Words Make Worlds

Maybe I should have put the title of this reflection in quotations.  I probably should do that because it is actually a sentence from Krista Tippett’s fairly recent book, Becoming Wise.  Tippett is a great writer and much of what she writes is quite quotable.  In her second chapter, “Words: The Poetry of Creatures,” Tippett says, “Words make worlds.”  I smiled and nodded my head in approval.

 Those three little words packaged in one powerful sentence opened up a whole field of thought.  It is amazing how three small worlds can signify so much.  In order to open up some of my thinking, I want to go to the beginning of that paragraph in Tippett’s chapter.  At the outset she writes, “I take it as an elemental truth of life that words matter.”  I am sure if you ask any of my students, they would affirm that I live by the truth of those words from Tippett.  Words do matter.

 Words can inspire, depress.  They can point to truths or trip someone with lies.  Words can reveal or conceal.  Tippett puts it eloquently.  “The words we use shape how we understand ourselves, how we interpret the world, how we treat others.”  I suspect most people are not thinking about the profundity of words, even while using them.  In our culture words are so commonplace---so ordinary---we don’t fully appreciate the powerful effect they have on us.

 I think this is what Tippett summarily says at the end of the initial paragraph when she assures us, “Words make worlds.”  This is hard to grasp, I suspect, because most of the time we don’t think our worlds are made.  Or if we think about it, it seems like a Genesis creation story question.  Are worlds made?  Of course, we might reply by saying God made our world.  And once it is made, that’s it!

 The first clue Tippett is talking about something besides the Genesis creation story is her use of the plural.  Words make worlds.  I’m ok with affirming that God created our world (singular) in whatever way that creation happened, i.e. by evolution.  But this is not what Tippett is describing.  Instead, she is talking about the idea of the world we all have in our heads---whether or not we are aware of it.  We all have a conception of the world in our heads and that conception has many details.

 The world we have in our heads is generally formed in the first place by our parents and early caretakers and context.  My early world was formed in rural Indiana in an unassuming Quaker context with little diversity of any sort.  It never occurred to me that little world of mine was not the same world for every living person in every corner of the  planet!  I never even thought the Chinese on the other side of the globe might have “a slightly different world!”

 How was my little world created in my head?  Tippett’s answer is clear.  The words I heard, learned and used formed that perspective of the world.  My world was English speaking.  It was a world where sports were important, music was not and religion was a factor, but not a
major factor.  This all seemed so true to me that I assumed it was reality---that’s the way things were.

 In so doing I did not pay enough attention to the verb in the three-word sentence from Tippett.  I needed to heed the fact that she says words “make” worlds.  If I take this seriously (which I do), then I need to realize the world in my head is not reality; it is my view of reality.  There is a subtle, but powerful, difference.  I want to apply this specifically in the realm of spirituality.

 A basic assumption of mine holds that God exists---there is a Divinity.  If God exists, then God is real.  That faith statement is core to my sense of reality.  But another move is needed to understand how I know, think about and relate to that God.  All of these issues are really dealing with the God who is in my world make in my mind.  Let me offer quick details.

 If I think about God, I do so in the terms of my own “world”---my view of reality.  I can use church creeds and understand more about the God who is in my world.  So I use words like compassionate, caring, forgiving, etc. to describe the God whom I think about, whom I know and with whom I relate.  All of this is very positive for me.  But I also now realize it is limited.  That does not make it bad; it just means it is limited.

 The God who lives in my mind and experience is the God my world has described.  It is God, but not everything God is.  My view of God is a bit like my narrow, limited farm boy view of the world.  It was not wrong; it was limited.  As I began to realize this, I felt a bit uneasy.  It is tempting to feel like we do have it wrong!  Maybe I made up the God in whom I believe.  But then I realized I did not make up God.

 God is real.  I can make up God.  But I did make up my way of seeing God.  I laugh because I probably also made up my view of the one I married.  Of course, there was a “real person” in that case.  But God is also real; I just can’t see God in the same way.  I laugh again.  To say God is real is to recognize those words make up my world!

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