My mother is an English teacher. Every fall, she begins her class with a discussion of the opening lines of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . and the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” I grew up reading that once a week at the end of Mass, and had never, before taking my mother’s class, stopped to think about the strangeness of it. Although I am not bold enough to claim an ability to decipher all the mysteries of scripture, I can posit, based on those introductory class discussions, some theories on what it means to talk about Jesus as “The Word.”
We are made body and soul. We exist in the spiritual and corporeal realms. We have eternal souls, souls existing in a world beyond our comprehension, while at the same time we have toes that get stubbed and hair that gets pulled. Analogously, words exist in this physical realm, inasmuch as they necessarily have limits and boundaries to their meanings, but they’re rooted in a world of transcendent thought that dwells above mere definitions. Every time something is defined, it is limited, but also given life. As I’m writing this blog post, it is becoming one thing, and all the possible directions it might have gone in in its pre-nascent state are being blocked off, one by one, although they’re still reference points in my mind that I’ll think of as I’m writing it and whenever I look back on it.
When The Word was made flesh, an eternal entity came into human dimensions. When we as humans perceive the world, make judgments to understand it, and then attempt to discuss it with each other, we are trying to summarize a world beyond our comprehension in human terms, i.e., in words. Words then are sacred things because they are a direct analogy, a parable, used day in and day out, to what is the very real link between the spiritual and the physical worlds that is found in every human person.
My mother gives good advice. When, as a love-lorn teenager in the throes of unrequited affections, I told her all my troubles, she advised me that the gentleman in question was not a person with whom I’d ever be able to communicate on equal terms. Not surprisingly, she was right. In my mid-twenties, when I was dating my now-husband, she advised me again in more specific terms: “Every family has its own language, a way that siblings and parents talk to each other, shortcuts and house rules, guaranteed to be different from every other family. If you don’t learn his and he doesn’t learn yours, you’ll never be able to understand each other.” Right again!
We live in a very conflicted world, though, for what it’s worth, I find that reading history helps me feel more sanguine about the societal war zone we find ourselves in today; a lot of rotten you-know-what has happened in the past, but here we still are. Although not every one is called to duke it out in the streets, some of us, surely, have to be willing to have the difficult conversations, to stand in the front lines and protect the transcendent right. It would be much easier to withdraw from society and create our own little islands of safety, to pray that we go untouched; indeed, especially during that period of life where you’ve got little ones, you probably should be building that wall around them, up to a point.
But if you’re on the streets, literally or figuratively, and find yourself in conversation with someone on the opposite end of an inflammatory topic, how do you go about effecting positive change? Words. Pure and simple. Realize that any word that they are using, while it might sound on the surface to be the same word that you’re using, is drawn by them from that incorporeal world of thought with many points of reference and structures, resulting in an ultimate definition and limitation of understanding that might be wholly foreign to your own comprehension of that same word. And this is not one-word-deep; it becomes issue after issue, one built on another, all leading back to one or many varying understandings and, at some point, a limitation that led to a misinterpretation, one side or the other. And once you can pinpoint that root of whatever conflict you’re in, you can begin to have a hope, however tiny, that you and the person you are with can actually communicate with one another.
Case in point: in a discussion a few years ago, literally on a street, with a young man in the opposite camp of the marriage debate, I found myself saying at the end of our talk that as long as we disagreed about what sex was for, we couldn’t really have the rest of our debate. If sex is primarily about a mutual or autonomous gift of pleasure, but not necessarily about the possibility of conception, then there isn’t a convincing reason why homosexual marriage doesn’t make sense. And from that stems the natural result of sexual identity politics, so heated a topic today. At the root of all this, beginning with the widespread use of contraception that changed what sex was to so many people, is a disagreement about a definition, about a word, that reaches back much farther than most people realize. The American people are speaking in different languages, and they don’t even know it. Is it any wonder, then, that we don’t know how to talk to each other?