Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Daniel 12:4 - What Kind of Knowledge?

For those who claim we must be in the final generation because Daniel 12:4 prophesied an increase in knowledge, my question is - what kind of knowledge?

Although electronic technology has increased in recent generations, other kinds of knowledge may have been lost.

For example, although new jargon in the English language is being invented, old vocabulary is simultaneously being lost.

"In one century we went from teaching Latin and Greek in high school to offering remedial English in college," said Ross Mahan.

Even in languages like Cebuano and Japanese, a lot of older vocabulary is being lost to younger speakers.

The knowledge of herbal remedies is another area where we may be losing knowledge.

And what about practical skills knowledge? Many who know how to operate computer systems have missed-out on skills that were more widely known by previous generations, such as sewing or carpentry.

The knowledge of how to use an electric jigsaw may have increased - but would you say there has been a decline in the numbers of people who know how to make tongue-in-groove furniture?

I've slipped and slided on mountain walking tracks, while hilltribe children laughed at my ineptness and women observed with amusement, while even balancing heavy jars on their heads without using hands. Sure, I might know the Western way of explaining physics - but they obviously knew a thing or two about physics which I didn't know!

Another huge area where we are seeing a loss of knowledge is in languages. Someone has estimated that 90% of the world's 6,000 languages could be lost within 100 years:

"Many linguists predict that at least half of the world's 6,000 or so languages will be dead or dying by the year 2050. Languages are becoming extinct at twice the rate of endangered mammals and four times the rate of endangered birds. If this trend continues, the world of the future could be dominated by a dozen or fewer languages.

Even higher rates of linguistic devastation are possible. Michael Krauss, director of the Alaska Native Language Center, suggests that as many as 90 percent of languages could become moribund or extinct by 2100. According to Krauss, 20 percent to 40 percent of languages are already moribund, and only 5 percent to l0 percent are "safe" in the sense of being widely spoken or having official status. If people "become wise and turn it around," Krauss says, the number of dead or dying languages could be more like 50 percent by 2100 and that's the best-case scenario.

The definition of a healthy language is one that acquires new speakers. No matter how many adults use the language, if it isn't passed to the next generation, its fate is already sealed. Although a language may continue to exist for a long time as a second or ceremonial language, it is moribund as soon as children stop learning it. For example, out of twenty native Alaskan languages, only two are still being learned by children.

Fewer Languages, Fewer Thoughts

Although language extinction is sad for the people involved, why should the rest of us care? What effect win other people's language loss have on the future of people who speak English, for example? Replacing a minor language with a more widespread one may even seem like a good thing, allowing people to communicate with each other more easily. But language diversity is as important in its way as biological diversity.

Andrew Woodfield, director of the Centre for Theories of Language and Learning in Bristol, England, suggested in a 1995 seminar on language conservation that people do not yet know all the ways in which linguistic diversity is important. "The fact is, no one knows exactly what riches are hidden inside the less-studied languages," he says.

Woodfield compares one argument for conserving unstudied endangered plants--that they may be medically valuable--with the argument for conserving endangered languages. "We have inductive evidence based on past studies of well-known languages that there will be riches, even though we do not know what they will be. It seems paradoxical but it's true. By allowing languages to die out, the human race is destroying things it doesn't understand," he argues.

Stephen Wurm, in his introduction to the Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger of Disappearing [see access, page 12], tells the story of one medical cure that depended on knowledge of a traditional language. Northern Australia experienced an outbreak of severe skin ulcers that resisted conventional treatment. Aborigines acquainted with the nurse told her about a lotion derived from a local medicinal plant that would cure the ulcers. Being a woman of broad experience, the woman didn't dismiss this claim for non-Western medical knowledge. Instead, she applied the lotion, which healed the ulcers.

This incident and similar ones have resulted in a general search throughout Australia for medicinal plants known to aboriginal people through their languages and traditional cultures. The search has to be fast because most Australian languages are dying. When they go, the medical knowledge stored in them will go too.

As Michael Krauss expresses it, the web of languages is a "microcosm of highly specialized information. Every language has its own take on the world. One language is not simply a different set of words for the same things." Just as we depend on biological complexity for our physical survival, we depend on linguistic complexity for our cultural survival.

Does Mainstreaming Require Language Death?

Some language loss, like species loss, is natural and predictable. No language exists forever. Just as plants and animals have appeared and disappeared over the millennia, languages evolve, grow, and spread, and eventually dwindle and die. Sometimes they're replaced by their "descendant" languages, as Italian gradually replaced Latin. Other times they're forced out, as the ancient Etruscan language was when Latin speakers overran the Italian peninsula.

Language extinction is accelerating today for some of the same reasons as species extinction--population pressures and the spread of industrialization. The global economy often forces small, unindustrialized communities to choose between their traditional language and participation in the larger world. East Africans need to speak Swahili for success; Central Europeans need to speak Russian; and lately, the whole world seems to need to speak English. Sometimes these languages coexist with the local language. More often, they eventually replace it as older speakers die and younger ones adopt the more-useful tongue.

As Nicolas Ostler points out, "Modem media have produced a strange phenomenon, giving children a source of knowledge about the world which is independent of the knowledge that comes from their elders in their own community. [Since] it conveys a sense of wealth that is not available in most places ... it is not surprising that children are seduced by it..."

- Rosemarie Ostler

I think the type of knowledge which Daniel foresaw an increase in is the knowledge of God, and an increase in knowledge about Daniel's prophecy. I think the running to and fro which he foresaw was probably activity in relation to God's Word or to prophecy. That's been the general understanding of this verse, by many great men of God throughout church history (see Wesley's Explanatory Notes; Matthew Henry Commentary; Geneva Study Bible; and Jamieson Faucett and Brown Commentary).

The view that it refers to modern technology is only a modern view. It was never the standard take on that verse throghout church history.

And even if the modern view is the right view, we still can't assert on that basis that our generation must certainly be the last - because we can only compare current increases in the level of technology with past levels - we can't compare it with any future leaps in technology which may come in a future generation.

There was a time when the knowledge of God began to increase in Israel, just as Daniel foresaw. When John began to preach, the people who sat in darkness saw a great light. When Jesus began to preach, a great light shone. Through the preaching of the Gospel by the Apostles it came to pass in Israel that no-one needed to say, 'Know the Lord', for they were all getting to know Him. God was writing His laws on the hearts of the multitudes who were being born from above.

The Gentiles were also grafted-in, and the knowledge of God increased among the Gentiles. Within Paul's own lifetimes it came to pass that the Gospel was preached to every nation under heaven. Within a few centuries, idolatry was virtually eliminated from Europe. And now in 2010 more nations and tribes are hearing about God than ever before.

Daniel's main concern however, was the nation of Israel. His prophecy therefore was most likely fulfilled by the events of the first century, when the New Covenant was first made with Israel, through Jesus Christ. Truly, the knowledge [of God] increased and many began heeding God's prophetic Word - the Gospel.

Since the day of Pentecost therefore, we have been in "the last days", the "last hour". Jesus could come at any hour, irrespective of any increases or decreases in human knowledge be it technology, languages, natural science or anything such like. The son of man cometh at an hour when you think not. And no-one knows the year, season, day nor hour.

1 comment:

Brian Barker said...

With regard to the campaign to save endangered and dying languages, can I point to the contribution, made by the World Esperanto Association, to UNESCO's campaign.

The commitment was made, by the World Esperanto Association at the United Nations' Geneva HQ in September.

Your readers may be interested in http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=_YHALnLV9XU Professor Piron was a translator with the United Nations in Geneva.

A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at http://www.lernu.net