Vol I No. 7

A Word to the Wise

by Paul Julienne
John the Theologian

In my work as a physicist I know the necessity of being sound in the basics.   We speak of fundamental physics, fundamental particles, fundamental symmetries and so forth.  If you get it wrong at the beginning, at the most fundamental level, that spells trouble ahead for greater progress.   So let’s cut to the chase to seek what is most basic. That is essential if we are to be fruitful in exploring the quite different domains of science and faith.

The power of words

I have always been fascinated by words.   Words do not stand alone.  They work together with one another to make phrases and sentences that connect meaningfully with the world.  Our language enables our ordinary life as human beings.   What would it be like without our ability to deploy words?  There would be very limited interpersonal communication.  There would be no scientific texts, no poetry or novels, no vast stores of information in our libraries.  There would be no theologia, that is, speaking about God.

How do words manage to get their traction on the world?  Language has a range and flexibility that is quite remarkable.  Philosophers from Aristotle to Wittgenstein have known that language is inescapably social, dependent on a network of human interconnections.  It starts early.  Who is not delighted upon hearing the first words of a child?

Our words bear upon the world successfully enough for our survival, even our thriving, in our daily lives.  We now live in an era when we can also speak sensibly about phenomena ranging from the microscopic subatomic scale to the cosmic scale of arrays of galaxies.  Our language lets us articulate quite well the incomprehensible intelligibility of the cosmos that Einstein found so remarkable.  Just why should the world be so intelligible to us?

Might language be the most significant indicator of who we are in the cosmos?  If so, could it be that the very survival of our increasingly global civilization depends on being adequately attuned to what is going on with words?  What do we do when we speak?

The Word-made-flesh

The book of Genesis links God’s creative act to speaking: “And God said…”. The gospel of John opens with these words: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  John continues by telling us that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  He goes on to identify the Word-made-flesh with Jesus of Nazareth.   That incarnate Word is the springboard behind the power of the felicitous language that Thomas Cranmer bequeathed to the Book of Common  Prayer.  Yet what could it possibly mean to speak of the Word-made-flesh?

John’s  Greek word for “beginning,” arche (ἀρχῇ) has more than a temporal sense to it.  It also suggests a principle behind things.    “Arche” points to something fundamental in the order of being as much as to a start in the order of time.  Furthermore, John surely was playing with words when he chose his Greek term for “Word,” Logos (λόγος).   The term logos had a long pedigree in the Greek philosophical world.    John’s educated contemporaries knew the logos of the world signified its “logic,” as it were, by which the cosmos is rationally ordered.

John clearly intended to portray the human Jesus as embodying the fundamental rationality of the world (Greek kosmos).  The rest of John’s gospel, as well as the other gospels and writings of the New Testament, reinforce that this “logic” is a logic of self-giving love.  Paul wrote to the Christians at Philippi about Jesus Christ, who “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant…”

To my way of thinking, if science and Christian faith are to have a fruitful interaction–as I indeed believe that they can and must–we must have the confidence from the theological side to attend to the Logos, the Word-made-flesh, as uncovering the fundamental logic embedded in the cosmos and in humanity.  This logic is an analogue to the “both-and” logic I see in quantum physics.  Such logic is much truer to the world than the more truncated “either-or” logic of modernity.  Thus, we must say of Jesus “fully human and fully God,” not “only human or only God.”  This logic has staggering implications for how we understand the world as well as how we fulfill our deepest desires.  This logic enables us to affirm God-and-science.  It does not limit us to a false choice between God or science.

Embodied words

Physicist and priest Sir John Polkinghorne has written about “resonances” between science and theology.  To those with eyes to see, science indeed has uncovered some remarkable resonances with the logic of the Word-made-flesh.    One lies in the remarkable story of carbon in the universe.  I can only summarize briefly here the science that I have described in detail elsewhere.

Carbon and the heavier elements that are essential to life are synthesized in the life cycle of certain kinds of stars in the early universe.  This requires the fine-tuning of certain “resonant” nuclear reactions to allow this.  The specialized chemistry of carbon is necessary for life.  In particular we now know that the genome of all living forms on earth is written out in a specialized genetic code based on carbon-bearing biomolecules like DNA.  This code is an information-rich language, spelling out how to make the incredibly complex ingredients of each one of our different kinds of cells.

Thus contemporary science tells us, in a sense more literal than figurative, that we are embodied words.  Every cell of our bodies tells us that.  Can we hear them speaking?  Could it be that the Word that spoke the whole cosmos into being finds its intended end in us?  Could it be that our evolving cosmos has its intended form so that we can be here to open our mouths and return awe-filled thankfulness to the Word-made-flesh who speaks us into being?

I find it most intriguing that the remarkable Chinese word dao () is used to render the Greek word logos in the Chinese Bible. Dao is a rich word in Chinese that has among its various meanings the sense of a way or path.  Jesus told us “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”  If one seeks to be wise–to discern what path is most attuned to the fundamental logic of the universe–perhaps the Word-made-flesh gives us our most significant clue.