I apologize for the Hebrew, but you’ll understand in a minute. And God said, “Let there be light” (“yehi’or”). There is an old mystical Jewish notion that when God created things, He did so by speaking them into existence, such that there was an exact correspondence between the word spoken and the thing created. On that basis, it was believed that a person speaking the same word (in Hebrew, of course) could cause that thing to exist as well. It is, at first take, a rather magical presentation of God’s creative act. But the instinct is, I think, spot on, and points to one of the great problems in the nature of language itself.
Language, across time, has been more and more abstracted from the objects of the world. This is particularly the case in modern languages such as English with its vast vocabulary, largely constructed from borrowed words. Yesterday, I commented to a couple of adolescents that they were “intrepid.” Of course, I got blank stares. Their mother encouraged one saying, “You know what that means.” She couldn’t recall it. Adults could be prompted by recalling the phrase, “fear and trepidation.” But then, most adults would mistakenly think the word was a synonym for fear. In Latin, it shares a root with “tremble,” and has a root that means to “shake.”
This is an example of much of our borrowed language and the development of metaphor. We say a word (“intrepid”) but do not hear its meaning (“shake”). There is something of a break between what we say and what we think. That break (I was going to write “disjunction”) itself represents an alienation in our word, a life lived in abstractions. If you would like to relive the experience of an untutored adolescent, try reading through a few pages of David Bentley Hart’s work.
Let’s consider Adam. God creates with a word, speaking creation into existence. He makes Adam, however, by hand, in His own image likeness. Rather than being “spoken” into existence, Adam himself is a “speaker,” like God. We see Adam’s role as speaker in the naming of the animals:
And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and He brought them to the man to see what he would name each one. And whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. (Gen. 2:18)
And, of course, the naming doesn’t stop there. God forms woman taken from the side of the man. Adam declares:
“This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’
for she was taken out of man.”
Man is a “namer.” This is quite significant in understanding what it means to be human. For the giving of names to the animals is an act of “sub-creation” (to use a term that Tolkien liked). The name of an animal is its nature. God created the animals, and man made them what they are.
C.S. Lewis held that pets were more like the animals of the Garden than are the wild animals, in that they clearly prefer the headship of humans and respond to it in a marvelous way. Under the headship of a human, the lion will indeed lie down with a lamb. The many stories of saints and animals (even in the wild) also point to this role. Creation groans for the liberty it finds when the “sons of God” return to their proper place and role.
The fall of human beings into sin does not destroy our capacity to name, but it begins the long road of alienation from which we increasingly suffer. The Jewish notion of the connection between thing and names in creation has a counterpart in the Christian doctrine of the logoi of created things. All created things have their inner reason (logos) and purpose. The patristic tradition describes “natural contemplation” as the process of perceiving and understanding the logoi of creation. This is not an exercise in viewing creation as abstraction. Indeed, it is the complete opposite. Such theoria is properly an act of communion in which our perception and knowing enters that original participation with creation that was intended by God.
This is particularly manifest in the ministry of Christ. His word to the winds and the sea, “Peace, be still,” is not a forcing or coercing of nature. He who is the Logos, speaks to the logoi of the groaning creation. Creation hears again, for the first time since Eden, the voice of the True Adam who knows its name. “What manner of man is this that even the winds and the sea obey him?” they asked. The answer is, “What manner of men are we that the winds and the sea do not obey us?”
Christ not only recalls our role in naming creation, we hear Him speak our true name as well. The calling of the disciples has this quality. How is it that they drop what they are doing, leave everything and follow Him?
The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. (Jn 10:3)
This is true in our interaction with Christ, just as it is true of the whole creation:
Lift up your eyes on high: Who created all these? He leads forth the starry host by number; He calls each one by name. Because of His great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing. Isaiah 40:26
As Christ speaks our name, he speaks us more fully into the image and likeness of God. Slowly, we begin to recover the truth of our role as those who give names. It happens in Holy Baptism and continues (properly) throughout our lives. Most especially, we are taught to love the name of Jesus. This is the true name of the Logos, “from [whose Father] the whole family of heaven and earth are named” (Eph. 3:14). It is in speaking Christ, both to one another, and to the whole creation, that we begin to discern the truth of everything around us.
In the writings and hymnography of the Church, we are often described as “rational sheep” (λογικά πρόβατα). This could be translated as “sheep who speak.” It is unique to human beings – among the other animals we are like gods (my apologies to cats). However, the further we move away from God, the more our speech degenerates into noise. When our words (logoi) cease to rhyme with the Word (Logos), the original purpose is lost and our words move towards non-being (the “essence” of evil). It is such meaningless speech that is referenced when the Scriptures enjoin us to refrain from “idle talk.” It is not “chit-chat” that is troublesome, but words whose purpose has been lost and drowned in the noise of non-being.
This is love: seeing and naming all things for who and what they truly are. It is the heart-cry of all creation, the meaning of its groaning and travail. Understanding this, we begin to remember why we were given the faculty of speech in the first place. We speak because we exist in the image and likeness of God, the Speaker of all things. If we hear words of cursing and condemnation, they were not spoken to us by God but by those who have begun to lose their capacity for true speech. Speak carefully, all of creation is listening.