Originally published on the Patheos blog, 18 Dec 2015
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John 1:1
There are words that we use for things we know so well, as in, “look at that goat over there, it’s chewing on my favorite book!” We also use words to signify things that we can’t touch and feel; things that are abstract and ineffable, like “I love you” and “thank God!”
With those things that we can touch, descriptors often signify the larger context of the thing. A simple noun like “apple” is a stand-in for all of the crispness and juiciness that can find itself between your teeth on a Fall day; a Macintosh, a Rome, a Granny Smith, or any number of other varieties. The word ocean might mean that vast blueness just beyond the beach on vacation, or those 332,519,000 cubic miles of water capable of generating tsunamis that swallow everything before them, all the while being home to hundreds of millions of tons of biomass.
Whether it’s apples or oceans, in signifying the larger thing, words behave like a sort of Google Maps – they’re a verbal bit of flatness to the reality of feeling the pebbles beneath the feet. We depend on the context and our shared experiences to fill the gaps much the way a Haiku poet does. We describe our world as best we can, and for the most part, it works.
While we’re chattering away, though, we have to remember that words aren’t the reality. Recent space exploration provides some interesting examples. Since the launch of the Hubble telescope in 2009, astronomers have adjusted calculations for the age of the universe to be in the neighborhood of 13.7 billion years old; the size of the universe being that large in light years. Our own galaxy is now estimated at about 100,000 light years across. To talk about the scale of time and distance we use phrases like “light years” and words like “billions;” but how can we possibly comprehend the vastness signified by these casual phrases?
There’s absolutely nothing in our mortal experience to prepare us for the idea of a light year, nor light speed. As a result, it’s common for science writers to make comparisons for lay readers, like, “If the sun was the size of a beach ball, the earth would be the size of a pea 360 feet down the road, and the nearest other star would be over 18,000 miles away.”
Through the course of time, as humans evolved into the sapient creatures that we are, we’ve faced much that is beyond comprehension. Words and language evolve to help, and like any tool, enable people to navigate their reality. But here’s the kicker: these tools also limit – constrict – bind. In many cases, our thinking is circumscribed by the very tools we use to think.
Like a rock sticking up through the ground, words trip us up. In the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the words spirit or being, or one are used to define God. If we stopped and had a conversation on the topic with someone on the street, they might agree that those words are not quite enough for their idea. But like any sign, it has to be enough to think of the bigger thing being signified. We personify our god, and place her within the confines — if not an actual body, at least an embodiment. It’s like thinking about the size of Earth compared to Jupiter; let’s place this pea next to the pumpkin.
Herman Melville was describing this very situation when he wrote a letter to his neighbor Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Take God out of the dictionary, and you would have Him in the street.” In other words, if you quit defining God, he can be alive and real.
Our perceptual limitation may indeed be our language, or as others have suggested, perhaps it is our body. Yet much of the reality of the universe far exceeds this limitation. Sometimes, by defining something, we limit it to the breadth of our experience, we limit to the understanding of our body or language. The very origin of the word “define” means to conclude – to bring to an end. Is it any wonder that in countless mythologies that should a mere mortal actually see a divine being, that they’d be obliterated in the act? The dictionary states that God is a noun; but isn’t even the idea of noun restricting? Could God be noun, verb, adverb, – all other parts of grammar, and even then some that haven’t been imagined? Can we think about an ultimate driving force of the universe without putting it into grammar? In the Judaic tradition, scholars understood this and had many different names for their god – some with different grammar attributes, or even understood to be unpronounceable.
What would happen if, on a personal level, we removed the word? It’s possible that then, it would never be a matter of “believing in” or “not believing in,” of theism, or atheism, of your God and my God – but instead, simply an openness to the vast universe beyond words. We might then begin to dream of space and time that stretches in all directions infinite; the rhythms, the order, and even the chaos.
There is the moment in which we climb a mountain, sit down with a bottle of wine, and try to conceive of that ineffable something that begins where our bodies end. In the Buddhist traditions; this frontier is an illusion. Even our thoughts are limits, and as the Buddhists suggest, our understanding will open when we learn the art of not getting “caught up” in thought. Not that thoughts don’t have meaning and purpose – but that attaching ourselves to them restrict.
In Zen Buddhism, there is a popular koan to the effect that if you meet the Buddha, you should kill him. Shunryu Suzuki wrote, “Kill the Buddha if the Buddha exists somewhere else. Kill the Buddha, because you should resume your own Buddha nature.” It’s easy to trip over these words, and take them literally; in Zen, these ideas are meant to trip up the logical mind; to force you to experience reality in a more fundamental way than that of the mind’s chatter and words.
Can we experience the essential force of the universe without resorting to the stringing together of letters and sounds? I imagine that we could, and that in doing so we would do so quietly, and that we would agree with Wittgenstein’s exhortation, “‘Make sure that your religion is a matter between you and God only.”