-10), they are short enough to be reproduced here:
- Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven.
- Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.
- Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land.
- Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.
- Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
- Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God.
- Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
- Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven
Like I said, everything is turned upside down. The poor and the persecuted take possession of a kingdom while the meek inherit the land. Those who mourn are the ones who are comforted. The merciful are the ones who receive mercy.
In our experience, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness and those who work for peace are invariably frustrated. Not so, according to Jesus! They are will be satisfied and called children of God. Those with clean hearts will actually see God.
What’s going on here?
According to Benjamin Whorf, language is a record of how we see the world and conversely language conditions us to see the world in a particular way. Take modern English for example. When we speak, most of our verbs are either active or passive. We call that the “voice” of the verb.
In an active/passive voiced language, we are always doing something to someone (or something) or someone (or something) is doing something to us.
John broke the vase: active voice. John is called the “subject” and the vase is called the “object” of the action. John acted and the vase ‘reacted’ (by shattering). The flow is in one direction; it’s a vector.
The vase was broken by John: passive voice. It’s the same event but this time seen from the point of view of the vase. The vase is now the subject. The flow is still one directional, still a vector. In one sense, the active and passive voices are opposites; but in another sense they are really the same. They describe the same event in the same way, just from opposite viewpoints. So we call English an ‘active/passive voiced language’.
Syntax speaks volumes about how we understand events and how we understand events tells much about how we view the world. An action, according to our grammar, defines a vectored relationship between two unequal participants.
The world consists solely of events. If our preferred way of defining an event is in terms of unidirectional relationships between unequal participants, then for us the world will consist primarily of such actions. This is will be the logos we impose upon the world and our language will reflect that logos.
Of course, it works both ways. To a large extent we learn about the world through language. Our language teaches us to see our world in terms of unequal, unidirectional relationships. Our language creates our logos thereby defining our world for us. Putting it another way, we create our world in the image and likeness of our language.
Does this language serve our purposes? Does it meet our needs? To some extent, it does! It works very well if we’re trying to manufacture or build something. It essentially reduces action to a schematic.
On the other hand, this is a rather narrow application of language. What if we’re trying to model some sort of interaction? Does an ‘active/passive’ syntax work for us then? Not so much!
In the real world, action is rarely, maybe never, entirely one directional. “I hit the nail” is actually an abstract simplification of a much more complex process. When my hammer connects with the nail head, I feel vibration in my hand and down my arm…and that’s assuming I didn’t also hit my thumb.
The fact is that every real action acts on the subject as well as on the object. In the example of John and the vase, that reality is somewhat trivial and can probably be safely ignored. But what if we’re trying to model a chemical reaction, or worse, a quantum mechanical process, or even worse, some sort of ecological phenomenon? How do we describe these events using just active and passive verbs?
In fact, we can’t. At best, we can approximate clumsily in simple situations. “Two hydrogen atoms each lend an electron to one oxygen atom; or an oxygen atom borrows an electron from each of two hydrogen atoms.” (Hint: water!)
When we get into more complex chemical reactions, quantum mechanics or ecology, the process breaks down completely and we have to resort to diagrams (e.g. Feynman diagrams) or equations.
Now imagine the difficulty of modeling complex human interactions using just active and passive voice verbs? No wonder we’re always at war with one another. “You’re to blame!” “No, you’re to blame!”
And when we get to politics? Of course we see the world in terms of “us” and “them”; of course, we see social change in terms of class warfare.
Nonetheless, most of us are resigned to this state of affairs. It’s just the way things are. How else could it be? What can anyone do about it? But the fact is, it wasn’t always this way and it doesn’t necessarily always have to be this way.
Many ancient languages had another voice which linguists call the “middle voice”. The middle voice is ideally suited to model those situations where relationships are between equals and where action is reciprocal. Linguists disagree about the place of middle voice in the evolution of language but it is at least possible that the middle voice preceded both the active and passive voices.
Modern linguists struggle to understand the middle voice. Conditioned by their own active/passive logoi, they want to understand this verb form as somewhere in between the active and passive poles. Hence the term “middle voice”.
Some treat the middle voice as a milder form of the active; some view it as a milder form of the passive. Others treat it as a reflexive verb form (“She washed herself.”) and still others connect it with the self-interest of the subject. It’s none of those things!
The so-called middle voice has nothing to do with its active/passive cousins. It is a completely different way of viewing the world. The middle voice verb form describes an action that impacts both subject and object simultaneously or a reciprocal relationship between two co-subjects.
Imagine what our world would look like if we viewed it in terms of reciprocal relations and bidirectional events! Would that change the way the world is? In a sense it would. We’d see the world through a different filter; we’d see it in terms of its reciprocal relations and events. In turn, we would act differently in such a world. Our desire to make a difference would now be expressed in acts intended to give rise to reciprocal events rather than vectored events.
But would that help us build a better bridge? Probably not, so what good is it?
How do we talk about mutual love using active and passive verbs? The best we can come up with is something lame like, “Mary and Paul are in love with one another.” This turns love into a static state rather than a raging fire. The middle voice, on the other hand, is ready made to describe the relationship between Mary and Paul in a way that does it justice.
The active and passive voices describe an event in the same way; they merely reverse the point of view. The middle voice defines the event in an entirely different way. Thus we have two opposing world views: an active/passive view and a middle voice view. One sees the world in terms of will, struggle, domination and power; the other sees the world in terms of mutuality. One is the syntax of war, the other of peace. One is the syntax of cause and effect, the other of evolution. One is the syntax of past and future, the other of the present.
Unfortunately, however, most Western languages have lost the middle voice. Where the middle voice has been retained (e.g. Icelandic), it has been forced to co-exist with its active/passive cousins. It no longer conveys the strong sense of reciprocity it once did.
The poverty of an active/passive voiced language and the lack of a strong middle voice is not just a linguistic problem; it’s a philosophical problem and ultimately a theological problem.
One way to understand the Christian ‘project’ (New Testament, for example) is as an attempt to reintroduce middle-voice consciousness to the world. Of course, I am not suggesting that the New Testament authors, much less Jesus himself, were grammarians. Yet they understood that there was something fundamentally wrong with the way folks viewed the world and they sought to change that view.
Why wrong? Because when you view events and the actions that constitute them in terms of unequal, unidirectional power relations, it becomes easy to abuse or exploit your neighbor. Even today, certain sub-cultures will brand you a sucker or a wimp or a ‘goodie two shoes’ if you do not take advantage of weaker folks in your orbit.
Active/passive voiced languages conflict with values like justice and kindness. It is difficult to inculcate an ethic of justice, reciprocity and love in folks who view the world according to the active/passive paradigm. In this sense, language (“bad language”) could be seen as humanity’s ‘original sin’.
Christianity, especially in its early stages, sought to replace the active/passive world view with a world view that we are calling ‘middle voice consciousness’. In the Lord’s Prayer, for example, we read, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” 12 centuries later, St. Francis of Assisi built on this insight: “It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.”
Whatever we do, we do to ourselves to the same degree and in the same way and at the same time as we do it to others. That goes for positive actions like forgiveness and negative actions like violence.
“Love your neighbor as yourself.” Why? Because in middle voice consciousness, your neighbor is yourself! Beginning with Leo XIII (1878 – 1903), modern Popes have railed against economic injustice, but they have done so from the perspective of universal love rather than class consciousness.
So now let’s return to our 8 aphorisms and see if they can fairly be described as examples of middle voice consciousness. The 8 may be grouped into 3 families, each family illustrating a certain aspect of the middle voice:
First, “the kingdom of heaven” belongs to the “poor in spirit” and those “who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness”. Whether you understand “poor in spirit” as economic poverty or personal humility, this is not a trait often associated with the possession of a kingdom. Rather wealth, or at least arrogance, is thought to be a prerequisite for political power.
How about the victims of persecution? By definition, these are folks who lack political power. Then there are the meek. They will inherit the land. Not the ambitious, not the workaholics, not the greedy, not the ruthless, but the meek!
The keys to power have been reversed. From our perspective, the ‘kingdom of heaven’ is a sort of ‘anti-kingdom’. One is reminded of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-glass where walking towards something puts you further away from it while walking away from something brings you closer to it. Neither Alice nor Jesus sees the world in terms of vectors.
One way to understand middle voice mentality is as the disconnection between active voice intentionality (wealth, arrogance and strength) and real world results.
Second, mercy is shown to those who are merciful. This beatitude extends the “forgive us our trespasses” theme from the Lord’s Prayer, Today, in the language of the streets, we’d say, “What goes around comes around!” In Eastern spirituality, it’s called ‘karma’. But according to middle voice consciousness, what you do to or for another is automatically and simultaneously done to or for you.
This is not a matter of reward and punishment. It is an unshakeable characteristic of middle voice ontology: any activity (e.g. being merciful) is always and immediately bi-directional. “It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.” It radiates outward toward another and inward toward the self.
Those who mourn experience a variation of this. Mourning acknowledges loss and opens us up to experience that loss. It is through being open to the experience of loss that comforting takes place. Another staple of middle voice consciousness: need is the mother of satisfaction. “Give us this day our daily (necessary) bread.”
The remaining 3 beatitudes concern our relation to God.
Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be satisfied. God hungers and thirsts for righteousness. Our own hunger and thirst conforms our minds to the mind of God. God is also the fullness of all things. So to the extent that we conform our minds to God’s, we are satisfied.
The human ‘heart’ (not the organ) is the seat of love and a window onto God. It is through our love that we connect with God who is Love. A clean heart allows us a clear view of the Divinity. In middle-voice ontology, the relationship between subject and object is no longer mediated by action. Instead, the relationship is primary and actions flow from that relationship. To surrended all relations of power and status is to purify the heart…and to see God.
Finally, the peacemakers! In relation to the world, God has two primary functions. First, he is the source of the values that stimulate creativity and motivate events. Second, he is Peacemaker-in-Chief; he is the harmony (peace) that guarantees the eternal preservation (salvation/redemption) of those events.
To the extent that any of us makes peace in our world, we do the work of God. But who does the work of God? His children, of course! We carry on his work. As peacemakers, as God’s children, we are extensions of God into the historical world, building on the Incarnation, the Eucharist and Pentecost.
The mind of God is the ultimate example of middle voice consciousness. To the extent that we adopt a middle voice view of the world we conform our minds to God’s; and to the extent that we conform our minds to God’s, we see and act in terms of reciprocity.
So Jesus ministry and the New Testament record of that ministry can be seen as an effort to change the way people view the world…or at least to give folks an alternative. The 8 beatitudes are a manifesto for change, a change in the way we understand the world, a change in the way we behave in that world, a change in the way we act toward one another.
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