Since high school I’ve had an active curiosity about words, idioms, writing, and language, and how our perception of reality is limited or enlarged by the words available to us.
Recently I heard a linguistic philosopher speak on these topics, offering several interesting stories. For instance, she tells about some Aboriginal languages that do not have words for left, right, front, or back. Instead, every directional phrase is ordinal; that is, derived from the points on the compass. And so someone says, “You’ve got a bug on your southeast leg!” or “My north ear hurts.” The philosopher says that when she is in a room full of American or European professors and she asks them to close their eyes and point toward the southwest, only 20-30% of the crowd gets it right. When she repeats the exercise with children or adults from these Aboriginal cultures, every single person points in the correct direction without exception. Pretty helpful in the outback, I would imagine. Language shapes perception and forms what we see.
In another example, she describes how there are a couple languages that do not have numbers, or even a word for the concept of number. When someone returns with a basket of seven fish from the river, there are words to ask about whether there are sufficient fish to feed everyone and to describe the type of fish and the anticipated taste of the fish, but evidently the sevenness of the fish is of no importance. Without the constructs of a language with numbers, people cannot even see how many there are. Sevenness doesn’t exist.
We perform our ministry in a cultural language field that predisposes people to perceive or overlook all kinds of things. Our language is shaped by commerce, politics, psychology, entertainment, notions of physical beauty, and many other heavy influences. These factors prepare us to see conflict, feel fear, and develop appetites for wealth, power, physical appearance and a whole host of values, many of which have an elusive and temporal quality to them.
Part of our task is to cultivate a different language field that helps people perceive realities they may never have seen before or knew existed. Our language includes such rich concepts as grace, forgiveness, love, mercy, compassion, joy, hope, obedience, justice, gentleness, new birth, mission, and witness. As we grow in our following of Christ, immerse ourselves in the body of Christ, and learn the language of faith, we begin to perceive God’s presence and activity in ways we could not discern before. In the community of faith, we explore such things as hope and grace, lift them up, question them, seek them, and cultivate them. Through the practices of prayer, worship, Bible study, and service, we keep these words in front of us in conscious awareness so they shape us. These words change us. Our speaking the language of grace and faith helps people perceive these things. The Word transforms the world.
John writes, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us…full of grace and truth. From his fullness, we have received grace upon grace.”
There is a Word desiring to become flesh among us, as certainly and as powerfully now as there was when Jesus first walked among us.
Yours in Christ,
P.S. I’m sorry I’ve been away from the blogging for the last couple of weeks. I’ve been immersed in work and also focused on another writing project. I’ll try to return to a more regular blogging schedule next week. Thanks. rs