Archive for July 20th, 2012

Rational Sheep and the Word of God

July 20, 2012

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.