It's a subject of some dense religious and theological thought, most of which requires way more space than this blogpost allows, and more knowledge than I have. But we can look at some beginnings. Consider the Judeo-Christian texts. The opening verses of the Gospel of John, King James Bible translation, are “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” In the book of Bereishit, God speaks and then does. “And the Lord said: Let there be light and there was light!” Words, we can be sure, are important, powerful, creative devices. But what the deuces does this pre-creative existence of words mean? How does understanding the nature of words fit into the project of making a true map of the cosmology of God and the universe? What truth do these religious texts teach by way of such esoteric intertwining of words and creation?
Something to think on.
Here’s a quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle with an idea of a blanket answer: “Anyone unable to understand how useful religion can be founded on lies will not understand this book either.”
Seconded for this blog. Indeed this post might be titled “A Qualification.” Don't misunderstand me. I don't mean to imply that what I'm writing is a bunch of lies (or that I'm trying to make up a religion, though I hear that's where the money is (support the blog!)), but I do want to convey that words are slippery building materials. And as I travel amongst Communities that have spent many years finding their equilibriums of functional existence, are indeed still working on those equilibriums which are constantly in flux, and as I have conversations about words of some importance, words that can be used with great reverence and power, it seems prudent to share a little of how I think about these cagey, elusive tools of my trade.
Advance warning: This might be called wacky philosophical inquiry rather than grand.
The Beetle in the Box and Spacetime: A Visual Theory of Language
Here’s the rub of Wittgenstein’s famous thought experiment: Imagine that every individual person in the world has a box with something inside of it that only he/she/they/gender-subversive-pronoun can see. The contents of the box can be called the extreme of what-is-private. Now, as time passes and people talk about the contents of their boxes, they come to use the word “beetle” to describe whatever these contents might be. Nobody knows, nobody can possibly know, with certainty whether their “beetle” really means the same thing for them as it does for someone else, or if it is some kind of elytra winged insect, since all the boxes are private. There might be nothing in the box. There might be a cat. Still, the word is "beetle, and so this becomes the designated public approximation of a private thing.
Wittgenstein uses that idea to advance the theory that “minds” are a publicly invented construct. What we call “the mind” is the same as our private “beetles.” Since language is a public phenomena, it can’t really express the absolute truth of what’s inside our own, or any other person’s, private box. In Wittgenstein's estimation, this begs the question of whether there really is individual consciousness.
But that's not where I'm going with this. Bear with me.
Okay, so now that you have that thought in your “mind," imagine the plain of spacetime (like a piece of graph paper). This is Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity now. On the plain of spacetime that makes up the Universe, there are indents, dimples. Large astral bodies (like planets) traveling across spacetime get pulled in by the dense spot at the center of these dimples and spin around and around, never getting to the center (in which there is presumably a blackhole), but also never able to break free and leave the dimple. This is the force of gravity. Imagine water circling the drain but never actually draining.
A gif (if you're reading the Mobile version on your smartphone, it's the one at the top of the page):
For the purposes of this blogpost, I’m going to make a Wittgenstein-Einstein-Sandwich Theory of Words. The words we use, whether in prayer, or study, or everyday to express ourselves, spin around the dense center of the meaning we wish to communicate but can’t, because at the dense absolute center of ourselves, those meanings are private, uncommunicable black holes born of the essentially wordless state of our individual minds. This means that our words are approximations, kept in the realm of honesty by the force of gravity exerted by our private meanings and our intentions.
Just what am I saying? Perhaps not more than that words rarely do us justice. And that communication is difficult. Language requires explanation, context, more language, but try as we might it very rarely (maybe never) gets us to the essence of the thing. I suppose I find myself disagreeing with John. The Word is not God. (But, of course, the Word is God too).
Some Thoughts on Some of the Loaded Words I’ve Been (and Will Continue to Be) Using
“Generation” and "Millennials"
Both in intimate conversation and publicly on this blog, I’ve written that my goal is to illuminate some of the spiritual ideas of the so-called generation of “millennials.” Already some of the people I’ve interviewed and spoken to have taken umbrage with the word being used to include them. I feel like I need to offer some explanation, aka: make a better approximation.
I’ve long had some objection to the social science of generation naming. I’m not quite sure how useful it is toward the goal of deepening understanding across actual generational lines. This is partially born of the experience of my family. My brothers and I are spread out in age over some fifteen years, and to those who are denizens of the zeitgeist-generation-naming game, this would make us of different generations. My oldest brother, born in 1979, can remember the years of Reagan’s presidency, listened to audio-cassette tapes, watched Alf (maybe), saw most of the Rocky movies in the theaters (or rented them from Blockbuster), and would by most standards be called a member of “Generation-X.” On the other hand, my youngest brother, born in 1994, would almost certainly be counted among the “millennials.” He is tech-savvy, doesn’t remember a world before the Internet, has been on Facebook since he was in middle school, and has little inkling of what it’s like to make sure to get to the television in time for your favorite show, since he streams everything on his computer.
Thing is, it seems to veer at least a little into the realm of absurdity to describe two children of the same parents to be of different generations. We are all literally the same generation. What’s more, being of the same kin-generation seems to have some more profound and connective meanings than the same pop-culture generation. Point of importance: All of us, my brothers and I, are the grandsons of Holocaust survivors, and are second-generation born Americans. As a means of understanding ourselves and other individuals, these facts seem to retain some deeper factors of importance than whether we have the same pop-culture exposures and tastes.
But don’t get me wrong. There are also important common threads that link people to their specific time of living. If I didn’t believe in that, then I’d have a hard time making any inquiries into “millennials’ spiritual beliefs.” We are bound together by the public events of our lifetimes. The rise of the Internet, the expanding of the environmental crisis, 9/11 and the War on Terror, the abuses of capitalism coming to a head, and, not to be forgotten, the secret takeover of the world by Skynet. All of these things will therefore be factored into this project.
To that end, when I use the term “millennial” the meaning I’m getting at is more of an epoch, an era, than a particular subset of people. All of us now live in this era. Those finding our ways and purposes in this time, without regard to any specific age or particular range of birth years, might be called “of” the era, which is to say, we are “millennials.”
In the world of clothing and ornamentation, a fringe is specially designed for the border, it is a conscious attempt at adding pizzazz, or of giving completion. Historically the word comes from the Latin for ‘fiber’ and might be considered something that’s come unravelled from the main garment. Sometimes it continues to unravel. Sometimes it falls loose and idle on the side of the garment and lolls about in the wind. Sometimes it frazzles into many more fringes.
There are lots and lots of different kinds of fringes. Of all designs, placements, and origins.
Intention starts with awareness and commences with informed choice. The understanding of that awareness and the choices made from such understandings vary from place to place. I am learning quickly that it is not the case that "if you've seen to one Intentional Community, you've seem 'em all." Thus the excitement of this trek.
Communities start with people who live together to create a whole greater than the sum of their parts. In the world of Intentional Communities, the word "Community" is an ideal. It's used the way Whitman used the word "Democracy," the thing that we strive to create as the most harmonious, dynamic, meaningful way of living with our fellow human beings.
It's quite nice really.
We know this from religious language to mean having to do with the soul, or the spirit. It is something unseen and powerful that we tap into.
But what does that mean?
For now I think of it as the holistic approach toward life, the grand narrative, the deep philosophy with which a person makes their intentional decisions. That said, sometimes it's the thing that makes you jump up and dance and give a primal yell.
This is one we’ll come back to.
One More Thing: About the Texts
The great debate about religious texts often seems to take on the language of whether they are "literally" or "absolutely" true or not true. Suffice to say, I think of the texts as "literally" lies (see Vonnegut quote above), but often useful ones, powerful and enlightening and meaningful to the extent, and in the manner, that we use them. If you consider the Wittgenstein-Einstein-Sandwich-Theory of words presented above, no texts can be "literally" or "absolutely" true, because words are themselves approximations of the deep wordless truths of life.
But I love the texts. They are full of wisdom. Read as metaphors for both history and the trials of everyday life, they really have unlimited scope. In the space between the meaning of all those approximate words, there are mountains of interpretation, interpolation, meditation, study, even play, to climb (and to continue to build). And (I'm gonna ring it out here) how tall and sturdy those mountains! how clear and beautiful the sight of the vistas from their peaks! how complex and majestic the rocky faces of all those texts and interpretations that have been around for millennia guiding our ancestors and reflecting down to us their thoughts! (Huzzah!)
So I suppose I should end this with a verse from a text. How about the opening of the Tao Te Ching:
Tao called Tao is not Tao.
Put that in your pipe and smoke it.