To make an apt answer is a joy to a man, and a word in season, how good it is!
Jesus is called the Word of God1. Surely this points to the enormous value of words. What is it with words? What do words do? There are so many types of words! From the technical explanation in a manual, to the beauty of poetry. From a heated argument to a formal speech. Last but not least there is the talk about nothing in particular that friends have when they just want to be together. Words have power either to reveal or to obscure. To heal or to hurt. It can be such a relief when someone brings clarity in a confusing situation with some well chosen words. I think the best words are words that express a reality that was there all the time, but we didn’t realise it before the words were spoken. Our words do not have creative power2, but we can illuminate and bring things to light.
Saint Augustine speaks very beautifully on what our words can achieve in his book ‘The Teacher’ which describes a conversation that he had with his son Adeodatus. The book itself was a revelation to me about something that I knew somewhere, but couldn’t grasp before. And now, while I am struggling to express this beauty that I sensed, I see how different his approach is from more common approaches to speaking.
For I am afraid that we usually think more like: ‘how can I convince this person of my point of view’. Or only: ‘how can I express my views and sentiments so that I am understood’. Either way, we see the words as a vehicle that will transfer our views to the mind of that other person, and not as a means to express and explore together a reality that we can then share.
Now this book ‘The Teacher’ is quite a complicated philosophical argument on whether or not words can teach. I may not have understood all the nuances, but two things stood out for me. First: words are pointers to realities that we want to express (they mean something). Second: there is such a thing as divine illumination by which we can recognize truth. This latter insight is wonderful, because it explains why conversations on spiritual things are actually possible. Otherwise we would never be able to convey what we mean with our words, since we cannot just point to God and say ‘this is God’. This reminded me of my most beautiful conversations, when a friend would suddenly light up at my words, recognizing what I had said, and enthusiastically add more details on the same subject from her perspective. A great reminder and affirmation that our thoughts do not live in our own heads only, but we share a common awareness of spiritual things.
In order to share spiritual realities we must first be aware of them3. Then following that, we can express our thoughts. This is a wonderful step further. There is a latin saying: “by teaching, we learn”. Indeed when I attempt to put into words what moved me, I suddenly find that it is not at all that simple! The moment I try to explain my ideas to someone else, I usually discover that I made some big leaps that are not immediately logical4 and need more explaining. The process of filling in the gaps (or adjusting my ideas) is very refreshing and helps bring out more nuances that I would otherwise never have seen.
The exchange of ideas with another person thus helps us to stay grounded in reality. This works best if the other person is somewhat critical and also feels free to speak his mind. When we keep our ideas too much for ourselves, or worse: in groups of like-minded people, we run the great risk of building castles in the air5. We need other people to ask questions and point out weak spots in our arguments. But overly critical persons, including our own inner critic, often prevent us from thinking at all. The book ‘The Teacher’ was a great example of a fruitful dialogue. Father and son obviously loved each other, yet Adeodatus asked many critical questions and pointed out counterexamples to what his father had said. This helped both of them in understanding the topic better.
As I remembered in the start of this text, Jesus is called the ‘Word of God’. Now I have been thinking that just as Jesus shows us who the Father is, so our words show others who we are. And I find it very interesting that even we ourselves will learn more in this process. Often, we don’t really know what goes on in our own heart, but when we try to express it to another person, it can come to light.
- John 1:1,14
- Although some people say that writers actually do something of the kind, for example Tolkien created the Hobbits
- This is more the topic of my other text: Words of Life: how can we discover what truly lives in us, what God says, what he has given us, all with the help of the Holy Ghost
- As you can see, I am getting better and better at the British art of making understatements!
- Or, to remain biblical: build our house on sand, see Matthew 7:24-27