Words

January 24, 2007

nuer religionFor a class, I’ve been reading Nuer Religion (1956) by E. E. Evans-Pritchard. The foresight of Evans-Pritchard has been truly remarkable. His sensitivty to context is still a model today. His use of the Nuer language seems to be careful and nuanced–and never slavish or too cocksure.  In this book, more than half a century ago he warned, “One can make too rigid distinctions between the meanings of words.” Of course, these should be words to live by for academics.  I can’t count the number of discussions I’ve overheard (and participated in) that revolve around some word.  This is not to say that words don’t have meaning, but to be too prescriptive concerning their use is a major stumbling block.

For me, words are like theories–they are tools one uses to access reality.  When we are slaves to our theories and our definitions, we place limits on our understanding in places where limits do not need to be.

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7 Responses to “Words”

  1. Dave Bonta Says:

    I too was impressed by this book. I thought his analysis of their belief system offered a glimpse into what the beliefs of the ancient Hebrews (for instance) might have been.

  2. sheepdays Says:

    Definitely. The sacrificial system seems to have many parallels. We speculated in class that, since Israel and southern Egypt (where the Nuer were located at the time of Evans-Pritchard’s study) are very near each other, both groups may have foundations in a regional proto-religion.

  3. Alex Says:

    I enjoyed hearing about this book when you took me out to breakfast the other morning. Hmmm… I think I just like going out with you! But I am glad you are liking this class and this book.

  4. Matt Says:

    You might also substitute doctrine for “theories and definitions”. When we slavishly follow doctrine we sometime place limits on our understanding of God as well.

  5. sheepdays Says:

    Alex–I like going out with you, too!

    Matt–Fer sure. It shows a lack of intelligence and creativity when someone decides that reality is their doctrine/theory/words instead of something never adequately described by same.

  6. Dave Bonta Says:

    We speculated in class that, since Israel and southern Egypt (where the Nuer were located at the time of Evans-Pritchard’s study) are very near each other, both groups may have foundations in a regional proto-religion.

    Oh, good! That was my reaction, too. I also wouldn’t discount the emphasis Biblical tradition places on Moses’ “Ethiopian” connection.

  7. sheepdays Says:

    Here’s another little gem from Nuer Religion:

    All gifts are symbols of inner states, and in this sense one can only give oneself; there is no other kind of giving. (pg. 279)


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