The first task of Adam, in the book of Genesis, was to name everything he saw in the world; to fit each thing into a unit; to create a new world of symbols and references, which might be called the Kingdom of Names. What rules these names is the spirit animating their lifeless bodies, the sine qua non of nomenclature. Yet, Adam did not name the world itself; he named what he saw in the world.
The names we use give form to our perceptions, and are like a castle erected on a marvellous foundation. To discover this foundation, consider the dictionary. It is filled with every name of the Kingdom of Names, each with its own definition. However, every definition is given in terms of other words within the same book. The dictionary is completely circular. What breaks the circle? How can something entirely self-referential refer to things outside itself? How can it mean anything? It would be like petting a cat, and thinking there’s really a “cat” under our hand.
Our sense of meaning is built on a foundation that is all meaning and no definition; until somehow, we are able to marry our experience of that world with a book that is all definition and no meaning. That we do this is something “wondrous strange”, though later we come to justify these connections by the benefits they yield. We apply the dictionary in the ways that improve our lives. It’s really something of a spell book.
So we see something outside, and link it to “tree”. Tree links to “wood”, wood links to “fire”, and fire links to “warmth”. We try the relations out, and they work. We mark the success for later use. If another person comes along talking about “trees”, we can listen to them and hear “warmth”. That’s really what “tree” does for us in this case; otherwise, the dictionary has added nothing to what was there before “tree” was defined.
Building further, we establish a huge range of concepts and notions all interconnected, matching various words with the products that benefit our lives. “Tree” goes to “paper”, “river” goes to “fish”, “wind” goes to “power”, etc. Countless formulae appear, which allow us to turn perceptions into results. We can even use better and more accurate ways to describe these relationship, until we get really concise and powerful, with definitions like “e=mc2”. Now we know that “matter” goes to “energy”.
All these words build upon our foundation of experience until we make it a very beautiful, very comfortable castle indeed. It may have a draft in the winter, or be awful to clean, but it serves our purposes extremely well, keeping us safe and secure inside. So safe and secure, in fact, there’s hardly a need to step outside.
But what if, some day, a stranger knocks on the door, talking about things we’ve never seen. To talk at all, he has to use words from our dictionary. Though since he’s not from around here, there’s no telling what foundation he means. He says “tree”, which goes to “wood” and “warmth”, but what does his “tree” mean, since “wood” and “warmth” only tell us what trees can do, not what they are. In fact, beacuse the stranger’s experience of life is very different from our own, it means nothing to talk of “trees”, since the only “tree” we know is part of our castle’s definition. The stranger isn’t saying anything to us, really; just reminding us of our own past.
How can we ever know what a stranger is saying? The words makes sense, and we can see the pictures they form in our minds, but what does it mean? Is there any way to know?
A particular case of this are the words of God. A messenger appears begins using common words to describe an uncommon reality (if it were indeed common, why send a messenger?). We read these words and see what the words means in terms of our own perceptions of our own reality – not in terms of the messenger’s perceptions of God’s reality. How can we bridge so wide a gap? Without experiencing his reality directly, does it do any good to read the words at all?
Interestingly enough, most religious texts do not really set out to describe a different reality, except insofar as to motivate us. On the whole, they seem more interesting at getting us to recognize the Kingdom of Names we’ve locked ourselves into, that we might learn to step outside. And this, to resume our journey of the mind, onward to the next step. They are more teachings of freedom, than a manual for building more ornate castles. At least this is how I read them. It is not how they are always read.
So tonight I look around, and suddenly see walls where I thought there was clear sky. Because now I see that I see “sky”, thinking the “sky” is really there. My dictionary is telling me what exists, rather than me telling my dictionary. The two of us would go hand-and-hand through the real world of the bizarre, if only we’d straighten out this relationship…
I say my prayers now, and have no inkling of the reality they refer to. In fact, thinking I did know was keeping me from understanding them at all. So I tried saying my payer without knowing, and yet knowing, and it was like a two-dimensional picture given depth. There is so much strange “in heaven and earth” – without leaving my bedroom! This has been quite a head trip so far.
“O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!”
“And therefore as a stranger give it welcome. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”