My high school math teacher relished telling the story of the Illinois Legislature passing a bill to make pi equal to 3. Frustrated with the world’s most famous irrational number, the daring lawmakers decided to use their powerful words to make the irrational not only rational but whole. Mr. Evans would chuckle telling this. He instructed us how to deal with the numbers as they are and not to set use our own power in ways that are unaware of their useful limits. If you keep trying to make pi equal 3, we make our words foolish and we don’t master math.
We are not wrong to recognize the tremendous power of language. It is the power that defines us as humans, “the ones who speak.”
That is the very beginning of Scripture. God models it.
“Let there be light,” and there was light.
The language of Jewish prayer, reaching back millennia, phrases it this way: “Blessed is the One who spoke and the world came to be.”
The original creative act is through language. Being and meaning completely integrated.
Lest we think that this kind of creative power is reserved for God alone, Scripture makes it clear that God desires otherwise. These divine words are to be made ours and our children’s.
And these words which I command you today shall be upon your heart. You shall teach them to your children and you shall speak in them while sitting in your home, while walking in your way, in your lying down, and in your rising up.
This describes an act of extreme generosity: God desires to share the very core of His power — His word — with us and insists that we make it ours. This has created the necessary conditions for every advance in human understanding, whether scientific, artistic, or humane: we can and must use what language gives us to act as creators.
Or is that an overstep?
Surely the language of Scripture is radical. Isaiah says in the divine voice:
My spirit, which I have put upon you and My words, which I have placed in your mouth, will not depart from your mouth or the mouths of your offspring or your offspring’s offspring, says the Lord, now or for all eternity.
My spirit and My words, subtly implying that the words wrenched apart from their animating spirit may not be a force for good. God’s sharing of His words with us is an act of absolute generosity. God accepts the limitations of language in order to enter into a conscious relation with us. The Infinite accepts the definition of words, for through that relationship emerges something greater and more whole.
Our words need to follow that model of generosity and wholeness. Unlike the Illinois legislators of my math teacher’s tale, we need to accept the limits of coherence in order to use words well.
Scripture itself talks of those who use words in ways that presume a boundless and unaccountable power. It instructs us to instead “be wholehearted” and so be “together with your God.”
But when we imagine of ourselves that “I create as I speak, abra kedabra,” we mock the divine power with our own magical pretensions. That language always disappoints. In the end, after all, pi isn’t 3.
Intentions could be the best. Surely the Prohibitionists had the best of intentions. They spoke language of the most powerful sort. But merely outlawing something bad did not result in the good they had thought it would. It was not a magic formula. Perhaps its most enduring result was the emergence of nationally organized crime syndicates. These syndicates and the ones that mimicked them have grown in power. How many are mown down each day by fentanyl and other new intoxicating substances! Would that all it took to make things better were just prohibitory law.
The stark horror of the murder of a score of young innocent children in Texas makes us desperate for anything that will make the horror go away. Yet not just anything will do to make it better, despite our desperation.
The would-be yielders of magical powers swagger with increasing discordant bravado. The clarity we need at this moment does not require me to name them or condemn them. They will do that for themselves and they are recognizable without anyone needing to point. They are the ones whose motives are not entirely generous and who feel that to limit their words or aspirations would be to limit themselves. They are the ones who think this is a fine time to enhance a political career, to sell the magic words that they believe will restore their political fortunes. They wish us to believe that they have the magic formula for a law that will turn the irrational rational and whole and just like that set things right. They tell you and that anyone who has ever opposed such a formula must be damned. They will point fingers. They will point you anywhere — except back at yourself to what lies within. They will not engage in what made God’s words creative in the first place — a willingness to accept the self-limitation and focus that they alone can bring to infuse new and desperately needed meaning into the world.
Ever since the beginning, evil has been crouching by the opening, its desire towards us. Its message it to grab the power but not the responsibility. Take every liberty and serve nothing but one’s self. When that fails, as it will, take others’ liberty, for without the spirit of God, without the sense of with God in shared responsibility, freedom will be absent within, consumed, and gone.
All our politicians with their wonderful theories overlooked what has stared us in the face for a long time. Boys without fathers are hurting beyond hurt. If there is the single biggest indicator of trouble in life, it is that of boys growing up without their father involved.
No law can give make up for that. No amount of imagined correctness, or wokeness, or whatever, can make up for the presence of a man taking responsibility for the man he has helped to bring into the world, and limiting himself so he can concentrate on the task.
Can legislators fix what went wrong between a father and mother and left the mother struggling to do the near-impossible? No artificial state structure can enter the human heart and touch the soul of the child that one was intimately a part of creating and shaping.
We can’t use language to get out of the falling to pieces of the family. We can’t legislate away the difficulties finding a solution, or even thinking about a solution, require us to endure.
Our COVID pandemic obscured and enlarged the pandemic of the mind and the spirit that has overtaken our country and the world. This week, it has taken on a hellish glow. We all are coming to be gripped by the awareness that there is an enemy at work here, and that enemy is deep within.
Knowing that will keep our words sane and real. Perhaps we had to fall this far to get a grip on ourselves; perhaps not. It has happened. Let’s use our words well. Think and think again and ask if the words will govern that evil within and so be fit to bring healing without.
And then say those good words and may God be with them, with you, and with us all.