God in Language

Language has a way of being elusive in the spiritual as well as in the secular world. Furthermore, it can be argued that language is an entity in its own right. Thirdly, as such, it affects both the spiritual and the secular worlds. Finally, the classic paradox inherent in language is involved—in the words of Wittgenstein: "I cannot use language to get outside language—Whereof one can not speak, thereof one must be silent."

Acknowledgment, understanding, and, indeed, knowledge of God are based on faith. It is in the interpretative process, in the search for meaning, that language tends to elude us because, in our wish to be precise, we see things ever more literally, inadvertently slipping into an approach based on intellect. Reason moves in, next to faith. How do they relate? Can language tell us? Is there any other criterion we might use in place of linguistics?

A concept of God hinges on our acknowledgment of God. In this, the more we rely on our linguistic capabilities, the more distant that concept becomes. Inversion occurs within language: the more conclusive it is made to sound, the more elusive it turns out to be. Were this otherwise, religion would not be notoriously divisive.

Can we learn from the story of Doubting Thomas? Was he exhorted to have faith only? Was the appeal not also to his ability to reason? Do faith and reason not complement each other in that faith lived has secular consequences and reason has spiritual overtones in charting a course by which to live?

Thomas was reminded of his limits. He, too, was to continue in the divine word, and he would know the truth, and the truth would make him free. Whereof he could not speak, thereof he must be silent. Language had slipped away from him when he tried to use it to probe a mystery on his own terms. His relationship to the mystery therefore was governed by his relationship to language. Freedom from the latter gave him freedom for the former.

The independence of language seems proved by our inability to prove it: it is continuously present—so reason tells us; the existence of God seems proved by our inability to prove it: God is ever-present—so faith tells us. In the first instance, we are dealing with an entity that eludes us in proportion as we do not understand it as challenging our perception; in the second instance, we are dealing with an entity that eludes us in proportion as we do not understand it as transcending our perception.

Learning about our own limits opens us to learning about the limitlessness of God. Dealing with this mystery means dealing with language. In this, being free from language involves seeing its classic paradox in practical terms: acknowledging its limitations in our hands, as well as our limitations in its realm. Failing that, it would be all too easy for us to mistake our linguistic facility for an ability to proceed on our own terms in probing the inscrutable. We might end up secularizing a spiritual search. Along these lines, religious literalism may be said to be a form of linguistic dictate.

Dorothee Sölle speaks of mystics who despaired of language in their attempts to formulate the unformulizable. We learn of a monk in the Near East who around a.d. 500 coined the term "Cloud of Unknowing," referring to the cloud that had covered Mount Sinai when Moses went there to receive the Ten Commandments. Quite unconventionally, the mystic had spoken of "all that God is not," which may be taken to mean "all that language cannot do," namely, to "get outside of itself," which, after all, is where God is. A 14th-century English priest took that cloud metaphor as title for his treatise on contemplation as a way of finding words for the unwordable.

We learn of other such attempts at wrestling with language: Thomas Aquinas, shortly before his death, had a sudden mystical experience telling him that all he had ever taught and written appeared insignificant; Meister Eckhart spoke of a mere object and useful thing to which God would be reduced if acknowledged and known on our level of understanding; Angelus Silesius, born the same year as George Fox, versified: "The more you grasp at Him, the more He hides from you."

These mystics were on a mission to rescue language, which can elude us and slip away from us in two directions—either we speak without substance and hence lose control, or we fall silent. This is a challenge for us when we try to express the inexpressible. Saying the word "in-expressible" should be like seeing a red warning light that marks the approaching frontier of words. There is a realm of silence that speaks to us, which we can enter. We will not have fallen into it in an effort to catch up with language slipped away; rather, we will have created it.

That silence could be understood as the "thereof-silence." Knowing that in our language we cannot speak of God, we can articulate from contemplation of the mystical. That is contemplation of language itself, an entity Michel Foucault describes as having intersected space from the beginning of time. He speaks of things having order as their inner law that "manifests itself in depth as though already there, waiting in silence for the moment of its expression." Is this beautiful thought not a voice of reason complementing one of faith? And another philosopher, Hans Herbert Koegler, talking of dialogue, says that "the voice of the other is needed to call forth the silent features of the interpreting subject’s own pre-understanding."

Mutuality is here suggested, which includes shared listening, to each other as well as to one’s own inner voice, this, too, being a form of dialogue. From this, we can, if open to this way, derive a willingness to show courage, given the handicap of our level of understanding, in order to find a concept of God. Not only will this be intensely personal but also in ceaseless need of interpretation. Since we lack language to formulate the last things, there will always be questions we cannot answer. We will have to understand this. Our prayers will arise ever more fervently in our need to have God hear us. If we have confidence in prayer, we may come to realize that as this way opens before us it does indeed open before the messenger, meeting us with God’s answer to which we in turn can reply.

God in language—a means of communication which in that context we lack the comprehension to define—nevertheless implies the workings of dialogic understanding that guards the frontier of words.

Fritz G. Renken

Fritz G. Renken, a retired high school teacher, is a member of Switzerland Yearly Meeting.