These words are too solid, they don’t move fast enough

“How could you get through the day without Jesus?”. An evangelical Quaker once said this to a f/Friend of mine. I imagine my initial reaction to a question like this would be one of affront. Even though it came out of a fairly innocent sharing of one person’s way of being, it just seems so loaded.

My f/Friend went on to say that when she talked further with the evangelical Friend, she came to see that what she meant by those words wasn’t all that far from my f/Friend’s own experience. They were talking about similar things, even though the words were unfamiliar, even alien or offensive.

Words are tricky things. Words are not the things they describe. They don’t even point to the things they describe. The words we use point to an idea in our heads, which only then points to the thing that idea represents. When say “that’s a tree” we can’t actually ‘see’ the tree. We can only see light bouncing off the side of the tree closest to us. Our eyes translate that light into images that our brain interprets. Our brain matches those images against all the concepts we have about the world, and comes up with the concept we have about a tree. We then attach the word ‘tree’ to that concept. If we were German we’d attach the word ‘baum’, if Italian we’d say ‘albero’.

If we came from a tribe in the rain forest, the concept we’d match to the visual stimulus caused by light bouncing off a tree might be quite different. Rather than attaching to a concept of a tall, woody, vascular plant that is strong and beautiful, we might have a concept of the body of a particular spirit, or a piece of the living fabric of our home.

So, the words can be different, and the concepts they point to can be different, even if the things themselves are the same. The word, the concept, and the thing itself (or to use fancy postmodern linguistic analysis terms, the signifier, the signified, and the referent). Dealing with this across different languages, cultures and individuals is hard enough when we’re talking about things we can see and touch. When we talk about things we can only know through contemplation, or through faith, it becomes even more difficult.

One person can say ‘God’ and for them that can only attach to the idea of an ‘all powerful father up in heaven’. For another person the word ‘God’ attaches to a concept of an all pervading universal energy, something a bit like the Force in Star Wars. ‘Jesus’ can mean ‘an ever present and daily connection with the divine’ to one person, and ‘a human prophet who lived 2000 years ago’. For some these different concepts might be compatible, for some they’re contradictory. It’s very hard to agree whether or not these concepts are the same or overlap, because the ‘thing itself’ is so hard to discern. We can’t see it with the eye of flesh, we can’t do more than theologise about it with the eye of mind, we can only know it through the eye of contemplation. And that is a uniquely individual experience that is almost impossible to convey with words…

The same goes for religion, spirit, divine, inner light, peace, love, and thing else that is intangible, but nonetheless real to us in our experience.

Susan Vega said:

I won’t use words again
They don’t mean what I meant
They don’t say what I said
They’re just the crust of the meaning
With realms underneath
Never touched
Never stirred
Never even moved through

But we have to use words. So how can we learn to listen for the concept rather than the word? How can we move beyond assuming people mean what we mean by that word? How can we be willing to hear their truth, and in so doing be more open to the deeper truth beyond that?


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