Words always seem to be slipping away from my good intentions. Consider: determine: I determined the number of M&M’s in the jar. What am I saying of myself? Have I actively controlled the quantity, or have I passively discovered it? Try a different word. Perhaps I can make certain that he hears you. What now? The “making” sounds causal, assertive, as though I were deciding reality, but the phrase often denotes verification of someone else’s actions. Am I ensuring this to be the case by enforcement or by investigation? Another go, then: what about ensuring? Or perhaps I can realize the solution to my problem? Even here, ambiguity continues. Have I learned the answer or enacted it? Does the solution proceed from me or from some unknown source that I merely receive?
In everyday speech, these words typically retain their distinctions without a problem. But they stand in strange proximity to contradiction. Each can signify in precisely opposite directions, yet we comfortably say and write them daily. These words wink at us. As much as we may ascertain or discover through language, as if liberated from ignorance, we also decide and invent with it, shackling reality to our words. Language both reveals and establishes the real.
These are not merely obscure musings about language in the abstract. They have real bearing on action, even on daily ethical decisions. For example, a well-known psychologist, Carol Dweck, warns elementary school teachers never to call kids “smart.” On her account, praising children’s “inherent” intelligence could prove detrimental. (I like to tell people this fact—the only one I remember from my brief stint in the School of Education — and watch their eyebrows zigzag in confusion.) These teachers are not trying to deprive their students of affirmation, of course. They are avoiding the ossifying power of description. To praise a child’s intelligence is to praise her innate, static, born-that-way qualities, an option that may still sound valid until that “smart” kid encounters a problem she can’t solve. What is she then? Is she still smart? She has nothing to draw on but her unlearned capabilities, which used to seem so easy and natural. In the face of a question she can’t answer, she ceases to be “smart” and becomes nothing at all. But have no fear! If, on the other hand, her teacher praises not IQ but effort and strategies, tangible actions, she will know how to handle any enigma. In this instance, the teacher has shifted the student’s center of gravity from a state of being to dynamic behaviors, which she can calibrate and reconfigure to any task at hand. Existential crisis averted.
These conclusions hold true beyond education theory. Something similar seems to happen, for both describer and described, when we say things like “He’s mean” or “She’s nice.” These designations bound over their own extraordinarily confined moment of perceived meanness or niceness to designate a whole person, for their whole life, with a single attribute. But such snappy personal characterizations are only fit for prey to profile predators. Could we speak this way among neighbors to be loved? (We’ll remember it is the undesirable Samaritan who loved truly, even though we know how those people are.) My actions have been arrogant and careless, saintly and brilliant, but none of these impressions is who I am. And I don’t mean to invoke the language of “identity.” That kind of talk helps many people orient themselves in the world, but I find it too stable. Who am I? I look inside and outside, at my actions and my thoughts, and I find a walking contradiction.
A quick detour, a return to the subject, then we’re done: Of all the obscure facts I collected in my years at UVA, the most enlightening to me has been negative theology. What a revelation! Suddenly, amid all of my anxieties about speaking and writing, some paradoxical solution. Negative theology, or apophasis, uses language to unsay itself, to undermine its absolutizing force. Mystics, theologians, and believers of many stripes have turned to apophasis as they fumbled for words to describe the I AM, whose ways are higher than our ways, whose thoughts than our thoughts. What could be said about such a being, a being beyond being, except what he is not. After all, there is, between God and creation, what Barth and Kierkegaard called an “infinite qualitative distinction,” so that linguistic references no longer work when it comes to God. And yet, he sees fit to let all that he has made participate in him—“in him we live and move and have our being.” Even more, he has made us in his own image, a thing too wonderful for me. Gregory of Nyssa said that being made in the likeness of such a God renders us incomprehensible, even to ourselves. To gaze into space or into myself, then, is to behold God’s mystery, everywhere. And again my words prove insufficient, but now helplessly, infinitely more so. Yet this same God calls himself the Word, entering our finitude and embracing our language, to celebrate, to judge, to mourn, to comfort. I cling to those words, when God spoke with a young man’s tongue like mine, when he wrote in the dust. He who is the A and the Z, the Amen in whom every promise is Yes, he welcomes our words. But in view of these wonders, I rest in quiet praise.