When I was a kid and a student in a Christian day school, our Bible teacher, the bald Dr. Keltner had us create a notebook full of common sense applications and bible notes. I learned more in Jr. High than a lot of folks get in a lifetime of Sundays.
His first dictated note was simple. "Finish the job."
The second was this: "Sha-lee-ooo-it."
Now I must confess that I've cheated, there was no "a" or second "e" in his note. I put them there so that we can pronounce the thing like a real word. But what we have is an acrostic. Dr. Keltner had us arrange it in a pyramid, with the S at top, the HLE on the second tier, the triple O's third, and the IT on the bottom. The thing looked a little too mystical for our fundamentalist world, but as a result or that acrostic and the mental diagram, I have never forgotten these attributes of God:
Now at age 12, (not unlike age 40) there is only so much one can hang on an idea like Omniscience. What does it mean to know everything? Would a being possessing this attribute ever learn? Would He ever have a new idea?
If He ever did have a new idea … would He always know He would have it? And if He did,
was God bound by the foreknowledge of what He would always know he would do or think?
Can God change his mind? HOW can an all-knowing being change his mind?
As it is several of these words were brand spanking new, and others, labels for faint ideas. But I've found over the years these attributes have calcified. I visit them time and again. They permeate my vision and tease my brain. They are bone in my soul.
I can think of other ideas that I'd like to add to the list. A few more tangible. I miss the inclusion of "Creative, or creator … or perhaps even those that might get some folks scarred … "comic, dramatic, flamboyant, etc. But the punch of "otherness" gets lost.
There is in God, this part (or the whole) which will not bow to my ability to grasp or comprehend. I can not grasp that which does not change. I can not grasp unflinching truth. I can not grasp the measure of his love.
Many years later, in a college English class "Advance Poetry" I encountered a concept that would challenge my thinking. Not a big idea like the power of God, but an idea big enough to chew on for some weeks.
We were told that we would be learning to identify "abstraction" and remove it from our poems. Abstraction was our enemy. We were to learn the art and sound of concrete language. We were to seek out common words, anchored in the act of sensing.
At first the idea seemed absurd. What after all was poetry, if not abstract and somewhat flowery? Didn't poets spew words like similitude, or beautiful, or sorrow-like-the-deepest sea? And hadn't we been learning for some decades, the freedom of non-representational art. Weren't our galleries all blocks of color or shattered lines: If pictures could be abstract, why not words or poems.
As a young photographer, I had taken pictures that I considered to be abstract. Usually these were pictures of parts of things … Some small texture element, that when enlarged, might look like a brush of paint, or a side of marble. By getting close you can turn wood grain into canyons, or green peppers into body parts. A twine of branches might look like a Jackson Pollock painting. With a telephoto lens, a photographer can compress space to look like a cubist painting.
So, in my mind, abstraction was tied to visual games, or the act of highlighting form over content. Abstraction was innovative, stark, simple, and graphic.
Abstraction was good.
You might then, imagine my surprise when we were told that that which I had considered as progressive and modern was considered old-school. Not only was ee cummings out of style … but so too were centuries of poetry or paintings that relied on sentiment or hidden meanings. We were not to hide, or write in layers. We were not preachers or patriots or swooning romantics.
Indeed, we might say that a girl had shoulder blades like manta rays or skin of lunar hue (pulled tight across her nose like a dorsal fin) … but God forbid that we should call her lovely.
No …We were "concrete-ists" We felt with our fingers and saw with our eyes. We would write with earth bound view.
As is, we had an anthology of works to aid us catch the vision. Some of our poems were overtly sensual or perverse. Some were blatantly banal. Some glimpses into private worlds I didn't understand …. But more than a few hit me with real communicative force. They shot from the page down the optic nerve, all fast and direct and loaded with color. I liked the punch.
Our professor helped us shore up our understanding of the differences between abstract and concrete language by referencing Hemingway… a certain master of the concrete minimalism.
There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the name of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honour, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.
Now, I must admit, I am not a fan of Hemmingway or his bull-headed machismo. And I sense that there is more to his aversion for abstraction than mere taste. Hemmingway was a child of God fearing parents. For whatever reasons, Hemmingway lost faith. He chose the path of naturalism. He held only to a hard hitting world of present tense and sense. And if he would not bow to the Divine, neither would he use His words.
And that, for me, just won't make sense. Even so, I found something in both the words of Hemmingway (and the parameters of the class) that resonated with my soul (!)
Our professor scored with these points.
First: Abstract language tends to multiple meanings.
I have seen the leaflets of both the Contras and the Sandanistas. And they seem to have certain elements in common. Both carry photos of horrific scenes of carnage. And below that, a stamped a red letter word: JUSTICE. And the bodies look the same. Whatever justice means, in means a different enemy.
We see it too with words like DIGNITY. One group links it with the nobility of the fetus, another as an apologetic for chosen old age death, and still another, as a title for a group of catholic homosexuals seeking understanding. Whatever the use, we aren't talking about the same kind of dignity.
Second: Abstract language can be lazy.
If I go back to my aforementioned lovely girl, we all bring different ideas of loveliness. I think they are probably more alike than different, but the idea holds. Your picture mightn't be mine. Wouldn't it be more demanding and descriptive to put texture on that word; Let the reader see that she is lovely.
Finally - concrete language is more universal.
In fact, I've thought of it this way. As kids we start by naming things. Dada, dog, nose, etc. Then we move to ownership --- MINE, followed by the language of physiological sensation … Ouch, hungry …..sleepy. Later on we might move to the language of abstraction … and kids play the joke. "If you love cake, then you must marry it!
What then shall we say of God? If we struggle to grasp the meaning of love, a feeling anchored, at least in part in sensation … how shall we speak of Spirit, which is neither felt nor heard nor seen. How can we speak of such a thing? Are we all in the world of the Spirit? Like a Helen Keller without even touch?
And then it comes to me… There is no idea in my head, no matter how lofty or abstract, that did not first come through a portal of sense. Unless I have some way of knowing that I do not know about, every concept (be it metaphysical, complex or abstract) has been built form words or sensations gathered through eye, ear, fingertip, tongue or nose. Young knowledge of love had about it the pressure of lips on my cheek, or the sounds of "let me hold you.” Latter love might ring the same. If I now believe that God loves me … I must have some notion of what that means, and that in turn was built through a portal of sensation. How could I think, or hear, or believe otherwise? Are not even words, that convey ideas, anchored in sensations?
And now, for the finale …. I love a God, who caters to my senses. Not that he makes sense, but rather, anything I know about Him as been broken down and spoon fed to my soul through a pabulum of sensation. I eat no other way. I think or believe through no other means. And God … our sensual God makes sure that I do. He speaks to us on our level.
The bible says that God is love. And that is an ultimate-abstract. But before it ever whispers such a thing (near the end in one staccato burst) it plugs the idea time and time again.
Here is God, planting a world or walking in the Garden. Here is God talking face to face. Here is God, cutting the skin from animals and draping our nakedness.
Here is the flume of cloud by day or the tornado of fire by night. Here are the priests, cutting the meat and waving the wind of charred flesh at the air. Here is the smell of blood drained from the throat of a calf to bear my sins. Here is the palace of robes to store the law of God. Here is the year of Jubilee, to set me free from debt. Here is a finger posed in warning, cutting off the hair or scattering the seeds. Here is the power of redemption on a miracle of victory without a sword.
Of finally, Here is the God of Gods with sword in his side or nails in his wrists, like a kind of spring in the side of heaven. Here is the God who calls me his friend.
This is odd, the God who might start the Bible with a proclamation of his love, spends some millennia developing the idea through the avenues of sense and experience.
And He has not stopped.
Will he speak to me through his word …. Let him begin with the world, that I may understand his speech.