“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” So opens the Gospel of John, immediately highlighting the importance of words in creating and communicating.
Of course, the Greek word Logos is not coterminous with “noun”. In John, chapter 1, it stands for the divine reason shaping the universe and giving it meaning. Fascinating, then, that it should be translated “Word”.
It is notable that the creation account in Genesis begins with words: “And God said, ‘Let there be light’, and there was light.” Thinking, that most basic of all human activities (along with feeling), is not really possible without words. And the richer your vocabulary, the richer your thought life, the more subtle and nuanced your reflections can be.
Words, like faith, measure and encompass both thoughts and emotions. God’s word, says the writer to the Hebrews, is “sharper than a two-edged sword… a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” It is powerful and effective, as the Old Testament prophet Isaiah described: “So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”
There is something miraculous – and requiring no small effort of faith – that such tiny syllables (or symbols, when written) can convey so much …
There is something miraculous – and requiring no small effort of faith – that such tiny syllables (or symbols, when written) can convey so much, that we can communicate so richly. Animals communicate of course – apparently hens, a byword for stupidity, make a different warning sound if a threat comes from above or ground level – but what a quantum leap to words!
And when it comes to words, I am grateful that English is my native tongue, because it has a vast and eclectic vocabulary, an openness, continually pulsing and expanding and absorbing from innumerable sources – unlike, for example, French, which the French government long tried to fossilise, even banning widely used terms such as “email” as too English.
Yet English absorbs words as different as snollygoster (unprincipled politician), windy wallets (frequent farter) and veriloquacious (telling the truth).
I became a Christian as a young adult when for the first time I actually read the Bible that I had spent years mocking in the full but mistaken confidence I knew what I was talking about (neither the first time, nor the last. I am an ultracrepidarian, one who freely opines on subjects of which he has little knowledge). For me, it was as for the Prophet Jeremiah: “Thy words were found, and I did eat them; and thy word was unto me the joy and rejoicing of mine heart.”
Be it words, or the Word, that is what makes humankind unique. As Psalm 8 puts it, God has made us a little lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honour.
Barney Zwartz is a senior fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.
This article first appeared in The Age.