I’ve always loved words and early in school discovered I had a facility for them. I had no understanding of it at the time, but in my early development I was experientially discovering that our alphabet is “26 toy soldiers that guard us from the rim of the abyss.” (Nikos Kazantzakis) My memories of those years, especially in the first grade where these “toy soldiers” first befriended me, are kind of murky. But I know that it was a stressful time.
Late in grade school the French language came to this little central Arkansas country school. Now why in the hell it was French I’ll never know. I suppose the legislature appropriated money for the schools to help pull the state out of the stone age and a government bureaucrat told the school board, “Now you’uns need a fur’en language.” The superintendent must have said, “Why hell, Why not French?” So I fumbled with the French language and was fascinated that in another country, far off from my little provincial world, people made different sounds for things that I used English for. I was bewildered. And I guess this was the dawning of some suspicion that reality might not be as rigid as I had been taught, that there was more fluidity in reality than my tribe really wanted me to know about.
So I took French often in high school also though I really didn’t learn much beyond “Paylay vue francay” and “Ooh ay la bibliotech?” And I continued in college as I had to meet a language requirement but still did not become fluent in the language. I found it interesting but could never immerse myself in it, I could never “think” in the foreign tongue, and so fluency never came my way. And since then, I’ve dabbled in Greek and Spanish and have read extensively in the field of linquistics. But when I have traveled abroad, I’ve always had to rely on “the kindness of strangers” or my wife’s greater finesse with other languages.
But instead of my awkwardness and lack of finesse with other languages, over the decades I have come to love words, to love language, and to delight in learning intricacies of other languages. Swimming in the blog-o-sphere has whetted my appetite as many new friends have introduced me to foreign concepts and provided criticism of own “well-worn words and ready phrases that built comfortable walls against the wilderness.” (Conrad Aiken).
I’ve said all of that to get to this: Twenty-five years ago I had the first real glimpse into the heart of language, seeing for the first time how it is not merely something we use but is something we breath, something we live in, and something that shapes us. I was reading about an oriental philosopher…or perhaps Alan Watt (as those were my “Alan Watts years) and the author pointed that in a particular Eastern language one who observes a book will say, “The book is seen,” whereas in the West we will say, “I see the book.” This anecdote so vividly illustrated how English reflects the Western detachment from the world and the tendency to, therefore, see the world as something to deal with objectively. This facilitates seeing the world as something to possess, something to exploit, something to “develop.”
And it also explains why Western Christianity has this view of God as someone who is “far off”, so removed from human life, and so inaccessible. Yes, Christians teach that in Jesus God was “made nigh by the blood of the cross” but their belief system reflects the insidious belief that he is still “far off” and needing to be appeased by believing and behaving the right way. They don’t understand that “the kingdom is within.” They don’t understand their unity with God.