Giving Voice to the Voiceless Creation

Last week, I was honored by the opportunity to address the students, parents, and faculty of Greyfriars Classical School in Matthews, NC for the Convocation to mark the start of their academic year. I thought I’d use this blog to share the text of my talk, which brings together a lot of thoughts I’ve been ruminating on these past few months about creation, dominion, and the task of education.

I was blessed to grow up not far from here, in the Blue Ridge foothills of upstate South Carolina. I didn’t realize how spoiled and lucky I was until I moved back this year after fifteen years away, and found that I could awaken every morning to see the sun’s pink rays fall on Melrose Mountain and Tryon Peak.

When we came out in March to see about moving back, one of the first things my kids wanted me to tell them was the names of the mountains. “What’s that one over there called?” Thankfully, my memory did not fail me, reaching back a quarter century to when I asked my dad the same questions.  It’s always amazing to see my kids’ delight in being able to name things—mountains, trees, turtles—and to enthusiastically share their newfound knowledge with others. Of course, this is just what kids do; in fact, this is how they learn—it’s all about learning the names for things.

But it’s not just kids—this is what all learning is about. At every stage, we are learning to call things by their proper names. Even in describing complex processes, understanding comes when we are able to give them a name, and understand rightly what that name applies to. We learn to distinguish not only to distinguish turtles from tortoises and conifers from deciduous trees, but how to distinguish the moderate Enlightenment from the radical Enlightenment, to distinguish benign from cancerous tumors.

“Ok, so what’s the big deal?” you might ask. “I know my teachers make me memorize lots of terms, lots of names and dates and definitions.” What should be striking about this, however, is the way in which such naming is a source of delight. When my kids asked me to name those mountains, I found that not only did they delight in being able to call them by name, but so did I. To my wife, they were just pretty mountains. But to me, they were old friends: Black Balsam Knob, Shining Rock, Mt. Hardy, Old Sam Knob, even Rough Butt Bald.

Familiarity can breed contempt, as the saying goes, but familiarity can also breed love—one of C.S. Lewis’s four loves, in fact: storge. This love is expressed through naming—we call those whom we love by name, but I would argue, we also come to love those things that we are able to call by name.

Why is this? Why is naming so important to us? Well, I would argue, because that’s precisely what God made us for. What was the first thing that God had Adam do after he planted him in the garden? He gave every creature a name! Our own naming of the world is the way in which we participate in the Adamic task, and this is the sub-creative task of being image-bearers. Consider Ps. 147:4: “He determines the number of the stars; he gives to all of them their names.” Naming things is the divine prerogative; we name things because we have been called to image God and administer his kingship in the world.

I would argue that this is one of the central purposes of education—equipping us to name the world—and that unless we foreground it, we will inevitably fall into a functionalist model of education in which education really only makes sense for a few—and indeed for fewer and fewer in our age of gadgets.

There’s a passage from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring that offers us some profound insight into the purpose of education. The Fellowship is on their way south from Rivendell, and they awake one morning to find the Misty Mountains ahead of them rather than on their left.

“ ‘Dangerous or not, a real sunrise is mighty welcome,’ said Frodo, throwing back his hood and letting the morning light fall on his face.

‘But the mountains are ahead of us,’ said Pippin. ‘We must have turned eastwards in the night.’

‘No,’ said Gandalf. ‘But you see further ahead in the clear light. Beyond those peaks the range bends round south-west. There are many maps in Elrond’s house, but I suppose you never thought to look at them?’

‘Yes I did, sometimes,’ said Pippin, ‘but I don’t remember them. Frodo has a better head for that sort of thing.’

‘I need no map,’ said Gimli, who had come up with Legolas, and was gazing out before him with a strange light in his deep eyes. ‘There is the land where our fathers worked of old, and we have wrought the image of these mountains into many works of metal and of stone, and into many songs and tales. They stand tall in our dreams: Baraz, Zirak, Shathur.

‘Only once before have I seen them from afar in waking life, but I know them and their names, for under them lies Khazad-dum, the Dwarrowdelf, that is now called the Black Pit, Moria in the Elvish tongue. Yonder stands Barazinbar, the Redhorn, cruel Caradhras; and beyond him are Silvertine and Cloudyhead: Celebdil the White, and Fanuidhol the Grey, that we call Zirakzigil and Bundushathur.

‘There the Misty Mountains divide, and between their arms lies the deep-shadowed valley which we cannot forget: Azanulbizar, the Dimrill Dale, which the Elves call Nanduhirion…

‘Dark is the water of Kheled-zaram,’ said Gimli, ‘and cold are the springs of Kibil-nala. My heart trembles at the thought that I may see them soon.’”

Pippin here is your typical modern student—“Frodo has a much better head for such things.” From the functionalist standpoint, why not let the high-functioning do the task of navigating for you? Or better yet, let your smartphone do it—Pippin could’ve just said, “Hey Siri, give me directions to Mordor.” Of course, even from within this framework, we can critique it as short-sighted. Occasionally you really will be left to your own resources, and will regret not cultivating them. (This is Pippin’s plight in The Two Towers.)

But there is a bigger critique. Pippin’s lack of education leaves him not merely useless as a route-finder, but missing out on most of what makes this journey through Middle-earth meaningful. Contrast the clueless Pippin with Gimli and the “strange light” in his eyes. For Gimli, these mountains are not just interesting and impressive peaks on the horizon or points on a map. They are more like cherished old friends—he does not merely know about them, he knows them, intimately and personally. This despite the fact that he has almost no personal experience of them. Rather, Gimli’s knowledge is the result of, well, education. He has studied them in geography and history, he has seen them in art, wrought in works of metal and stone; he has heard them in music, sung of in many songs, and studied them in literature, told of in many tales.

However, what is the most striking feature of this passage? Well, it’s kind of excessive, isn’t it? Gimli doesn’t just name the mountains, he actually names each geographical feature three or four times, naming them in several different languages. Why? Well, we could just say that Tolkien was obsessed with languages and leave it at that. But why? Why should God want us to have multiple languages anyway? From a purely functional standpoint, it’s a real pain, as the builders at the Tower of Babel discovered. If our sole purpose was to navigate the world as efficiently as possible, then we should want no more than one name for any given thing, one language that everyone shares, so there’s no room for confusion.

But we were put on this earth not simply to make use of the world, not to find a way of converting it into the most effective tools for human purposes. Why were we put on this earth? Well, I imagine that a number of you here know well enough to answer in the words of Westminster Shorter Catechism #1: “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”

But how do we glorify and enjoy God? The Catechism doesn’t answer this directly, and many of us are liable to fall prey to a kind of pietism: we glorify and enjoy God by doing spiritual things: by reading the Bible, and praying, and worshipping, and obeying God’s commands. Indeed, the Catechism itself, read in isolation, could reinforce this tendency by moving directly to a consideration of Scripture. Before we encounter God in Scripture, however, we encounter God in the world. This was true of Adam and Eve, and it is still true of each one of us. We enjoy God by enjoying his glory and beauty that have been impressed upon creation and played out in history. This is what we are doing when we name his works—whether we’re rattling off different species of reptile or a list of English kings and queens. But this is not all. No, our calling as sons of Adam and daughters of Eve is much more exciting than that.

If we enjoy God by seeing him in his works, and naming what we see, we glorify him this way too. How so?

Let’s look at Psalm 19:

“The heavens declare the glory of God,
    and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
    and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
    whose voice is not heard.
Their voicegoes out through all the earth,
    and their words to the end of the world.
In them he has set a tent for the sun,”

We’re all familiar with these lines. But we also recognize that this is an elaborate metaphor. The day does not in fact speak. Nor does the night. You can stand there straining your ears all day long and you’ll never hear the sun make a peep, much less communicate in any known language. But who does speak? Well, the Psalmist of course! Here in Psalm 19, David gives voice to the voiceless heavens. He does the same thing in Psalm 104, at much greater length, describing the glory of God throughout the world.

Have you ever stopped to ask yourself, why did God make us able to speak? No other creature has the power of speech. Other creatures can communicate—they can send messages to one another, conveying their emotions or warning of danger. But they cannot, and do not attempt to, describe the world around them except insofar as it relates directly to them. They can tell one another, “Yo, come here, I found some good grub.” They can even—some of them at least—distinguish and describe between different forms of good grub. When the dolphins make all those noises, maybe they are saying “tuna tuna tuna tuna” or “herring herring herring,” but they have no ability or desire to talk about what tuna are in themselves—only as potential edibles.

From this standpoint, modern education seeks to reduce us to the level of animals. It wants us to learn to talk about the world solely from the standpoint of its utility for our human purposes. We know carrots as food, oil as fuel, silicon as potential microchips.

But this is not, I would argue, why God gave us the power of speech. God gave us the power of speech because he didn’t give it to the lower creation. The lower creation is shouting out God’s glory, but inaudibly, inarticulately. It is waiting for man to give it voice. That is why God can say of creation on each day “it is good,” but only after the creation of man “it is very good.” Without man to name and describe the voiceless creation, the glory of God will go undeclared. And because this creation is so rich and manifold, not just one name will do—we need a world’s worth of languages to properly express this glory.

The comet, the rose, the eagle, is waiting for the poet to give it voice. It is waiting for the psalmist, or for a poet like Gerard Manley Hopkins, who wrote,

“As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

“The world is charged with the glory of God,” as Hopkins says in another famous poem, but it is waiting for us to discover and declare that glory.

The same is true for mathematics. The triangle was waiting patiently and inarticulately for Pythagoras to announce his glorious theorem, the planets were waiting for Kepler’s Law of Planetary Motion and Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation. By rightly naming the creation, man brings to completion, to fruition, to glory God’s work.

What about history and literature? The great deeds of men and women in ages past were great in themselves, but they are incomplete without a chronicler or a bard. They are waiting for their Homer or their Lord Macaulay to give voice to their voiceless deeds, and in so doing, to unfold the hidden glory of God’s providential action. Indeed, the deeds of God’s image-bearers do more than that—they point to Jesus Christ, “the express image of the invisible God.” Hopkins continues his poem:

“I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace; that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

This is why you are here. This is why you have been called to learn. You are sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. You have been called to name the world, to give voice to the voiceless creation. You have been called to proclaim its glory and tell forth its story, and to repeat the tale of deeds that might otherwise lie buried and forgotten. You are the heralds of creation. And the best part is—God made you to do this. He knew this is what you were for, and so he made it to be a joy and a delight, not a chore. Sin does not take away our sight; it just turns it completely inward. We walk around the world staring pointlessly at our own bellies or at the inside of our own heads. When someone grabs our shoulder and says, “Look! There’s a butterfly!” or “there’s a hurricane!” or “there’s an oxidation-reduction reaction!” we are apt to shrug our shoulders and say, “How is that knowledge useful for me to get where I want to go?”

My hope is that in your year ahead at Greyfriars, you will learn more and more to look out in wide-eyed wonder at the world and embrace your Godlike and God-given vocation of naming the stars—and everything in the wide world beneath them. And in the process, may you find not merely delight, but Christ—playing in ten thousand places, to the glory of the Father.


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