Thoughts on Language, Part 3

So far I have looked at some ideas about languages (part 1) and how the lack of a sufficiently robust language can be a moral/justice issue (part 2). Now let us look at some issues of language and God.

Teresa of Ávila

Teresa of Ávila (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even a robust language is limited in both vocabulary and grammar, and hence everyone’s thinking is also limited. So what happens when we get closer to God, who is infinite and perfect and timeless? What else can happen, but that all language must fail us! And, in fact, this is the consistent witness of those who have truly found Him. In trying to describe their experiences that are beyond language they use a wide variety of images and metaphors, all of which are partial but all of which speak most clearly of the transcendence of God. It is as though having had their language broken by the experience, they pick up the pieces of words and thoughts, like bits of broken tile, and try to create a mosaic that will convey at least a hint to others of the glory they now know without knowing.

Thus it is that these blessed ones talk of God as “nothing”, of a “darkness”, a “silence”. But in fact these descriptions tell us more about ourselves than about God. The darkness is not because God lacks, nor is He a negative like darkness, which is nothing in itself but only a lack of light. Rather it is that we do not have eyes that can see here, just as we cannot see infrared light with our unaided physical eyes. If there is silence, it is not the absence of a heavenly music, but that our ears are not tuned to hear it—it is, in a sense, ultrasonic. And the nothingness reflects our own lack of senses that can grasp true substance.

At first, as we approach the border of language, of thought, it is quite frightening. For this is not the voluntary silence of the Trappist nor of any self-chosen discipline like centering prayer (however valuable such things may be in their own place) but is forced on us by the presence of the transcendent. It is the prayer of quiet that Teresa of Avila names as the highest form of prayer. We feel empty, drained, and so we fear because we expected (and were taught to expect) to be filled. Where we expected to be caught up in raptures of praise, we are struck dumb.

Yet if somehow we persevere, if we allow this silence and darkness its place, if we will stay still, if we will deny the urging of our intellects to make mere noise, something new happens. We meet God. True being comes to us and we begin to be truly real ourselves. We begin to know what cannot be known. We are assured, we find peace. It becomes the rock, the foundation of our being, but, like the foundation of a house, it cannot be seen. Yet because it is there we can no longer be shaken down. We still have to endure the storms and floods of this fallen world but we will endure.

While this is not, perhaps, set out dogmatically in the Scriptures, it is there. How many of the prophets and seers of the Old Testament are struck dumb when they “see God”? Or, like Isaiah in his vision are struck by their own finitude and fallibility? John, in his vision on Patmos, falls “as one dead” on seeing Christ. And consider Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians that they should “know the love of Christ that passes knowledge”. Since these ones, especially the prophets, speak from that place beyond language, how careful should we be when we read their words! How foolish we will become if we mistake their mosaic for a photograph! And how especially true this is for that kind of prophecy called apocalyptic.

Having said that language and thought are inseparable, and that they fail as we approach God, one might ask whether, then, God thinks. Is there some perfect, divine language that He uses? How intricate and complex such a language must be! How vast its vocabulary! Such might, indeed, be our first reaction. But if we think a little more we realize that God is not only infinite, He is also one, there is an essential unity and simplicity in Him. Thus it should not really surprise us if this divine language is also ultimately simple. Indeed it cannot have a grammar as it has a vocabulary of only one word—or rather, of The Word.

Jesus the Christ, the Word of God, is ultimately both every thought of god and the only thought of god. Thus it was inevitable that “all things were created by Him” for all things are but pieces of that one thought of God. Thus also all things are to His glory, and all will return to Him.

There are no hypotheticals with God: What He is, what He thinks, and what He does are all the same thing, and all find expression in Jesus. This is the language we must learn. As we do, we will become like Him, that is to say, our thoughts and actions will be simple expressions of who we are. If that is not so, we must question just which God we are learning from!

It is in losing our language that we find our true voice, just as it is in losing our life that we find it. It is in becoming simple that we become the wonderful, complete persons that we made to be. It is in becoming like Christ that I become most  myself.


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4 Responses to “Thoughts on Language, Part 3”

  1. treegestalt Says:

    Renoir (of all people!) did a much better painting of Teresa; I saw in a Vienna art museum a few years back but my photo of it didn’t come out well, and I’ve been unable to get a good online photo of it. (Let me know if you find any such!!!)

    I was going to skip commenting on this post… because I don’t think I can easily put my finger on my disagreement. Hmm, a best-I-can-do: It isn’t that language doesn’t apply to God, but that we can’t ‘catch’ God in a definition. We do ‘know what God looks like’ but that isn’t any visual image. Nothing we can say or write can ‘contain’ this. God’s process of ‘explaining Godself’ to us is called ‘a life.’

    “If I could have told you ‘what my book means’ I wouldn’t have needed to write the book.” Something analogous applies to God, our lives and our knowledge of God.

    • treegestalt Says:

      She’s wearing clothes, not an inch of pink pulcritude showing anywhere — just the plain, middle-aged, competent matron of a convent, sitting there looking at you. There are hints of color in the black background that really don’t show up in any of the photos I’ve seen. She’s utterly gorgeous.

    • thoughtfulspirituality Says:

      Hmmm, interesting: Your disagreement seems to be saying much of what I was trying to get across! If God had to communicate Himself to us through life, and pre-eminently through a particular life, then it seems obvious to me that language is not sufficient. I guess I am reacting mostly to those Christians I have met (mostly in the USA) who seem to think that they either know all about god, or at least could if they just learned enough verses from the Bible. There is a disastrous lack of feeling for the transcendence of God. If we understood that we cannot capture God in words, perhaps we would be more tolerant of one another and less prone to condemn others for thinking in different terms.

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