Ineffable

Posted by Margaret Manning on May 9, 2017

A wordsmith, according to Merriam-Webster, is a person who works with words; especially a skillful writer. As a part of my quest to become a wordsmith, I have subscribed to what has become one of my favorite online sites, Wordsmith.org. Each day the site sends a word of the day to my inbox. For example, the word bumbledom came into my inbox today. A bumbledom is a behavior characteristic of a pompous and self-important petty official. While I love the sound of bumbledom rolling off of my tongue, I am not sure how often I will find a use for it in my writing and speaking. But it sure is fun to drop it into conversation!

Words are the lifeblood for writers. Indeed, words are to writers what food is for chefs. Writers spend their days imagining just the right combination of words put together in such a way that a beautiful sentence or idea emerges. When this happens, what is written can actually take the reader beyond the page creating images, pictures, colors, sounds, and smells that transport the reader to another world. Just as a chef combines the right ingredients to create a delicious dish, a skilled writer mingles words and carves out sentences to offer an experience of transcendence beyond the everyday realities of life.

Words are powerful. But there are times when words are not enough. There are mysteries that lie beyond their reach, such as when a joy experienced is too great, or sorrows are too deep as to be inexpressible. In such encounters, words seem rudimentary and inadequate. Nothing written can adequately capture the depth of what is being experienced or contemplated.

Odilon Redon, Mystery, oil on canvas, XIX-XX century.

A group of early Christian teachers understood that there was a relationship between “the things that are spoken and the things that are ineffable, the things that are known and the things that are unknowable.”(1) They understood that there was a limitation of language in the face of mystery. In the contemplation of the Divine, for example, God’s essence, or ousia in the Greek, is something that could not be captured by words since God is beyond human understanding. God must do the extraordinary—divine revelation—for anything of God to be known.

Church historian Jaroslav Pelikan describes this early Christian theology as apophatic: “Theology was, at one and the same time, sublime and ‘apophatic,’ that is, based on negation. As the evangelist John had said, ‘no one has ever seen God,’ which means one could see the glory of God, but not God himself.”(2) God’s being or essence was beyond human beings. All that could be known or even spoken of was what God had chosen to reveal.

And God’s chosen means of ultimate revelation was startlingly in a person. The writer of Hebrews proclaims: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word” (Hebrews 1:1-3). In the person of Jesus, who is the logos or Word of God, God is revealed.

In Jesus we receive a vision of the ineffable God. “No one has ever seen God,” the Evangelist proclaims. “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1:18). What we can know about God is centrally communicated in Jesus through his life and ministry. Jesus embodied God’s saving work of redemption in his life, his death, and his resurrection. God is revealed definitively in Jesus who came to seek and to save what was lost.

As one who writes and speaks, I know the power of words. In the defense of the gospel, a carefully crafted argument is often critical to breaking through the barriers of misinformation and misunderstanding. Yet, I am reminded that even words have limits, and people must see the gospel lived out, and must experience its power. The gospel must be embodied by those who claim to believe it. The oft-used saying attributed to St. Francis of Assisi “preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary use words” is a helpful reminder of the power of our lives in communication. And if I’m honest, embodying the gospel takes far more creative effort than simply crafting an argument or a skillful, word-smithed sentence.

The Christian tradition presents a God chiefly revealed through a person. As a result, I am challenged to consider the speech given by my life and actions just as carefully as I choose my words for an essay. For, “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). God has acted in a person, and this action speaks louder than words.

 

Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.

(1) John of Damascus as quoted in Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, vol. 2 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), 31.
(2) Ibid., 32.