Words are powerful, significant. Words are complex and subtle. When political parties promise to ban, in their own words ‘exploitative zero hours contracts’, what does that mean? Are they saying that they will ban all zero hours contracts because they are exploitative? Or are they suggesting they will ban only those zero hours contracts which are exploitative? ‘Exploitative zero hours contracts’, I wonder…
As we shall see in the next few weeks, words play on emotion and interpret destiny. The right word makes a great quote while one ill chosen can destroy a carefully crafted speed. A verbal blunder can scupper a romantic moment.
We also know that words can fail us. To most people, ‘ripped’ means torn. But if a teenager describes someone as ‘ripped’ it means he has a toned, muscular body. We can talk about these different meanings and cultures and explain them to each other. We do so by using other words, defining words by relation to each other in a circle of reference. Some words seem to make concrete the things they describe – virtue or hope can be personified. Other words are symbolic, and even those that aren’t obviously so may still have a particular, metaphorical, way of understanding the world underlying them.
As T. S. Eliot put it: ‘Words strain, crack and sometimes break, under the burden; Under the tension, slip, slide, perish; Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place; Will not stay still’
Is this a weakness? That the words we use struggle to secure meaning, fail to cage it, cannot pin it down?’ Does this suggest that at best, our descriptions see reality through a glass darkly? Hopefully in talking with one another we improve our insights but they are still limited until one day we shall see the truth face to face. Like the series of ever closer models or hypotheses used by the scientist, we draw closer and closer to truth, always remembering the limitations which language imposes.
Or at worst, do words flutter round us in a dance, while all we can do is play knowing games?
We see this difficulty in pinning down meaning when we reflect on Jesus’ words in 1 Corinthians. ‘This is my body’. Is it a simple fact: ‘This was once a piece of bread. It has now become my body’? A logical statement, that x=y? And if so, how has that happened? And what does it mean for our devotion?
Or is it a metaphor? Like those phrases in John: ‘little children’ or ‘now you must wash one another’s feet’? Is ‘This is my body’ a symbol where the word ‘is’ does not mean ‘has become’ but rather ‘signifies’? In effect: Think of this as my body when you eat, do this and remember me. Debates like this characterised much of the Reformation and are still significant today.
But perhaps there is an additional way of grasping what the words are doing. For we see that symbolism and metaphor are inherent in language. While that makes words slippery at times, it can also be a strength, for it allows words to say so much without being tied down. We can do a great deal with them.
So, the limitations of words? Or a creative space within which the possible range of meanings can be part of the point? Where symbolism, metaphor and intuited meaning are the best way of encapsulating the truth. Perhaps it is not so much that words are a flawed way of trying to capture truth and convey it to us. But rather that the nature of some truth at least is reflected in the allusiveness and analogy of words.
When we forget this, we end up with a problem that happens quite often in theology. Where someone takes a particular Biblical principle, say predestination, and extends it into a logical system. The thoroughgoing all-encompassing application of one big idea swallows up other Biblical insights that really should be held together in thoughtful nuance, paradox or mystery. So the complex nature of words may actually reflect the nature of truth.
The Word of God became man. He spoke these words, taking the hallowed text of Passover and making it his own. ‘Take, eat’ – an action, a command to ‘Do this’ and remember him. ‘This is my body, given for you’. Do this, remember me and what I will do this day.
The Early Church obeyed his command, they proclaimed his death, and in so doing, found that he was with them. They not only remembered his death but encountered his living presence, mysteriously in them through the bread and wine. Now as we speak those words and obey his command, may we find that Christ is with us today.