Biblical Hebrew, the language in which most of the Old Testament is written, has a vocabulary of no more than five thousand words.  This compares starkly with the half million words of the Oxford English Dictionary, and the estimated one million when local usage, slang and scientific and technical terms are included.  Biblical Hebrew is, in that sense, a very poor language.  Each word has to do a lot of work, but for this very reason it appears a richly poetic language.  For example, the word ‘kol’ means ‘voice’, ‘sound’, ‘thunder’, and also the sound of a bell.  It is therefore very easy to think of thunder as the voice of God.  “The voice of the bell is the voice of God,” Catholic monks and nuns used to say: Vox campanae vox Dei.  But they were consciously putting together two separate realities, and this is quite different from not distinguishing them clearly in the first place.  To change Oscar Wilde’s phrase a little, we cannot hear God's voice in the thunder unless we have put it there first. 

Which is better, I wonder: to have a little or a large vocabulary?  Certainly we seem much cleverer with a large one, but the ability to recite appropriate words is no proof that we understand some matter; we need to be able to use them appropriately, we need to have ‘installed’ them, in the computer sense: to have made them part of the whole that is oneself.  But granting that our vocabulary is really part of us and not something alien, does an increased vocabulary enable us to have a deeper awareness of reality; or does it only help to fragment our awareness and separate us from everything, substituting words for experience...?

An infant  -  an in-fans, a ‘non-speaker’  -  is not aware of any distinction between itself and its mother; they appear an undifferentiated unity.  The mother, on the other hand, who has language, sees the infant as part of herself, yes, part of her life, but differentiated.  Which of them has the richer awareness?  The mother, surely.  You could not say that her awareness of the infant is only differentiation, a matter of vocabulary.  There is a kind of unity that comes after differentiation rather than before; it is love.  The undifferentiated state is behind, and love is the way forward.  When love becomes neurotic it is often an attempt to return to the infant state.

We could speak of three stages, then, or a dialectic: the undifferentiated state, separation, and love.  Thesis, antithesis, synthesis. 

We need not imagine that we are at the top of anything.  Devolution is happening at the same time as evolution; in fact the sex and violence of modern popular culture look like the first and second stages rather than the third.  There can be a vicious circle of thesis and antithesis; nothing guarantees the advent of a synthesis; there is no law of progress. 

If you are hearing the voice of God in thunder, I think it is better to know that you are thinking poetically.  You might have had a much more intense experience if you thought that it was literally the voice of God, as we can imagine infants having very intense experiences.  But it would certainly lead you astray in many ways.  In this sense English is a superior language to biblical Hebrew, though the images in Hebrew poetry are often intensely vivid. 

The simplicity of a child  -  or of a primitive language  -  is too vulnerable to fragmentation; clever articulate people will come along and differentiate it into a million pieces. 

But there is a simplicity that lies ahead; the mystics speak of it.  “I will tell you how I think of people,” said Eckhart: “I try to forget myself and everyone and merge myself, for them, in unity [with God].  May we abide in unity, so help us God.  Amen.” 

Donagh O'Shea


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