words matter :: physicality and meaning

by Eric Daryl Meyer

We think of words as non-physical things, unattached and uncommitted to location or time. Words are transient, the same word may pop up on a dozen different tongues and refer to a dozen different things.

Our common-sense way of thinking about words misses out on an important aspect of word-iness. There is no such thing as a pure word without physical mediation.

Think about it, we never meet words except where we meet them in the context of meeting something (or someone) physical. Whether that mediation comes in the form of a computer screen, a sheet of paper, a friend’s face, or a loudspeaker, words are always intrinsically rooted in tangible encounters. Spoken words rely on the vibration of molecules, written words rely on their arrangement in some opaque surface, and even the words in your mind are inseparable from the firing of little neurons in complex networks. Where there is no matter, there are no words.

If words are inescapably joined to the physical, we should not look for purely “spiritual” meaning to life. The meaning of things in this world is not a meaning that is totally foreign to the “stuff” of being. As vehicles of meaning, words only communicate where there is “stuff.” Meaning may not be limited to any particular bit of matter (just as a single word can appear in many contexts), but in our experience meaning certainly doesn’t exist apart from matter either. Meaning cannot be found by neglecting the physical.

What does this mean as we recognize the Father’s Son as the logos (word) of God? I’m not sure exactly how I’d go about crafting a full answer (it would certainly explode the boundaries of a blog post), but I would start by suggesting that all created meaning is a gift modeled on the deep meaning within God’s triune life. Where we encounter meaning, its roots lie in the creative word that God spoke at the beginning, structuring our universe in such a way that meaning is possible. The world is built by the Logos of God in such a way that created logoi carry meaning.

I have been reading a book from Telford Work lately, Living and Active. This is really great stuff from a former professor of mine who continues to deepen the enthusiastic young minds brave enough to wander into his classroom at Westmont. His book is an attempt to set forth a comprehensive “bibliology” a term he invents to refer to a comprehensive understanding of the Bible in a much larger theological context than arguments over inspiration and error tend to produce. Telford’s book (which I hope to talk more about at some point), gave rise to the reflection above.

There are so many rabbit trails to follow at this point!

This should really delve into a discussion of the misuse and crumbling of meaning in the fall into sin (along with a theology of miscommunication).

A philosophical rabbit-trail engaging post-modern philosophy of language and questions of the presence and absence of meaning in language. Words can be a distraction and a distancing from physical reality, even as they are enmeshed in it. Words sometimes distract us from the physical medium they are carried on. Sometimes they link us to that other physical being. The difference between spoken and written words is enormous here – though both are intrinsically physical.

A comparative rabbit-trail: Christianity is primarily a religion of the word. Buddhism is primarily a religion of silence. Christians are silent in order to listen for the Word, and to find meaning within history, within the universe God has created. Buddhists are silent in recognition that all particular words are distractions from the deeper (and far less particular) silence that transcends even the universe. Christianity is a faith rooted in proclamation, Buddhism in meditation.