Sunday 15 November: Worcester College Chapel
Faith and Words
I’m sure most of you will remember the encounter between Alice and Humpty Dumpty in Alice through the Looking Glass, where Lewis Carroll shows the problems and possibilities of communicating in words. Alice becomes increasingly confused with Humpty’s questions, and then he uses a word she doesn’t understand:- ‘glory’.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean- neither more nor less.”
“You seem very clever at explaining words, Sir”, said Alice. “Would you kindly tell me the meaning of the poem ‘Jabberwocky’?”
“Let’s hear it”, said Humpty Dumpty. “I can explain all the poems that ever were invented–and a good many that haven’t been invented just yet.”
This sounded very hopeful, so Alice repeated the first verse:
‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves Did gyre and gimble in the wabe: All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe.
“That’s enough to begin with”, Humpty Dumpty interrupted: “there are plenty of hard words there. ‘Brillig‘ means four o’clock in the afternoon–the time when you begin broiling things for dinner.”
“That’ll do very well”, said Alice: “and ‘slithy‘?”
“Well, ‘slithy‘ means ‘lithe and slimy’. ‘Lithe’ is the same as ‘active’. You see it’s like a portmanteau–there are two meanings packed up into one word.”
“And what’s to ‘gyre‘ and to ‘gimble‘?”
“To ‘gyre‘ is to go round and round like a gyroscope. To ‘gimble‘ is to make holes like a gimlet.”…
“And what does ‘outgrabe‘ mean?”
“Well, ‘outgribing‘ is something between bellowing and whistling, with a kind of sneeze in the middle. Who’s been repeating all that hard stuff to you?”
“I read it in a book”, said Alice.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean- neither more nor less.”
It’s almost two years ago since I preached here on the theme of ‘Theology and Poetry’, when I spoke of how Poetry enables us to view words not only as an intellectual discourse but also as vehicles which touch our imagination. Poetry is a ‘raid on the inarticulate’, offering us images, through words, which both ‘conceal and reveal’ the truth within. I remember speaking of the poet as a ‘wordsmith’, but as one who can only use words. I argued that the theologian, by contrast, has an additional freedom, because they can move beyond the constraints of words – not least through art, architecture, and music.
Today I’d like to add some further reflections on that theme, but on a more personal level. Rather than focussing on the relationship between Theology and Poetry, I’ll want us to reflect on the relationship between Faith and Words. For if Theology is more than a verbal exercise, how much more so is our Faith: of course it is important that we can articulate some of the things we believe, but just as important is learning how to exercise our faith beyond using words.
I’d like to share with you a book I read over the summer. It is about St. Augustine, one of the ‘Fathers’ of our Western Church. (Augustine is actually represented on the mosaic floor of our chapel, with the three other Fathers of the Latin Church: I’m almost standing on his image as I speak.) Augustine is probably best known for his lengthy work called Confessions, which he wrote between 397 and 400 when he was Bishop of Hippo, in the Roman Province of Numidia, North Africa. I have often struggled with some of Augustine’s views, so it was most refreshing to read this succinct, humane and scholarly work by Henry Chadwick, for he presents Augustine’s theology as it intertwines with his life. The Very Revd. Professor Henry Chadwick, himself a churchman and theologian of extraordinary stature, died in 2008: some of you may remember that he was Dean of Christ Church throughout the 1970s, then Regius Professor of Divinity in Cambridge, and, just after retirement, Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge. He was an unsurpassed expositor of the early Christian thinkers. This little book, called Augustine of Hippo: A Life , was published a year after Chadwick’s death. Earlier this year I was given a copy of it by his widow, Peggy, and as you can see, it’s been well read.
So I want to share you some of Augustine’s thoughts, interpreted by Henry Chadwick. These are found in The Teacher, which Augustine wrote in 388, when he was living with a small Christian community in Thagaste (in present-day Algeria), just after he had heard of the death of his son, Adeodatus. This work – in Latin, De Magistro – was widely read in the medieval schools of Theology and Philosophy, so, given that this chapel was designed to imitate the art and architecture of the Middle Ages, it seems appropriate to look at what Augustine says, partly in memory of a son he so infrequently saw.
Much of The Teacher argues that language alone cannot convey the fullness of our faith. Augustine observes how meaning is understood not so much by individual words as by sentences, paragraphs, long units of discourse – so that the meaning of a single word is dependent upon its context, as well as on presuppositions not articulated at all. Furthermore, Augustine observes, some of our most profound communication is without words – by gestures, by the rise and fall of our voice as we speak, by our facial expression. There is a wide gap, therefore, between thought and language. This is because thought moves faster than speech. Often we are saying one thing whilst our minds have moved on and we are thinking of another. So we sing a familiar hymn, but our thoughts wander away from the words on our lips. So, Augustine argues, words, for all their importance and utility, are not the principle thing in communication. This is an extraordinary statement from someone who had spent so much of his life teaching Grammar, Rhetoric, Greek Philosophy and Logic. But in this short piece Augustine observes that we communicate best not by verbal but by non-verbal signs – what he calls ‘an interior sharing of minds’.
Henry Chadwick breaks into this engagement with Augustine’s reflections with his own observations about the inadequacy of word to thought, and about how thoughts lie much deeper than the upper levels of that part of our mind called ‘intellect’. Chadwick recalls a sermon preached by Augustine when he was Bishop of Hippo: ‘Man can say nothing of what he is unable to feel, but he can feel what he is unable to say’ (S 117.5. 7-8). It is as if we ‘know something we do not know that we know’. ‘Man can say nothing of what he is unable to feel, but he can feel what he is unable to say.’
If the most profound communication takes place at the interpersonal level, beyond words, this has several implications for the way think about our faith, for it suggests that faith is both constrained by but also liberated from ‘mere words’.
First, this idea of ‘interpersonal communication’ should help those of us who struggle with private prayer. So often we use words in prayer, even though we know words can never inform God of anything he does not already know or might have forgotten. Augustine observes that Jesus taught us the Lord’s Prayer not so much to serve as a formulaic exercise but as a communication with God in which the words are simply signs to nurture our relationship the divine. Prayer often starts with words – words given to us by others, such as in the Lord’s Prayer, and also with words voiced privately in our heads – but the words are not the end in themselves: they are an imperfect means to another end. The essence of prayer is an interpersonal relationship with God: and just as in other relationships, whether of lovers, friends and family, words are, so often, an inadequate expression of how we think and feel. To cite Augustine, ‘True prayer is in the silent depths of the soul’.
Secondly, this assent to the limitations of words in expressing our faith should explain why Christians throughout the ages have sought to express their faith not only through creeds, liturgies, sermons, and books, but also through art, architecture, symbolism and sacraments. Each of these enacts visually and dramatically what cannot be contained in words. As for art and architecture, this chapel is such an expressive medium in illustrating this for us: each fresco and window, and each sculpture, whether in marble or wood, is a ‘non-verbal sign’, allowing us to hear God speaking to us without words. What of symbols in worship, and sacraments? These are what Augustine calls ‘visible words’. And so we take ordinary things from nature, such as water, wine, bread, oil and light, and allow them to point us to a reality at a deeper level than words alone. So whether it is in the light of the candles we use at our Advent Services, or in the anointing of oil used for those who are ill or dying, or in the bread and wine which sustains our faith at the Eucharist, or in the water used at our Baptism and for our continual cleansing – all these communicate to us God’s presence in Christ, through His Spirit, at that deep and inner interpersonal level; these are sighs too deep for words’; the psalmist speaks of it as ‘deep calling to deep at the thunder of the cataracts’.
Thirdly, this understanding of our faith consisting of non-verbal signs explains why music is so important in the life of the church. Henry Chadwick was a man who loved music, and in the Foreword to this little book his friend, Peter Brown, speaks of him as ‘following through’ the theology of great Christian thinkers in the way in which he might also ‘follow through’ a piece of great music; to use Chadwick’s own words, is it like ‘hearing even familiar music for the first time… continually wondering where the music will go next’. Augustine, too, described persons as miserable when music was lacking in their lives. Now obviously music is sometimes communicated through words – in anthems, plainsong, hymns, and great oratorios – but it is the music which gives life to the words, not the other way round. (The fact that so often the medium is in Latin or in a language other than English should make this clear.)
One example of the primacy of music over words is in the way we use the psalms. Tonight we started our service with the hymn ‘All People that on Earth do Dwell’. Some of you might know this is not just a hymn but a metrical version of Psalm 100, originally composed in French for John Calvin’s church in Geneva. We may also know of Psalm 100 through the doxology composed by Thomas Ken, with the opening lines ‘Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow…’ Psalm 100 is also known as the ‘Jubilate’, from the first word in the Latin, and countless musical arrangements have been set to it: the sheer variety illustrates so well how the words become subordinate to the music. I think of compositions by Christopher Tye, Heinrich Schütz, and Giovanni Gabrieli; by J.S. Bach, and Handel; by Haydn, Mendelssohn and Rachmaninov; and, more recently, by Bernstein, Britten, and Walton. In each case we remember the music first, and then the words that accompany it. This is part of that ‘interpersonal communication’ between performer and listener, and it can take us closer to the presence of God. Those of us who listen to the introits and canticles and psalms and anthems Sunday by Sunday know this is the case.
Fourthly, seeing the limitations of words has implications for the way we view theology and doctrine. The word ‘theology’ means ‘words about God’, and it is inevitably partly enshrined in sermons, creeds, synodical debates, liturgical reforms, and tomes of learning. I am in no way abrogating the importance of words in any of these activities, but I am want to encourage us to see this dependency on words in its rightful place. There was once a very popular Fellow and Tutor in History at this College who, in the days before the REF, hardly wrote any books or papers at all. His rationale was: ‘My students are my books’. He would have understood what Augustine emphasised in The Teacher, about the interpersonal value of words. I think this is what Pope Francis meant when, two weeks ago, closing the contentious Vatican Synod on the Family, he said ‘…true defenders of doctrine are not those who uphold its letter, but its spirit; not ideas, but people; not formulae, but the gratuitousness of God’s love and forgiveness.’
This emphasis on faith as interpersonal, and therefore both constrained by words yet also liberated from them, was a theme in both of our readings tonight. In our first reading, God addresses Job by asking, ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? ‘ When faced with innocent suffering, as was Job, no volume of words could resolve his soul-searching. Job is asked by God to look instead to the created order and the greatness of the universe: ‘Were you there when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding…’ At the end of the book, Job comes to terms with his suffering by realising the need for silence: ‘…I have uttered things that I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know…’
Some five centuries after Job, as we read in our second lesson, God communicated with his people again without using words – through the Word made Flesh. ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things were made through him… and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.’ God’s ultimate word comes to us through a human life – the life of God, made manifest in Jesus Christ, encountering us through his Spirit in the life of the Church. Nothing can reveal the interpersonal, non-verbal essence of faith more than the ‘Word-Made-Flesh’. This should be a great assurance to us: whenever we feel incapable of expressing our faith in words, we need to remember that ultimately what matters is that we know the mystery of our faith rests upon the life of God once Incarnate in the world – as the Word beyond all words.
I close with a third century Hymn, first composed in Greek – and I like to think that Augustine might have known a version of it in Latin. The language does not matter; the meaning is what we need to reflect upon. We shall sing this together shortly:
Let all mortal flesh keep silence, And with fear and trembling stand; Ponder nothing earthly minded, For with blessing in His hand, Christ our God to earth descending Comes our homage to demand.
Let all mortal flesh keep silence. Amen.