The Worlds We Make

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We can have words without a world but no world without words or other symbols. — Nelson Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking

The first line of the Dhammapada, a collection of the Buddha’s sayings, is, “All that we are is the result of what we have thought.” With that, the Buddha signals that thought precedes action and mind shapes character. This is in common with the words of another sage: “As a man thinketh, so is he (Proverbs 23:7),” a maxim which suggests in its context to beware of the stingy who insincerely invite one to share a meal. They are not to be trusted, for the hidden thought will be exposed in the interplay between the two.

So, I am here quoting those who once lived upon this earth, people we know only through their words. The gulf that lies between the utterance of those words in time and where we stand today is not just about the millennia that have passed between us, but about the worlds those words brought into being and the worlds that arise when we read them today. Are they the same worlds?

We create worlds through our words, says Nelson Goodman, in Ways of Worldmaking. In a few pages of closely reasoned arguments, Goodman shows that the frames of reference we construct to describe what we experience are systems of description; they are not that which is being described. We never truly apprehend the object of our experience, only the description we construct to talk about it.

An example: If we say, “The sun always moves,” and “The sun never moves,” both statements are equally true and equally at odds with one another. Goodman asks if these statements describe different worlds— whether there are “as many different worlds as there are such mutually exclusive truths?” No, rather we make accommodation by saying that under this frame of reference this statement is true and with another frame of reference the other statement is true. “Our universe, so to speak,” says Goodman, “consists of these ways rather than of a world or of worlds.”

I find this both invigorating and disconcerting. In a way, Goodman is playing games—language games—to make a point: there is no irrefutable foundation for all truth, only descriptions that are more or less right for their context. The fact that we construct these descriptions out of what we find in anthropology, physics, psychology, literature, philosophy, theology, and other disciplines, means that we are constantly remaking our worlds of thought. “Worldmaking as we know it,” says Goodman, “always starts from worlds already on hand; the making is a remaking.”

***

Here are some materials at hand that we can make a story out of, a description of something and someone that matters a great deal to us.

Jesus is crucified about 33 CE and the first gospel, generally thought to be Mark’s gospel, is written about 70 CE. That is a gap of about 40 years—a whole generation—without any written source of Jesus’ life. The people who gathered each week in small groups to remember the Lord were those who had had first-hand knowledge of Jesus. The boy who gave over the loaves and fishes that Jesus fed five thousand people with would have been a man with children and grandchildren of his own. Lazarus, raised from the tomb and given a second life, would have passed on by this time. The disciples, men with families when Jesus chose them, would have grown old and scattered, some to Rome, others staying in Jerusalem, Thomas (as legend has it) making his way to India to establish a Christian community, and Philip probably down in Ethiopia. All of these people lived and died on the stories that were told and retold about Jesus, as they met together in upper rooms, sometimes in a wealthy person’s home, sometimes on the run, often over a meal with song and celebration. They were people, quite literally, of the word, the Word that came and lived amongst them.

Think of the stories they told, the anecdotes tenderly passed down through the family chain like pearls of great value. From the sayings of Jesus to the signs he performed to the parables he told, these narratives sustained these groups through their days and eventually formed the web of Mark’s gospel.

In his breathless and rustic style, the author of Mark’s gospel creates a narrative—a world!—that Matthew and Luke break down to use in the remaking of their individual worlds. Later, around 90-100 CE, comes John’s gospel, a parallel universe to the previous gospels, converging at points, but drawing its own course through its orbit. It closes with these tantalizing words:

“But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”

These gospels are the Gospel, the good news about Jesus who came into the world and “the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him (John 1: 10).”

***

We read these words today, millennia away from their creation, in the awareness that the bone and sinew, words and meaning of their author and the person of which he wrote come down to language and symbols, marks on paper or pixels on a screen. Despite the billions of words devoted to this Jesus, the stories that could be told have no end because these words, having been written, continue to produce new stories in the strength that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it (John 1:5).”

Instead, we may become accustomed to these stories to the extent that we no longer take in their meaning. Our eyes pass over the letters, we register the shape of the words as we would the silhouette of objects whose outlines against the light are familiar only because of the form of their darkness.

“This world, indeed,” notes Goodman, “is the one most often taken as real; for reality in a world, like realism in a picture, is largely a matter of habit.”

“Language can create faith but can’t sustain it,” says Christian Wiman in Ambition and Survival. I’m not so sure. When I read of the Buddha holding up a flower before his gathered disciples and one of them—only one—smiles, and Buddha says the equivalent of “He gets it!,” something in me thrills to that imagined scene. When Jesus begins with “The kingdom of heaven is like . . .,” it’s “Once upon a time” all over again. We’re hardwired for stories: good, bad, mediocre, we pick them up, and turn them over and over in our hands until we find the seam that opens them. From these we fashion a world that we can live in.

“To have faith in a religion, any religion,” continues Wiman, “is to accept at some primary level that its particular language of words and symbols says something true about reality.” That I can agree with.

He goes on: “This doesn’t mean that the words and symbols are reality (that’s fundamentalism), nor that you will ever master those words and symbols well enough to regard reality as some fixed thing. What it does mean, though, . . . is that the only way to deepen your knowledge and experience of ultimate divinity is to deepen your knowledge of the all-too-temporal symbols and language of a particular religion.”

Separated as we are by thousands of years and the innumerable worlds of language and imagination between us and Jesus, these slender figures on our pages are the portals between our worlds. The path to the divine remains, astonishingly, through the darkness and light that is our world.

Photo: Lydia Shi, Unsplash.com

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