Friday, July 15, 2005


During our recent visit to San Francisco, my wife and I visited a cafĂ© and boulangerie in Japan Town each morning for coffee, tea and pastries. One morning a young man with his two- or three-year old son sat at a table near ours, and the little boy kept up a steady stream of age-appropriate babble to his father as he picked apart his pastry and ate the sweetest parts first. I was not listening closely, of course, but I did notice that he interrupted himself twice to say the seemingly random words, “fire truck.” Only then did I notice that, in the background city noise, there was indeed a siren sounding (though it was certainly a police siren.) It had nothing to do with his conversation, and he did not talk about it or seem at all excited, but simply named that sound which he recognized.

During the same trip, down by Ghirardelli’s at the waterfront, a little girl walked by with her family, pointed to a street sign and said, “Golden Gate Bridge”. I looked, and the sign was one that used a stylized logo consisting of one of the pylons and a portion of the main span to symbolize, indeed, the Golden Gate Bridge. She recognized it and named it, addressing no one in particular. No further conversation followed, just the moment of recognition and the name called forth.

These observations brought the memory of an incident that struck me years ago as my wife and I stood by the sidelines of an intramural soccer game, together with other young parents and their young children. It was a still summer evening, and a little girl pointed up into the sky past my ear and said, “Balloon is up.” She said it twice. No one but me heard her or responded, but she did not appear to be seeking a response. She seemed quite satisfied to have made an observation of a hot-air balloon hanging in the sky above us, and having all the words necessary to describe the situation: “Balloon is up.” She turned away to look for other interesting things amidst the grass and blankets.

I remembered wondering at how content she seemed to be with her knowledge of the balloon. It was up. She got it. ‘Nuff said. She had no further questions. She was exercising her human capacity to name things, to attach sounds to objects and ideas. She was delighted as only very small children can be. Her knowledge was sufficient. She had a word for the object, and a word for its relative position, and (though she could hardly yet conceive any of these categories as categories) a word asserting its existence and the predication of its position.

How much more could be thought about the balloon! How many questions could be asked about it! Why does it rise? Because the air inside it is “warm”. Why does “warm” air rise? Which is to ask, what does it mean for air to be “warm”? Why did the maker of the balloon go to such trouble to make it colorful? Why do the people inside want to fly it? So many questions, so many concepts of which the child had no idea, and so was unaware that she had no words for them.

We are those who name. Adam’s first assignment on awakening in Eden was to name the animals. Primitive cultures, and ancient cultures including the Hebrew, attach a much deeper and almost mystical significance to names than do we moderns. To know a name was to know something deep about a thing, and to such knowledge was attached power over the thing named. In some cultures a person would have a public name and also a private name known only to friends and intimates. We see a hint of this in the white stones given to the saints in Revelation, on which is his own name known only to each saint and to God. Names, good names at any rate, contain knowledge and power. I think the ancients were right about this.

In the children I observed the satisfaction and pride we take in naming things, and in attaching words to ideas. Knowing a word for that shape in the sky, for that sound in the background, allows us to appropriate it as our own in some sense. We have a symbolic bin into which to place the memory of the thing, for our own future reference and for communication with others at some distant time or place. The children were appropriately pleased with themselves.

But our fascination with words and our sense of accomplishment in naming things hides from us the great depth of our ignorance. We tend to believe that if we can describe a thing well, using words or other symbols, then we have understood it, we have encompassed it about with our understanding. In what fundamental way is the statement, “The speed of light is the same in all frames of reference” (the kernel of truth underlying Einstein’s special theory of relativity) different from the statement, “The balloon is up”? For me, the working through of Einstein’s premise takes me pretty much to the end of my adult ability to comprehend and express, whereas the observations that satisfied the children are so apparent that I no longer even think to myself, “The balloon is up.” Why do we believe that the understandings and formulations that we construct as adult humans approach knowledge significantly more closely than those of our own children? Can we not easily imagine an intelligence for whom Einstein’s theories are as elementary and apparent as a child’s observation, “Fire-truck”? When we say, “God is eternal”, what, exactly, do we really know about what we are saying?

We must be careful when we use words lest, when we have constructed a complete sentence, we believe like the little girl that we have understood something. We rarely have; we have simply named it or collected a bunch of named concepts to describe it. Such knowledge is indeed wonderful, and is one of the ways in which we share the image of Him who Names, but it is, after all, like a child’s gathering a collection of beautiful smooth stones on a riverbank and feeling that he thereby understands the river.

No comments:

Post a Comment