Rational Sheep and the Word of God

Any parent who has raised a child has witnessed the miracle of human language. Even children with handicaps find ways to communicate except in the most extreme circumstance. The genius of language is not something we learn – it is instinctual for human beings. Those who study linguistics and neurobiology recognize that we have an instinct for grammar – not the polite rules of a high school English class – but the deep structures that make language work – any language. Children born into situations of “proto-languages” such as the accidental “pidgin” of occasional ethnic mixes – take that most rudimentary speech and generate a “creole” (a new language born of such pidgins) within a single generation. They are not taught this language – they invent it, complete with a grammatical structure they are not taught by a previous generation.

The Scriptures tell the story of humanity with a profound sense of language. The first action of God is speech: “Let there be light!” God does not teach man to speak – we can only assume from the Biblical story that humanity and speech exist together from the beginning. God brings the animals to Adam, “to see what he would name them.” Animals could not exist within the human world and not be named. This is not because there is something inherently “nameable” about animals – rather it is human beings who must name. I say that we must name, because it is an instinct: theologically, it belongs to our nature. We do not think and then speak: thought and language are common.

Our drive to speak is more than a matter of language. The “grammar” that is instinctual to us marks all that we do. Human beings have an inherent sense of structure about everything around them. That structural sense is manifest in how we treat numbers, how we treat art, how we treat everything in the world. Our speech has a grammar and everything around us, everything that human beings perceive, has a grammar. This grammatical approach to the world is far more descriptive of human behavior than words such as reasonable or rational. People do with the world what they do with words. [For an interesting theological reflection on doctrine as the grammar of theology, see George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine.]

It is our behavior with words that perhaps best illustrates what it means to say that we are logikos. Even an abridged Greek-English dictionary will give a seemingly endless list of English words with which one might translate logos, the root of logikos. Most commonly, St. John’s prologue is rendered, “In the beginning was the Word [Logos].” The root meaning of logos is certainly “word” (lego “to speak”). But it is within the larger context of human beings as speakers, the instinctive grammarians of the universe, that logos finds its greater meaning. Some within the tradition have said that human beings exist in the image of God, inasmuch as we are “rational” (“rational” being yet another way to translate logikos). The result is the imagining of human beings as calculators. It is more accurate to speak of rationality as the perception that things have a grammar, a discernible structure that is susceptible to description and understanding.

Human beings have a natural passion (perhaps eros would be the better word) to explain things. We read the world and speak it in turn. We speak things and want to make them. When words fail we do not abandon our passion, but pursue the instinct beyond the bounds of formal language. We have learned (and invented) the grammar of numbers and science. With number and symbol we describe the relationships and structure of the sub-atomic universe. In relationship with God we dare to speak His name and to speak of person and substance, essence and energy, Trinity and transcendence. We have found no greater or more complete statement of icons than that “they do with color what the gospels do with words.”

And so, we are rightly described as logikos. It is not simply that we offer words to God, for words are only one manifestation of our logicity. We have been told (!) that we are created in God’s image. He who created heaven and earth is imaged in those who reach for the very structure of that same universe. He offers the word, “Let there be,” and we respond, returning the praise (logikos latreia) with what that Word has made.

We cannot imagine human existence without our logikos way of being. We are not logical (this word is a caricature of the Greek). But we cannot resist the urge to explain, to understand, to connect and see beyond and behind those things that appear. Even when our explanations are wrong we cannot accept no explanation.

As noted above, there are limits to speech. The Church’s understanding of God asserts above all else that God transcends our ability to know or speak. At its heart, true theology is apophatic (without speech). But the Church does not teach that God is aphatic (against speech). That which is made known to us in the Incarnation of Christ is God the Logos. Even when we cannot speak God, we can know Him. And the God whom we know sounds an echo within our very being.

And so the Church hymns believers as God’s “rational sheep” (logiki provati). It is a title of honor. The sheep return the honor by recognizing the Logos in all He has made (“all things were made by Him and without Him not anything was made”). We hear the song of creation and the voice of its groaning. We hear rocks sing and the harmonies of sub-atomic particles. And in the sound and grammar of all these things we hear the Word of God and sing to Him, his rational sheep.

23 comments:

  1. “When words fail we do not abandon our passion, but pursue the instinct beyond the bounds of formal language. We have learned (and invented) the grammar of numbers and science.”

    And poetry.

  2. I am learning Pidgin English, or Tok Pisin as they call it here in Papua New Guinea. I have to say, though, it isn’t coming to me as instinctually as I had hoped it would!

    Gut pela post Father Stephen!

    Tenk yu tru!

  3. Father,

    A question I’ve had for some time: with reference to the Theophany, when we sing of ‘the voice of the Father’, is that distinct from the ‘logos’ of the Father? How so?

    Thanks!

  4. Fr. Stephen,

    Another wonderful insight. It makes a lot of sense concerning why we blunder in where angels would fear to tread, why aliens, elves, and supernatural things much be kept just out of reach – lest we try to “name” them. I imagine Adam would track the animals down himself if God hadn’t gone ahead and done an official presentation – and He knew that. (grin)

    “…there are limits to speech. The Church’s understanding of God asserts above all else that God transcends our ability to know or speak.”

    This explains why we introduce those who need no introduction and comment on subjects when nothing could possibly be added. As the human race is all about relationships, this explains a great deal!

    Thank you, and God bless your mission as father to many of us. (See! I just commented on you! Couldn’t help myself!)

  5. @fr

    I think this points in part to the importance of poetry to the human being. Its role seems unquantifiable but recognizable… and it certainly is by no means limited to sentimentality. But what to say? Can we say that a society devoid of significant poetry has a language pathology? Or maybe we could borrow an image from Revelation and say that it is a third mute.

  6. All of the arts, those ‘singing’ gifts, are degraded. Not one shows any depth of soul or significant spirit. It is because we dwell in the physical and the psychological as we forget the depth of our own being. Poetry comes from the still small voice within (or from the desperate darkness that often surrounds it). How can it be heard amid the clamor of noise created by our machines, our electronics and our own unregulated mind they mimic.

    We are regressing in language as well–back to pictographs and hieroglyphs except without any of the sense of the sacred that motivated ancient man to create them. We ‘communicate’ without grace, beauty or intelligence. We are so ‘connected’ that we no longer acknowledge the human.

    We ‘know’ far too much and in our arrogance we reject what we don’t understand and control as either non-existent or irrelevant.

    Therefore we kill our children through abortion; send our young men and women into war without thought; trash the created world that we are supposed to care for; reduce the Church to the cacophany of the many subjective opinions while all the while we subject ourselves to ever increasing tyranny in our political lives so that we may be free to wallow in our licentiousness and passions: celebrating the abyss of nothingness as who we really are, the abomination of desolation.

  7. One of my daughters is in an Art College (and is an artist). I have noticed when I visit there, many of the works of students. There is a tremendous amount of talent in what is a very “competitive” program. But art truly flows from the soul. Only a soul whose beauty has been cultivated in God is capable of beauty – though talent and brilliance may always be visible. I am drawn repeatedly to works that have such beauty (even in small amounts). I am not hopeful of our culture – though I think that the gospel might be more effectively preached today through beauty than through rhetoric. But to do so, we ourselves must cultivate the beauty of our souls. Even the souls of the Orthodox are frequently brutish and lacking beauty.

    We have much repentance to be about.

  8. The rejection of the machine was the error of Gouverneur Morris; as Chesterton commented rightly, he made many beautiful things, but he made no modern things beautiful. The crassness and erratic character of the modern pre-cybernetic world is as much responsible for the ugliness as the Morrises refusal to beautify it. Morris could not recognize the streetlamp as a bearer of flame, just as many reject the machine as a symbol of the leg, the arm, the eye, the desk, the ear, the book, and so on. Our poetry seems to revolve around winning moral victories of a sort; but it fails (it would seem) to create those symbols that cross the border between new and old, crafted and created, living and dead, and so forth. When I studied japanese, I was struck by the elegance of their symbol for electric train: It is a combination for the symbol for wheel and lightning; it is a lightning wheel.

    This is only me looking at the pictograph, naturally; I do not know if Japanese poets write much or think much about electric trains as lightning wheels.

  9. riverc,
    I expect rather good things of Japanese culture. Despite many things modern, it retains many or most things Japanese, which is the culture of a truly high civilization.

    There is a beauty that remains in science – there is still the expectation that a good theory must be “elegant.” The natural beauty of America compares easily with the natural beauty anywhere in the world. But where our culture has touched there are vast stains of ugliness – my beloved South has become one of the most revolting suburban blights in the nation (oftentimes). It makes me blush.

    Oddly, though the present chattering class attacks those things that accompany the “rich,” I love the beauty of golf courses. I have not played in over 10 years, but a course had to be “beautiful” to be considered a good course. It was almost Zen-like. Please, God, give us more beauty.

  10. Yeah. It is one of the key hypocrisies of our politics — and one reason why, though I am not a bootstraps person, I cannot and never will be a socialist. There is a certain ‘uselessness’ required to fashion things of beauty… but this slack has to be carried forth in gratitude, not in license or entitlement. Though I am by no means a Roman Catholic apologist, I find more and more there is much sense in the social philosophy of Chesterton, and wonder if there isn’t a place for some Orthodox to pick up where he and his best friend left off.

    I have a Kanji book, and while I can’t really read them effectively, I enjoy simply looking through the letterforms – they are not pictographs but yet they suggest a pictographic representation. Their ambiguity is poetic. There is of course a lot of bad in Japanese culture as well – some of it quite ‘Japanese’ indeed!

    I think perhaps, and this is merely an opinion and should not be considered with any gravity, the United States is in the thrall of a national idea far too large for the idea of a nation. That is to say, we identify culture and society with an entity too large and vague to sustain or bear them. The states themselves are small enough to bear a peculiarity of culture strong enough to have a flavor, but the twin guns of mass market and monster bureaucracy have long put an end to the states even being able to claim a right to be themselves. Where one of these two is silent, the other has ravaged the land – the cities broken by failed social engineering and the counties ruined by sprawl.

    There is some hope for places like Appalachia (as we call it now) but I think it is far too often tied up in political sentiments which are fickle helmsmen for any culture.

  11. it is interesting that we now sometimes use the word ‘Logos’ in Greek as ‘Explanation’. The Divine Logos is truly the explanation of all…

  12. @Michael Bauman

    Your entry above surprised me. Ironically it is the most poetic and artistic thing I’ve seen you write on this forum. And even though it came “from the desperate darkness that often surrounds it”, it was in fact very beautiful. So thank you.

    Concerning the topic in general, I want to remind everyone that we started talking about language and mankind’s need to name, and then turned to darkness and how barren the world is.

    It’s not good to remain here long. Like quicksand, darkness can take you down when you dwell on it. I refer us back to one of my favorite quotes from a previous post:

    “Everything is beautiful in a person when he turns toward God, and everything is ugly when it is turned away from God.~~Fr. Pavel Florensky”

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