Language fails us.
Modernity thought the world could be dissected and filed away in a cabinet. Post-Modernity said there were no files, or filing-cabinet (and maybe no world at all). I don't want to get into that right now, but for all the good of communication, propositional truth, authorial intent and all that â words fail us.
Imagine two artists, each sitting at an easel with a canvas on it, but they are facing each other so they can't see what the other is painting. One artist has an image in front of him, and leaning around his painting he describes it to the second artist who then does his best to replicate the image. After a long process of description and artistry the two have come to comparable conclusions on their canvasses. Not identical, but similar enough.
This is what we are doing with our words every day. We take landscapes, break them down into finer units, and then teleport them to another person's head with our words. But we also try to teleport feelings, concepts, morality, hypotheticals and imaginings, we try to take some invisible, intangible idea from our brains and throw them at another person's mind. It sounds like a difficult task, but it gets more complicated than that.
Then consider that your formation of words is a primal orchestration of your tongue and lungs and lips and teeth. Say the word 'hit' out loud (go on, even just quietly). If you're thinking about it, you might feel the letter T form in your mouth, but the word comes out so easily that you're almost passive in the process, you don't think about how to say it you just listen to what it sounds like. Then if you slow it down and emphasise the T you'll notice for that little aspirated stop. Your tongue moves to the roof of your mouth, you build up air behind it and then you release the air by taking your tongue away again. Tongue-on-the-roof-of-your-mouth-then-releasing-air noise is what we call the letter T.
Every letter is like that in its own way, even changing its exact sound depending on its place in a word. Language is all just noise. Sure there are words and letters and all that, but it's all comes down to sounds. Sounds that you have arranged in a specific order so that they make this word and not that word. Careful to space apart the word-noises so that you make sense, but don't space apart the letter-noises or you'll sound like a freak.
And when you think about it like that, it's kind of amazing how much we successfully communicate to one another. Under the surface of that heartfelt conversation you had, your mouth was dancing out noises in an order that articulated your very soul. There were silent, unconscious nuances of communication helping the noises to sound genuine, or patient, or concerned. You felt a feeling, you thought a thought, and your mouth sung a song that transported it to someone else's brain.
Yet for all the miracles of communication, there is an inherent limit in what language can do. You'll know the wonderful experience of feeling completely understood by another person, and yet probably more frequently you'll know the frustration of not being able to communicate just what you mean. For all our clever sounds and well chosen words, there are some things locked up in our heads that we can't quite transfer.
I consider that there is something profound here, in this unseen world of our thoughts. That at the heart of who we are and what we feel are some unobservable things beyond articulation.
Ransom knows this all too well. In C.S. Lewis' space trilogy Ransom visits another world, akin to the spiritual realities beyond. When He returns he has difficulty telling his friend what he has seen and experienced. At one point his friend interrupts, trying to help by saying "Of course I realise it's all rather too vague for you to put into words." To which Ransom replies, "on the contrary, it is words that are vague. The reason why the thing can't be expressed is that it's too definite for language."
We know this in ourselves, that at the heart of who we are there are landscapes we cannot properly paint, and stories we can never seem to tell. Because while the realities of God and the real substance our lives are knowable through words, analogous through experience, they are ultimately too wonderful for words.
Sam Manchester is currently a theology student with an inescapable sociology degree behind him. In an attempt to reconcile the two, he reflects and writes about their coalescence in everyday life.
Sam's archive of articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/sam-manchester.html