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Wonder at the Word
“May I know you, may I know myself” – Augustine
“May it be the real I who speaks. May it be the real Thou that I speak to.” – C. S. Lewis1
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In the seventeenth century, John Wilkins, a founding member of the Royal Society, published a mathematically precise language system—a means of communicating clear and distinct ideas in a way that was universal, not being subject to the vagaries of different languages or personal shades of meaning.2 The next century, Enlightenment thinkers like William Godwin expressed a related dream of communicating moral and political truths in a form so accurate and compelling that agreement would be irresistible. “There is certainly a way of expressing truth with such benevolence as to command attention, and such evidence as to enforce conviction in all cases whatever,” he wrote.3
Although such aspirations now seem naïve, the premises haunt us. When we feel in possession of a great truth, we feel confident that there must exist a way of leading our friend or antagonist to see it with the same clarity and certainty that we do.
The problem with such fond hopes is not (or not only) that our grasp of truth is seldom as complete as the confidence behind it. It is rather (or also) that we are not data processing machines exchanging binary code. Human language will never achieve the univocality toward which those seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Englishmen wanted to push it. When I input 0100110, the CPU registers 0100110. But when I say, “I see the unemployment rate is down,” you hear “don’t you think it's time you get a job and find your own apartment?”
Even the simplest expressions are colored by the history each word has in our personal lives. “Father” calls to mind a kindly man who protected or a tyrant who abused; “love” evokes the remembered warmth of maternal embrace of the failed dream of “happy ever after.” “God” probably evokes the greatest range of any word in our vocabulary.
Medieval theologians emphasized the impossibility of even approximating God’s nature through language. A mode of describing God developed that emphasized what could not be said of God. This apophatic, or negative, theology culminated in statements like that of Pseudo-Dionysius, who wrote that “He is neither soul nor intellect; nor has he imagination, nor opinion or reason; He has neither speech nor understanding, and is neither declared nor understood . . . He neither has power nor is power; neither is He light, nor does he live or is he life . . . nor is he subject to intellectual contact . . . For God abides above created intellect and existence, and is in such a sense unknowable and non-existent that He exists above all existence.”4
John’s insistence that Jesus is the fullest reflection of the Father moves us in an opposite direction—and one that I believe offers the surest path of discipleship. But even here, the evangelist known as Mark urges caution. He records how, from Christ’s very first appearance in the synagogue to his final days, incomprehension and bewilderment follow him. The crowds “were astounded,” Mark says at one point; “Never before have we seen the like” (Mark 2:12 NEB). On another occasion, an audience was “astonished,” asking, “Where does he get these things?” (6:2 Wuest). We expect strangers, of course, to be entirely clueless. Is he John the Baptist? Elias? Another prophet? It is easy to find the humor, the hint of smug superiority, in our own reaction. Those poor, blind contemporaries, ignorant of who it was that walked among them. Mark’s point is that his true disciples are almost equally clueless. Neither his family, his confidants, nor his disciples get him. “He is beside himself,” they say in embarrassment at one point (Mark 3:21). At another, they say to one another incredulously, “What manner of man is this?” (Mark 4:41). Two chapters later, his disciples “were sore amazed in themselves beyond measure, and wondered” (Mark 6:51). Translators struggle to convey their utter incomprehension. These, his closest followers, were “utterly astounded” (6:51 NRSV) and “exceedingly beyond measure amazed” (6:51 Wuest). They were, in short, stupefied.
If those who walked with him, broke bread with him, and were personally tutored by him were stupefied, amazed, dumbfounded, and perplexed, then I must expect to be filled with even more wonderment. If I am not, it is not because I comprehend more than they; it is because the story has been dulled in its retelling. Christ’s effigy is worn by millions, his face omnipresent in art, his very title a label assumed by over a billion. He has become, in a word, deceptively familiar. Mark is trying to humble me. He says, in effect, “You need to wonder more and assume less. You need to break through all the familiar ways of seeing and hearing him and begin again.” If I am likening the scriptures to myself, then it is I who am rebuked along with his disciples: “Are ye so without understanding also? Do ye not perceive?” (Mark 7:18).