Have you heard of the “36 Questions”? This is a questionnaire couples complete together, and, at the end of hours of mutual questioning and discussion, they are guaranteed to fall in love!
How can so much talking lead to the ineffability of love?
This past week in 12 Bible Study we shared ineffable experiences, times when verbal expression hit the wall, moments where mere human speech could not capture the beauty, spiritual power and moral goodness of the moment:
- Piloting a military plane in the darkest night, astonished by the vast reaches of stars, while listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
- While in a nightmare, moving from immobilizing terror to a “peace which passeth understanding.”
- Hearing the story of Brooklyn Dodgers PeeWee Reese placing his arm protectively around new recruit Jacky Robinson on the playing field in Cincinnati, withstanding the angry boos of the racist crowd.
- Watching the slideshow of newlyweds who spent their honeymoon in sacrificial service, building a water system for a primitive African village.
Our ineffable moments prepared us to think about Christ’s transfiguration (Matthew 17: 1 – 9), when human language hit its limits, pushed to its very edges to express the sacred sublime. Here we referenced a wonderful book, Paul Van Buren’s The Edges of Language. Van Buren says that everyday thinking and talking live in the “high plains” of easily understood and familiar experiences. But, when it comes to thinking and expressing religious ideas, we’re pushed to the very “edges of language.” While we might be using ordinary language to speak about the sacred, we are trying to say more than ordinary terms and phrases can achieve. Many people, however, misconstrue religious talk, and think that we’re simply speaking in the “high plains,” when, in fact, we’re working at the edges of language.
An example from my own experience. . .A friend remarked that when Jesus died, the Gospels record that the Jerusalem Temple’s inner curtain tore from top to bottom, and that, for her, this “fact” “proved” that Jesus was God. Her remark shows a terrible misunderstanding of the Gospels’ story! The Gospel writers are using ordinary language and images to express the ineffable. The Gospel writers are trying to say more than ordinary language can express — what it means that God’s Son has died! How can the divine die, and yet also be more alive than ever before, overcoming death and the demonic? This is more than simple words can express. But this image of the Temple curtain, reputed to have been 60 feet tall, four inches thick, untearable and shielding the Holy of Holies, ripping from the Heavens downward, speaks at the edges of language.