The Word-Soaked World
Troubling the Lexicon of Art and Faith
Since 1989, Image has hosted a conversation at the nexus of art and faith among writers and artists in all forms. As the conversation has evolved, certain words have cropped up again and again: Beauty. Mystery. Presence.
For this issue, we invited a handful of past contributors to examine our common lexicon as a sort of personal inventory on the part of the journal. Were there words we were using too glibly, we asked, words that needed to be reconsidered, revitalized, or tossed out?
The writers’ responses surprised us. Some pieces retain an element of that self-critical spirit we requested, such as the essays on beauty and suffering. But the majority of the essays ended up as a referendum on the power of language, like art itself, to represent and reveal. Words, the writers seemed to say, deserve to be weighed heavily. On consideration, some words that seem simple or obvious are more demanding than we think.
Language is double-edged. On the one hand, the ability to call things by their names can connect us to others, and can anchor an artist in the created world. Perhaps language itself even offers an image of the divine. Some would even go so far as to say that language is what makes religious experience possible.
But at times, even after long wrestling and careful study, language can seem inadequate, more a stumbling stone than a pathway. Sometimes language seems able only to point to things just outside its reach, things we crave but can’t grasp, things we dare not approach, things we draw back from in awe or revulsion.
This collection of short essays demonstrates the push-pull relationship believing artists have with words: We are in pursuit of a God who is revealed through the poetry of the oldest Psalms, but whose true name is impossible to pronounce.
IN HIS BOOK Life is a Miracle, Wendell Berry writes about that famous moment in King Lear when Gloucester, blinded in retribution for his loyalty to Lear, has asked to be led to Dover where he intends to kill himself by leaping off the cliffs. His son Edgar tells Gloucester he is at the cliff’s edge though in fact he is just back from it, and when Gloucester falls, he passes out, and reawakens at what he thinks is the bottom of the cliff, dismayed that he is still alive. It is then that Edgar says, “Thy life’s a miracle. Speak yet again.” In his essay, Berry notes the obvious—that Gloucester and Lear are both guilty of hubris, of the “presumption” that life is “knowable, predictable and within [their] control.” But then Berry goes further, arguing that we “can give up on life…by presuming to ‘understand’ it—that is, by reducing it to the terms of our understanding and by treating it as predictable or mechanical.” For Berry, to treat life as less than a miracle is an act of human will whereby the will contracts the world or appropriates the world to the will’s understanding.
Our time is marked by our supreme belief in Enlightenment rationality. We are all too ready to say that a word like “mystery” is a nostalgia; we limit the meaning of “mystery” to a quantity of the unknown, thereby opening the possibility that the inevitable acquisition of further knowledge will reduce that which is unknown and, in the future, erase the unknown entirely. A mystery is simply something to be solved—if not now, then later. But the biblical usage of “mystery” (from the Greek mysterion) refers not to the quantity of the unknown but rather to the quality of the known; it refers to awe rather than ignorance. In that sense, mystery attests to the fact that no amount of research could make the creation or the life of Jesus or even the bond between husband and wife less mysterious. In its biblical sense, we can never be finished with mystery. The more we come to know it, the more we realize its difference from everything else. Mystery, like beauty, is not governed by concepts. It does not allow a conclusion. It goes beyond all the evidence.
And yet we have experience of such mystery, at least in part. In his book The Demon and the Angel, the poet Ed Hirsch quotes a line that Lorca wrote at the bottom of one of his Buenos Aires drawings: “Only mystery enables us to live.” Indeed. But as Theodore Roethke knew, only those “who are willing to be vulnerable move among mysteries.” I’d say the most necessary precondition for the experience of mystery is our understanding of ourselves as limited, of accepting, as Wendell Berry has said in his essay “Two Minds,” our “irreducible ignorance.” That’s the rub: the great difficulty of living is uncertainty. Most of us prefer to move through the world unthinkingly secure in our accepted definitions of it. In order to feel comfortable or simply to go on functioning from day-to-day we act as if we know what our lives mean. In Gravity and Grace, the French philosopher Simone Weil said, “all sins are attempts to fill voids.” As she saw it, we even go so far at times as to love what is imaginary—our own dreams and self-deceits, our ideas about life rather than life itself. And yet we live with a sense of dread in the backs of our minds—of those moments which we know will disrupt our lives entirely (the death of someone we love, the sudden severe illness of ourselves or a friend, that late night phone call). Haven’t we all felt how, at any moment, the ground on which we stand can open and, all too suddenly, we are falling into that dark abyss in which, once again, the meaning of our existence becomes a question we cannot fathom.
The book of Job records that dread. Thankfully, it’s a before and after story: before and after the whirlwind from which God reveals his creation. From my perspective, it is a story that shifts both Job and the reader from a rational and calculative understanding of the world we live in towards one in which mystery lies at the center. For most of the book, the character Job might be seen as a rationalist, committed to understanding the world in terms of his logical understanding: if I do good, I will be rewarded. Surely, he has been. As the story opens, the devout Job is one of the richest men in all of Uz. But Job is pictured, at least in part, as a man who does good not out of love for the good, but because he fears what might happen if he does not. And then comes that Kafkaesque moment of dread: one day Job loses everything he has. Given his rationality and his conception of the God whom he’s worshipped (someone just like Job but with some super powers to guard over him), Job cannot make sense of his suffering. He curses the day he was born, curses his life which can only be seen as a daily series of sufferings leading to oblivion, and wants, more than all else, a hearing in the courtroom of life, a God who will adjudicate his present life of suffering, find that he has done no wrong, and commute his sentence.
As readers we’re aware of a central irony: Job’s friends, who believe as Job does that God is just, the good are rewarded, and the evil punished, can only logically conclude that their friend must have done something wrong; but the frame tale that begins the story gives us a knowledge that they do not have: Job is guiltless, just as he claims. Nothing adds up as it’s supposed to do. From the friends’ perspective, Job is prideful because he will not admit what they would most like to hear—that he has done wrong—since such an admission of guilt on Job’s part would put their system back in order. Job’s suffering and his defiance have ruptured their very rational worldview: they have been successful because they have been good.
But from God’s perspective—we learn this when God speaks from the whirlwind—Job’s pride has to do with the way he has turned God into a larger version of himself, and the cosmos into a courtroom that worked according to human conceptions of right and wrong. When Job finally gets his hearing with God, God doesn’t bother explaining anything at all. Instead of answering Job’s central questions—Why am I suffering? Why do the wicked prosper?—God recapitulates his original creation in the form of a vision. That creation is staggering in its beauty, and in what I would call its random symmetry. It is a world of primal energy, independent of human beings, and a world which includes many things we might experience as terrifying: antelopes that are run down and eaten by lions but that do not see themselves as victims; a horse that exults because of the fierceness of battle; rain that falls where it does no good and water that takes on any number of forms, including ice and hail that can wreak havoc on the human world. And that’s just the beginning, since the “good” of creation also includes Behemoth and Leviathan, forces of such chaos only God can hold them at bay.
In short, the view from the whirlwind is clearly beyond human conceptions of good and evil.
Perhaps the greatest surprise of the story’s ending is the fact that Job, who has filled the air around him with some of the most furious, courageous, tender, and exquisite language imaginable, who has cursed the day of his birth and asked every hard question we have ever thought to ask of God, falls silent. After the whirlwind, Job seems to comprehend immediately what we as readers struggle with—God’s lack of answers to the questions Job himself has raised. Yet we sense what Job has been groping toward all along: that there are no causal explanations that can rationalize his plight. As Northrup Frye has suggested in Words with Power, the God who speaks from the whirlwind prevents Job from looking back to a “chain of causation,” that mainstay of both the friends and the pre-whirlwind Job, both of whom have tried to solve a mystery with the human logic of “this happened because….” Instead of answering Job’s logical questions, God presents Job with images so intense that Job, as he says, doesn’t hear, but sees. As Job realizes after the whirlwind, he had previously only heard about God from scripture and tradition. Now he sees “things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”
What Job received, though he never even knew to ask, is the absolute justice of a creation that shouldn’t be, but is, and is good (Genesis 1), despite its illogic and seeming capriciousness. The voice in the whirlwind enlarged Job’s perspective by implicitly asking him: Does Job really want his own moral sense projected on the universe? As it turns out in the end, both God and Job are “just” and that illogical fact defies the very logic by which Job and his friends have been operating.
The book of Job suggests that asking questions like “why do I suffer?” or “who is to blame?” are the rational mind’s defense against the mystery of existence. We like to believe life is a problem to be solved. Our idea of success is something like a future where we will be able to control all those things we can’t yet control, know all those things we, as yet, do not know. What makes Job different from his friends is his openness; as Roethke put it, Job becomes someone who is “willing to be vulnerable” and so can “move among mysteries.” If he shrinks the world to a courtroom by mistake, he also refuses the too-easy platitudes of his friends; if he once lived by fear, doing right because he was afraid of what might befall him and his family, he is also willing to admit that the good do suffer for no reason, the wicked often go unpunished and prosper, and, yes, the poor and afflicted are marginalized, made invisible for the ongoing comfort of the wealthy; and if he wanted a God who was something like a guardian angel to “fence” away all harm, he is quick to see the magnitude and magnanimousness of the God who speaks from the whirlwind.
After his vision, Job becomes a kind of holy fool, that figure who questions the very ground we stand on, all our pet ideas and supposed understandings. As Abraham came to understand on his journey to Moriah, Job realizes that to approach God, he must let go of all his ideas about God. In her book Waiting for God, Simone Weil asks that we “give up our imaginary position as the center…renounce it, not only intellectually but in the imaginative part of our soul” so that we might “awaken to what is real and eternal…see the true light and hear the true silence.” Job does precisely this, admitting that his God cannot be someone who is created out of Job’s own devising, for that God would be created out of malaise or complaint, out of desire or fear or hope. That God would be an idol. As Deuteronomy says, “the secret things belong to the Lord our God.” When Job last speaks, saying, “now my eyes see you; therefore I repent in dust and ashes,” he rectifies what he once turned upside down. In chapter 30, verse 19, Job saw God as an enemy, the one responsible for turning him into no more than “dust and ashes.” Now, after the whirlwind experience, Job acknowledges that he is “dust and ashes,” that his narrow conception of justice had contracted God. Job has seen the lioness and fierce horse in all their radiance and pure being; and now those final words are issued because he has, as Weil puts it, renounced his “imaginary position as the center.” Job has been transformed and now, out of love, not fear, gives himself whole-heartedly to God. In realizing his ignorance, Job’s smallness and vulnerability open him to the vast mystery of God and creation.
Robert Cording teaches English and creative writing at College of the Holy Cross. He has published six collections of poems, the latest of which is Walking with Ruskin.
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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.