Thoughts on Education: Magic Words
In the beginning God spoke. Creation teaches us that God used words to make the universe, and with terrifying power, His words became the universe. Perhaps this is what is meant by the writer of Hebrews: the Son made the worlds and upholds “all things by the word of His power.”
Others, far more adept than I, have made the point, but some recent reading has sparked my imagination again: Words are magic. They are not magic by some autonomous, independent existence. They are magic because language was given to us by God, and they accomplish His vast and inscrutable ends which usually include far more than we ever intend. Consider the words of the gospel which when declared are able to make the hardest heart soft. Consider words of promise that are able to enact peace, words of institution that consecrate bread and wine, words of blessing that empower a people, words with water that incorporate an infant into Christ, words of pardon that release sinners from their faults. The stories of these sorts of words and language events testify of the power of God in language. And thus I affirm: words are magic, magic because God does with words more than seems possible.
There are many directions to go with this, but I would only suggest two. First, language is not insufficient for communication. It is not in se crass or crude. It is not an invention of God’s that is in any way demeaning or humiliating to Him. It is not as though God lives in a world of ‘pure thought and ideas’. God, from all eternity spoke the Son. The Son is from all eternity the Word of the Father begotten through the power of the Spirit. God speaks a Word from all eternity. This means that our language, our speech, our words are fundamentally sufficient and capable of true and lively communication.
Another way of saying this is that true communion does not take place with the least amount of matter possible. It is not as though the finest form of communication would be by some inter-cerebral-spiritual harmonizing of pure ideas. That ‘ideal’ simply doesn’t exist. Our bodies are not the prisons of our mind. Our affections and words are not the inhibitors of true knowledge and communication. Our bodies and words were given to us so that we can know, so that we can communicate. ‘A meeting of the minds’ occurs every time two or more people interact (and I mean this in its broadest sense). And interaction always occurs with words, symbols, art, shadows, touch, smell, sound, taste, etc. There is no such thing as a ‘pure idea’. Ideas have sounds and shapes and can often be photographed.
Secondly, words are heavy. Because they are God given and are images of the Son, the Word of the Father, they represent us, our histories, our futures, our loves, hates, thoughts, dreams, and conversations, in an analogous fashion as the Son is the perfect representation of the Father. Like pieces of clay passed from hand to hand, words meld and form through stories, poems and events. Words have physicality: not only do they take part of us with them, they also impact those they address. This is why St. James says that the unbridled tongue is a fire and a world of iniquity, and is so set among our members that it can defile the whole body and set on fire the course of nature. Of course it can become a temptation to make too much of human words, and thus we must remember that God’s Word is the heaviest. It has the most impact; it brings worlds into existence from nothing. But our words image His, and so we do well to guard our tongues and use them for blessing.
There are many applications of this, but one of my concerns is in the area of education. Education necessarily includes communication and a significant part of communication is with words. Because of the weight of words, because of the magical and transcendent quality of language, it is absolutely necessary that a teacher have faith. This faith informs not only our trust that our word will accomplish praiseworthy ends, but it also comforts any fears that we have started fires with our tongues in ways that we may or may not have intended. But faith has to rest in the fact that God has given us words to speak, sing and listen to, and we cannot shy away because we are afraid of the possible misuse of them.
But teachers also need to recognize how little is in their control. We must study to know our material well. We must be diligent to consider the best ways to present and incite the interests and attentions of our pupils. But the fact must always remain before us that far more is taking place in a classroom than a simple conscious presentation of information. The sunlight pouring into the classroom windows, the artwork on the walls, the tone of the instructor’s voice, the smell of the carpets, the wooden chairs and desks, and everything else and their histories intersect, interpenetrating in moments (some conscious but probably mostly unconscious) and all of it mingling to create the experience, all of it bending together to form what we know.
The sheer magnitude is overwhelming, but to the faithful, it should create a deep humility, joy and diligence. The humility comes from realizing that our pontificating (however organized and well researched) is a tiny fraction of what is actually being accomplished. While God is pleased to do much with words, the classroom is a dance of sentences, smells and sentiments (not to mention the fact that we are sinners and all of the hurdles that entails). The joy builds on this humility. Recognizing the teacher’s microscopic existence in the panoply of the classroom experience makes us thankful that we are even heard at all. Again, it’s the magic of words for the teacher to be heard of over the commotion of windows, chairs, hunger, fatigue, boredom, pencils and the pictures whirling around the room. Finally, I want to emphasize that a classroom where these things are accepted does not mean a chaotic classroom, an apathetic teacher, or lazy students. Recognizing the infinite in the finite, is always recognizing grace pouring through our nature. Seeing the impossible and far more than we think or imagine being accomplished before our very eyes reminds us that the Holy Spirit is ever active, making harmony of our dissonance, making sense of our noises, shapes and colors. And if it’s the Spirit of the Triune God active and present in the details of our classroom, then our utmost diligence, highest expectations and hardest work is the least we can do in return for the gift of Magic Words.