Reflecting on Words

In quoting an article by Paul Davies in the New Scientist, Dr. John Lennox has suggested the following:

“The increasing application of the information concept to nature has prompted a curious conjecture. Normally we think of the world as composed of simple, clod-like, material particles, and information as a derived phenomenon attached to special, organized states of matter. But maybe it is the other way around: perhaps the universe is really a frolic of primal information, and material objects a complex secondary manifestation.”

. . . .

But it is no new idea. It has been around for centuries. “In the beginning was the Word… all things were made by him” wrote the apostle John, author of the fourth Gospel. The Greek for ‘Word’ is Logos, a term that was used by Stoic philosophers for the rational principle behind the universe and subsequently invested with additional meaning by Christians, who used it to describe the second person of the Trinity. The term ‘Word’ itself conveys to us notions of command, meaning, code, communication—thus information; as well as the creative power needed to realize what was specified by that information (Lennox, God’s Undertaker, 177).

What Lennox is playing around with here is the quite simple suggestion of the prophets of Ancient Israel that God created by speaking (see Genesis 1). Lennox seems fascinated by the idea that God created by adding information to the lifeless, formless, chaotic, primordial nothingness. And as new an idea as that proposed above might seem to science, Lennox is correct that it seems long to have been a foundational tenet of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

I’ve been thinking recently about the power of words. I had the privilege recently of sitting in on a corporate meeting in the context of a large, secular company. Afterwards, the manager of a local branch was explaining to me how devastating to company morale the pervasiveness of aggressive, foul, and abusive language has been to their branch. Her comments reminded me of the teachings of Jesus in Matthew 5:21-22:

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool,” you will be liable to the hell of fire (Matt. 5:21-22, NRSV).

Jesus’ teachings flow out of the Hebraic culture of Ancient Israel, a culture that has long commented on the power of words. Not only did the prophets insist in Genesis that it was fundamentally words (information) by which God created the universe, but the power of words, even in the mouths of people, have been understood to influence reality, as well. We might recall that Noah’s words of curse upon his grandson, Canaan, were fulfilled many centuries later (see Genesis 9:25). And the blessings spoken by Jacob upon his son Judah were also fulfilled in the election of David many centuries later to the throne of Israel and more fully centuries later than that in the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, a descendant of David and of Judah in his human lineage (see Genesis 49:9-12).

Words are powerful. Words influence reality. These very Hebraic assumptions have been suspected by many cultures in many places and in diverse times. Alchemists and those involved in witchcraft in the European past often sought for information (i.e., words, phrases, and pronunciation) that might enable them to perform miraculous manipulations of nature. This course of study has experienced a bit of resurgence in recent decades in fiction (e.g., Harry Potter) and in religion (e.g., Wicca) and even, as Dr. Lennox has observed, in mainstream science. After all, DNA is the building block of life as we know it, and DNA involves a phenomenal amount of information. In Dr. Lennox’s words:

Genomes, or rather the DNA that encodes them, are generally very large: the DNA of an E. coli bacterium is about four million letters long and would fill 1,000 pages in a book, whereas the human genome is over 3.5 billion letters long and would fill a whole library (Lennox, 137).

To return to Jesus’ teachings in Matthew, Jesus has suggested that the words we choose to speak have great effect both on our experience of reality and on reality itself. For Jesus, choosing to speak curses upon people or things has real effect, both on us and on the world around us. Interestingly, the manager I referred to earlier was experiencing the truth of that sentiment in her place of employment, as thoroughly secular a place as it might be.

For Jesus, it would seem, words are not simply an expression of an internal or external reality. Words are more powerful than that. Words actually effect our internal and external realities. Jesus even suggested to his disciples that the distinctions we might draw between murder, hate, and the speaking of curses are negligible in God’s eyes.

Perhaps it might seem as though I am over-reading Jesus. But the later teachings of Jesus’ followers make me suspect otherwise. In the epistle written by Jesus’ brother, James, we find a teaching that I think brings together the nature of reality and the effect of words into one conversation:

So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so (James 3:5-10, NRSV).

The God who created with words has asked us to speak words of blessing into His good creation and to refrain from speaking words of curse. It seems to me that Jesus and James have warned us that words can be as violent as swords and as effective. I am recommitting myself, especially in these days of social media and societal unrest, to appreciating again the power of words to destroy and to create. Forgive us, Lord Jesus.

~ J. Thomas