To Speak of the Sacred

It has been understood for millennia that what makes humans unique above all creatures is our power of speech, that is to say, our ability to communicate.  We certainly have the capacity for the most rudimentary forms of communication: “food,” “water,” “hungry,” “danger.”  But we also have a unique capacity to speak of immaterial realities: “love,” “spirit,” “god,” “heaven.”  In the preceding and most recent centuries, some have taken great pains to explain how alike we are to certain animal species.  But one glorious and irrefutable example suffices to emphasize our uniqueness: we can communicate about things we cannot see, and about those things that are not strictly necessary for material survival.  Monastics who never procreate can speak of the sublimities of divine love.  Yeoman farmers who will never study Kant or Descartes may nonetheless speak of existential angst; which speech does nothing to plant or harvest the crops.

Indeed, it is particularly the most obvious inutility of certain aspects of human speech that make us most unique and make us most human.  But perhaps such inutility is only obvious from a certain perspective.  For the power of articulation is precisely the ability to grasp the abstract realities from concrete particulars.  The observations of dozens of planting seasons yields the deduction of planetary motion.  That is to say, the uniquely human power of speech is the necessary comprehension of the realities underlying the perceived world.

We may call these realities “the laws of physics” which is simply an abstract metaphor applied to material processes.  The rock that “falls” from a specific height to the ground lacks the very articulation that humans apply to it, and the necessary capacity to deduce from that “fall” that it happens at a specific and measurable rate.  Rocks do not use slide rules.  But humans do.

If you have stayed with me thus far, then you know one among the words the ancients used to describe this power of articulation and its essential power of comprehension: logos.  And even if you’ve never taken a spare minute of Greek, you very likely know that logos is Greek for “word,” and you are also likely to know (though perhaps not as likely today as two decades ago) that logos is used by the New Testament writer of John’s Gospel to refer to the Word, Jesus the Christ, called by the Gospel, God-in-the-flesh.

The ancients also understood two fundamental principles at work in the world: Chaos and Order.  That is to say, the principles of what we today might call entropy, and physical constants such as the speed of light.  Sometimes this Chaos and Order might be rendered as Nature and Civilization.  The power of articulation allowed humans to bring comprehension (the ability to grasp something, to take something in hand) to seemingly disordered chaos.  The stars and the planets might seem to simply whirl through the sky, until after sufficient time a measurable order was finally discerned.  Yes, there were only a few who comprehended that the sun stood at the center of our solar system prior to Copernicus, but even if their conception was false, it was the very fact that they could articulate a geocentric theory of the solar system that set them apart.

Because humans have the capacity for speech, the capacity to abstract from concrete particulars, the immaterial universals, they also have the capacity to conceive of the Absolute, the Divine, the One, the Good. Or to put it another way, a uniquely human trait is the capacity to speak of God.  To the degree that we can conceptualize what appears to be some forms of communication from other creatures, it does not appear, that they have any capacity to speak of God in the way that humans do.  This is important, because one characteristic that speaking of the divine brings to human experience is that of ultimate order.  Or what some faiths call, shalom, salaam, peace.

We may note that speaking of the divine always results in ritual.  There is an orderly way to approach God.  These rituals are diverse across cultures and history, but their similarity is that one does not simply approach the divine as one would a friend or family member.  One must oneself reach an ordered state, which the ritual serves to bring about, to experience the ultimate.  Whether one is reading the pages of Jewish or Christian Scripture or watching an Indiana Jones movie, one does not approach the Ark of the Covenant willy nilly.

But the paradox of human articulation is that it cannot contain the divine, which is to say, human speech itself, human comprehension, is incapable of fully understanding the divine.  So the experience of the divine, may, to the human supplicant, not feel so much like order as it does like chaos, the undoing of the human unity of self.  One may not look upon the divine and live.

Now if one is to speak of the divine, one must be careful to do so in a way that unifies both speech and reality.  The failure to speak accurately about the divine is, strictly speaking, blasphemy.  It is to make a falsehood appear to be true, or vice versa.  One may not speak of the Divine Absolute as though it were a concrete particular.  God is not a fish.  A fish is not God.

The problem, however, is that human speech is not capable of speaking adequately of the divine.  We can abstract universals such as omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence and through definition and reason we can say some things that are true.  But no human has any of these qualities, so they remain beyond adequate articulation.  Our powers of comprehension regarding these terms are limited and incomplete.  These are things which are limited to mystery, a category of partial knowledge which we can reason must be true but which we cannot truly comprehend.

Indeed, there is a sense in which articulation of these aspects of the divine is a sort of profanity.  For if God were able to be comprehended, God would cease to be divine, but would be at minimum, simply a human construct.  The fact that humans can comprehend of such a being, while it does not prove the existence of such a being, does at least demonstrate that human reason is not the sole source of our knowledge about reality.  If reason itself can posit its own failures to ground itself or justify itself, then we have an indication that “there are more things in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in your philosophy.”

That the Christian Gospel proclaims that God became man in Jesus Christ is its unique, and to many, offensive, particularity.  It is a failure of categories: the absolute became particular.  But the offense does not stop there.  For based primarily, though not exclusively, on the revelation of God in Christ, the Christian faith also comes to know the Trinity, that there is one God in Three Persons, the One is Many and the Many is One.  And to take this even further, specific to the Eastern Orthodox Faith is the proclamation, arising again from this particular revelation in Christ, that God is at once inaccessible in God’s essence, and yet humans are also able to participate in God through his energies.  It is a direct participation, by grace alone, of the creature in the Creator.

It is this unique aspect of the Christian message, this revelation of God in, take special note, the Logos, that both blasphemy and profanity are avoided, and human speech, through sacred revelation, is enabled by grace to speak of the divine in such a way that both comprehends the divine mystery but yet is far superceded it.  That is to say, that about the divine that was not accessible to human comprehension and therefore not capable of human articulation, is now made known.  But far from eliminating the mystery of the divine, it only reveals how much greater is that divine mystery.  For while humans might conceive of the divine as many, or they might conceive of the divine as one, human reason would not have comprehended that the one could be many or that the many could be one.  Indeed, such speech seems gibberish, irrational, illogical.  God and man are two unique and distinguishable beings.  It is not possible that the infinite could be contained in a finite human body; that the God of life could also be subject to death.  More than simply the union of opposite polarities, it is a divine mystery far deeper and far more fearsome.

Truth-telling about the divine in the Christian faith is even more necessary lest the uniqueness of the proclamation be distorted, and a blasphemy of far worse consequence come to bear on human experience.  For truth-telling about the divine is necessary for the proper orientation of all human reason and all human speech.  Blasphemy and profanity are not merely violations of some arcane speech code, they are, in fact, dire distortions of reality that result in ultimately deadly consequence, and not simply the physical death of an individual, but, in fact, the moral corruption of all human society.  Thus to speak of the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, it is necessary to speak of that union as indivisible, unchangeable, inseparable and unconfused.  To speak of the incarnation in any way that does not uphold these four essential qualities, is to distort the reality.

Now, I’m not unaware that certain readers will dispute that there is a divine being, whether these disputants call themselves atheists or agnostics.  That’s fine.  It’s not my point to entertain an apologetic for the existence of God.  Rather, my point here is that first, humans are uniquely, unlike all other creatures, capable of conceiving of and of speaking coherently about a divine being, however conceived.  Secondly, and related, that all human interactions with the divine include an orderly approach, a ritual or liturgical aspect.  And thirdly, that included in the approach is a proper way to speak of the divine, and that proper way correctly describes, insofar as such a description is possible and incomplete, that divine being.  Further, to be adequate, that knowledge ultimately must be divine self-revelation.  Human reason alone is not capable of reaching adequate knowledge of the divine.

Nearly every society that has ever existed has known these experiences: that there is a divine being (or perhaps a plurality of divine beings, but we’ll use the singular as a shorthand) of which we can conceive and speak, that there is an orderly way to approach that divine being, and that there is a particular way of speaking about and to that divine being which most closely corresponds to the reality that divine being both is and represents.

Furthermore, the disciplines of approach to and speech about the divine being is often, though not exclusively contained, or formulated, in a recognized body of texts, orderly disciplines related to that experience of divinity or divine reality, and a specialized language regarding that divinity or reality.  This last is quite obviously an application of that which Pierre Hadot articulated in his various works.  But I think it applies not only to the so-called schools of philosophy of western antiquity but as well to theology and more specifically fits a perhaps secular approach to the Christian faith as if it were a school of philosophy.

By this point I have spent nearly a couple thousand words to draw close to a more specific point, but the argument laid out has been important.  Simply put, however: What we say about God matters.  Religion is at the heart of a society’s culture, and a society’s culture is what makes it a civilization.  Every society has a religion, one simply has to observe the taboos of a society, what it considers profane or blasphemous.  Every society orders itself by tradition and authority.  Find its rules, find its power structures, and you have come very close to finding its religion and what it considers ultimate reality.  If its conception of ultimately reality adequately corresponds to said reality, you will have order and peace that results in human flourishing.  If it does not you may have order, but it will not be true order, but rather tyranny.  Or you may have disorder, which is simply the death of the society.

For here is the crux of the matter: humans cannot help but be religious, they cannot help but orient themselves to a conception of the sacred.  But whether that sacred corresponds to reality is the heart of the matter.  A man may disbelieve in gravity, but how his disbelief corresponds to reality, or does not, will determine whether that man ends in a more ordered or more disordered state.  Humans will pattern themselves on what they consider ultimate reality, even if that ultimate reality is nothing more than the particular pleasure of a passing moment in time.  For much of human existence, that which has ordered human lives has been power.  Both in the microcosm of interpersonal human relationships, as well as the macrocosm of fascist and communist state governments.  What these societies worshiped is made clear by how that society was ordered.

That Christians have a specific and ordered way to speak of the divine, and a message unlike any other faith in the world, does not, of itself, commend that faith to the society at large.  To speak of the sacred is to order one’s life, to pattern it, to construe it, from the reality which that sacred is in fact.  It is that sort of message that Christians most need to tell: to demonstrate from an ordered way of life, an ordered way of speaking, and an ordered way of being that tells a unique correspondence to reality.  In a world more and more reduced to tribal power shifts, whether the coercion of thought through the power of the state, or the coercion of sex from the weaker or disadvantaged, or simply the overall chaotic entropy of a society devoted to power and coercion, the Christian message of that sacred order, that sacred peace, is one that has consequence.



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