Rational Sheep and the Word of God

pantokrator_elia.jpg.scaled1000I’m in a bit of a hiatus point in my summer. I am traveling and working, and even a little distracted. I will be posting a selection of articles reflecting on the nature of our humanity (in keeping with recent articles). For the doctrine of what it means to be human (anthropology) is as central to the Orthodox faith as the doctrine of God (theology). It is doubtless true that the modern period poses far more challenges to former than the latter. We are free to rattle on about God…but the culture wants to define humanity. It is the great battleground of our time.

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. All of creation has a logos (the logoi of created things). But as God’s “logikoi sheep” human beings have a nature that “speaks” these logoi: we give (must give) names to creation. 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.

18 comments:

  1. Still trying to see “through” icons to those depicted. This strikes me as very helpful but I’ll have to mull it over a bit to figure out exactly how (or is that the wrong approach?)….

  2. Byron,
    Good question. I think it’s possible that you might be trying to hard to “see.” It’s like staring at the Eucharist and trying to “see” Christ’s body and blood. If you will, the “organ” of seeing is somewhat different than our bodily eyes (though not unrelated to them). I think of it more as seeing, and being present, being aware, listening. Or, seeing as listening. How’s that for a mind boggling concept? It is a Personal encounter rather than an objective encounter. When I see something objectively, what I am seeing is an object. It is inert and can do nothing but allow me to see it. To see something Personally, includes the freedom to be seen and to not be seen. It also requires that we be present in a Personal manner as well.

  3. “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.”

    My question is about your saying there is not something inherently nameable about animals … we understand that Adam named them according to their logoi, right? Would that not be something inherently nameable “in” them?

  4. David,
    Yes, in that sense. But it is the logikos sheep who can recognize and speak the logoi of things. But you’re point is correct. It would be more accurate to say that it is natural to human beings to give voice to the logoi.

  5. “this is not because there is something inherently ‘nameable’ about animals – rather it is human beings who must name.”

    What does this mean? Is there something “nameable” about man that is not “nameable” about animals? If man is “nameable” and animals are not, what distinction makes this the case?

  6. Jason,
    I have not been clear. I’m going to edit this passage. Animals, in their logoi, are inherently nameable, but it is inherently the case that human beings are “namers,” we give voice to the logoi in creation. Interestingly, animals are named by man. Man alone is named by God.

  7. It is a Personal encounter rather than an objective encounter.

    Yes, that is what I am trying to recognize or find; the personal encounter through the object. Perhaps that is the wrong approach?

    I remember you noting in another comment thread here that the Russian people in your parish approach and interact with the icons in a very slow, respectful manner. As if approaching and interacting with a person. I try to slow down and do the same. Veneration is difficult; I may just be overthinking it.

  8. Byron,
    Since it is Personal, it is two-sided. For our part we can slow down, venerate, and be present. And, since it’s not an object we venerate, we have to be patient and wait for the encounter.

    Many times I think we have the encounter but don’t know it because we’re so used to not seeing such things. The more we learn to be truly present in the heart, the more we will see. Be patient. It’s slow.

  9. Byron over the years I have found difficulty venerating icons, but I’ve never had trouble giving honor to particular saints especially those who’s lives/writings I have read.

    Lately my veneration of icons when I enter the sanctuary starts with the sign of the Cross, a bow and saying: Glory to thee O God (for the work He does through the particular saint). Then I simply stand quietly for a bit looking at the icon and perhaps remembering and being thankful for a paticular part of that person’s life.
    Sometimes sharing a particular concern of mine for myself or others.

    If I listen something more may be brought to my attention. Often not.

    They are real people whom God has glorified and who love us. Sometimes just saying thank you to them as well as God is enough.

  10. It might have been
    the sight of fog
    rolling like a wave
    over the coastal hills
    or morning sunlight
    on slopes of golden grass
    against dark skies.
    It could have been
    frozen aspens
    in the winter mist
    or the sunlight sparkling
    on snowmelt
    chattering between granite boulders
    & the sound of wind in the pine woods-
    sights and sounds
    that filled my heart
    with simple wonder.

    But in the end
    though my heart was full
    all I had to share
    were words.

    One of the things that first attracted me to Orthodoxy was the place given to the idea of mystery. By that I don’t mean things difficult to find out, but rather things beyond our comprehension. It seems that there are things that transcend our descriptions, for which words seem too “small” – joys inexpressible, evils inexplicable. I don’t want to suggest that there are things about faith that are irrational, but rather there are at least moments that are “extra-rational”

    I have a growing concern that it is possible to know the “right” words, to quote the Fathers and even know the scriptures and yet find our rational minds trumped by our passions.

  11. Mark the personal is always mysterious. There are always layers that seem to be just beyond our grasp yet tantalize us with their closeness. Even within our grasp.

    It is in the realm of the rational where we are most vulnerable to our passions because there we have the delusion that we can know it all and are in control. If we don’t yet know it all, it is just a matter of time.

  12. One of the things that first attracted me to Orthodoxy was the place given to the idea of mystery. By that I don’t mean things difficult to find out, but rather things beyond our comprehension. It seems that there are things that transcend our descriptions, for which words seem too “small” – joys inexpressible, evils inexplicable. I don’t want to suggest that there are things about faith that are irrational, but rather there are at least moments that are “extra-rational”

    At the end of Vespers last night, Fr. Ambrose spoke about the word “ineffable” and how it reflects the separation of the created with the uncreated. We use words in a comparative sense–if I say something is “big”, you know what that means because you can compare it to something you know to be either “small” or “big”. But we have nothing to compare God to–He is uncreated and all we have for comparison is Creation. We are simply unable to reach God but, fortunately, He reaches out to us (primarily through the incarnation).

    I think the primary mystery we grapple with is how to prepare a place in our lives where God will come and meet us. Even in this I think we are inadequate, but thankfully there is Grace and it is extended to us in love. Just my thoughts.

  13. Thank-you Byron. Your thoughts are welcome. What I was trying to express (and apparently poorly) was that there are things that I have experienced, that I believe we all experience, that cannot fully be shared with words. I can stake out the boundary perhaps, but that’s all. When I enter the sanctuary at a fairly close Orthodox church, all I’ve been able to say is that I feel worshipful, but somehow and sometimes it feels deeper than that.

    Years ago, I did a lot of digging into the philosophical problem of evil. Reams have been written, of course, but the best thing I ever read pointed out that the real difficulty we have with evil isn’t the rational. We develop theodicies to try to “defend” the integrity of God (no, don’t laugh), rational arguments intended to deal with both our thoughts and fears as well as those of others – believers and not-yet-believers alike. But the author points out that there is another side to the problem – the existential side – the evil we experience. It’s one thing to know enough of physics and physiology to know why it hurts when I hit my thumb with a hammer. But my understanding does nothing for the pain. Rational explanation avails nothing. What the author points out is that God’s answer to the existential problem of evil, the pain of the evil we experience, is to join us in it. This, though I’ve staked it out a bit, is what I meant by saying some things are extra-rational or beyond words. That my Lord would come and not only suffer for me, but with me eclipses my understanding.

    There are times when more good is done with a hug or an arm around the shoulder (if you’re manly) than with the best of explanations.

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