The Spoken World
Speak a new language so that the world will be a new world.
The limits of my language indicate the limits of my world.
-- Ludwig Wittgenstein
Our founding myths teach us that before there were worlds there were words. Each act of creation in the first chapter of Genesis begins with an utterance. “Let there be light,” God says, and light emerges from darkness – but only after sound first emerges from silence. Before God calls the world into being there is not nothing at all but rather an earth that is “without form and void.” God’s words give shape to creation, separating light from darkness, firmament from waters and waters from dry land. As a final act of creation, God forms humans from the dust of the ground and grants them naming rights over all the other creatures. In effect, they have been given power to reshape the world with their own words.
The process by which chaos gives way to order in the biblical creation story can also be applied to the formation of human consciousness. From darkness into light, the newborn emerges into a world of pure sensation – a “great blooming, buzzing confusion,” as the pioneering psychologist William James once described it. Only gradually does the infant learn to distinguish sensations of light and dark, heat and cold, hunger and thirst. Sounds are associated with these sensations, and words eventually become the concepts that give shape to his surroundings. Naming becomes the small child’s way of gaining mastery over the world. As a final step, he gives a name to himself and becomes a fully self-conscious being.
Once formed, our basic concepts about the world and our place in it are largely transparent to us. We may think we are still capable of perceiving the world as it presents itself to us, but the pristine sensations that greeted us as newborns are irretrievably lost. The philosopher Owen Barfield has noted that “the perceptual world comes over its horizon already organized.” It is not just that we have attached names to sensations but that we have arranged them according to fundamental concepts of time and space that are deeply embedded in the grammar and syntax of our language. A subject-verb-object sentence structure predisposes us to think in dualistic terms. Verb tenses give rise to linear time. We see the world as we do because we literally can’t think about it any other way.
Quantum physicists and mystics who apprehend the world in fundamentally new ways quickly find that their insights get lost in translation. The physicist David Bohm proposed the creation of an entirely new language to capture the wholeness and process of quantum reality, a language in which verbs rather than nouns predominate. Mystics resort to elaborate metaphors that try to circumvent the limitations of the language in which they are expressed. Their fate usually is to see the metaphor mistaken for the underlying reality. Ultimately, there are no words for it. Visionaries speak about the coming of a new heaven and a new earth, but what they are really getting at is that we need to see the old world in a new way. Jesus called it the kingdom of God, and to enter it we need to unlearn nearly everything we think we know about the world. We would do well to look to our original passage from darkness into the light. The metaphor Jesus used was this: If we want to see the kingdom of God, we must be born anew.