Wednesday 7 February 2024

What Might These Words Still Take from Us?

But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

—Luke 1:29 (NRSV)

In my ICS seminar on Ludwig Wittgenstein, I use an essay by Stanley Cavell that attempts to explain the intimate link that Wittgenstein posits between the meaning of words and the way we learn to use them. To illustrate this relationship between meaning and use, Cavell describes his infant daughter’s efforts to learn the word ‘kitty’: Witnessing her petting the family cat and saying the word ‘kitty’, he assumes she has learned the word, yet his conclusion is thrown into doubt when later he sees her stroking a furry pillow saying the same thing.

Cavell finds himself forced to conclude that, although she is well on her way, his daughter has yet to learn the word ‘kitty’; she has yet to master the various ways the linguistic community into which he is welcoming her do and do not use that word. He makes the point rather provocatively:

Kittens—what we call ‘kittens’—do not exist in her world yet, she has not acquired the forms of life which contain them. They do not exist in something like the way cities and mayors will not exist in her world until long after pumpkins and kittens do; or like the way God or love or responsibility or beauty do not exist in our world; we have not mastered, or we have forgotten, or we have distorted, or learned through fragmented models, the forms of life which could make utterances like ‘God exists’ or ‘God is dead’ or ‘I love you’ or ‘I cannot do otherwise’ or ‘Beauty is but the beginning of terror’ bear all the weight they could carry, express all they could take from us.

(Cavell, The Claim of Reason, p. 172-73)

Cavell’s gloss (the part I italicized) leapt from the page the moment I read it roughly twenty years ago. His words caught me completely off guard, and so I pondered them. Was he right to draw the tragic conclusion that most of us today merely go through the motions, simply mouthing empty platitudes when we use words like ‘God’ and ‘love’ and ‘beauty’, and that we do not let these words demand anything too deep or personal from us? A troubling thought, indeed.

In My Bright Abyss, which I have just finished reading, the poet Christian Wiman wonders whether the decay of religious belief among educated people in the West has caused this decay of language, or whether it is the other way around: “[D]o we find the fire of belief fading in us only because the words are sodden with overuse and imprecision, and will not burn?” (p.124)

How different is Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel’s greeting and announcement in Luke 1:28? Mary gives herself permission to be troubled and perplexed by the angel’s words—to let them hit—leading her to ponder “what sort of greeting this might be.” In her book Into the Mess and Other Jesus Stories, Debie Thomas describes Mary’s response to Gabriel as “holy bewilderment.” She suggests that Mary’s holy bewilderment models for us a way to take distance from the all-too-settled dogmatic certainties and platitudes we have come to accept, the dead words that no longer burn, and search for ones that do. She thus finds Mary’s bewilderment to resonate with her own faith journey as she deals with the suffering, vicissitudes, and ambiguity that daily life visits upon us all:

What an interesting shock reality has been. Who knew that my life with God would actually be one long goodbye? That to know God is to unknow God? To shed my neat conceptions of the divine like so many old snakeskins and emerge into the world bare, vulnerable, and new, again and again? (p. 5–6)

I believe Thomas has hit on something important here, something of what Jesus meant when he told us to become like little children, filled with a child’s “sense of wonder, this excess of spirit brimming out of the body” (to quote Wiman once more) (My Bright Abyss, p. 160). Yet I do not think our Messiah’s admonition means that we must completely shed our first religious language. The demand we face, rather, is to prevent this first language, the basis for everything that follows, from becoming a dead letter. We must strive to maintain its original spiritual charge and vitality, so that it remains a trustworthy language that helps us love reality with the faith and hope that the restoration and renewal of all that is and has been broken is possible.

While the task of maintaining such spiritual vitality is a task we share as a community of faith, graced by God, I remain convinced that no human words, from the most inspired spiritual poetry to the most capacious and systematic theology, will ever be able to contain the profound divine mystery and charge that suffuses and transcends creation. So, the job of preventing these words from becoming settled certainties, the job of maintaining their ability to demand something from us by connecting us to the divine mystery they always fail to express, remains perpetually before us. Yet use these words we must, for as Wiman (again!) reminds us: “At some point you have to believe that the inadequacies of the words you use will be transcended by the faith with which you use them.” (p.141)

And in this way, perhaps, we may welcome God (not to mention love and beauty, or kittens) into our world again.


Ron Kuipers