One of the best movies I have seen in some time is Arrival. Many presume this movie is simply about an alien encounter. However, the deeper narrative of the movie explores a simple, but fascinating question: How does language impact how we experience reality?
The plot of the movie unfolds with a growing tension between beings whose language is not conditioned by time and humanity with our language that is rooted in the sequential unfolding of time. It is only when these languages come together and are experienced in linguist Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams) that the plot is finally resolved as she experiences key, historical events from the future in one moment. (I will refrain from any more details in the event you haven’t seen the movie.)
When leaving the theater, I was left with the question, “How much is our understanding of the world we live in is limited by the language we speak and are there other languages that can help broaden our understanding and experience of creation?”
For the Christian, the answer to my question should be met with an immediate affirmation that there is a language that can help broaden our understanding and experience of creation. Catholicism has within its sacramental thought a clear language of time co-mingled with timelessness and the power of language (or The Word) to bring about a new reality.
For example, many sacred texts from other world religions and cultures present creation as an act of violence between warring gods. Christianity explores creation not as an act of violence, but as a non-violent “Word-Act” in which reality as we know it is spoken into existence. From this perspective, we can rightly speak of an “uncreated thought or thinker” that brought everything into existence through the expression of that thought. This is the simplified language of the theological concept that all of creation is a “Word-Act.”
Though this concept may seem new to some, the ongoing exploration of creation as a Word-Act is alive and well. For example, every time I hear someone speak of how the “Law of Gravity” can explain how creation can occur apart from God, the philosopher in me wants to ask, “So where did the ‘Law of Gravity’ come from?” Much of how we speak of the world, even in circles that reject God, gravitate to the language of pre-existing concepts that allow for the material world to exist. Again, much of our scientific exploration of creation presumes a type of Word-Act rooted in pre-existing “Laws” that govern our natural world.
In the sacramental theology of Catholicism, we encounter this idea of a creative Word-Act in profound ways. In regard to the Eucharist, we speak of the Words of Institution (This is my Body… This is my Blood) being spoke to gifts of bread and wine, bringing about a new reality that is no longer bread and wine, but Jesus’ Body and Blood in Sacramental Mode. This transformation (or Transubstantiation) echoes both the first creation and the promised new creation at the resurrection. In regard to the first creation, we encounter the Word-Act of God speaking a new reality into existence – The created world. In the resurrection, we hear of a New Heavens and New Earth – The created world completely re-created. Between those two realities is the Eucharist – Gifts of creation that are re-created through a Word-Act into a new reality. And through the Eucharist, we are re-created as the living Word of Christ’s Presence encounters the Word-Act of our existence, allowing for an opportunity for a transformation (or Transubstantiation) of the heart. Put another way, God not only “spoke” all of creation into existence, but continues to “speak” love into creation to both bring new things into existence and re-create that which has fallen within creation.
How does language impact how we experience reality? When the words “I love you” are spoken by someone we love, the words create a new reality that transforms who we are. When the words “I hate you” are spoken by someone we love, the words create a new reality that can evoke pain and sorrow. Our faith teaches us that God seeks to speak love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness into every human heart, allowing this Word-Act to spark a new creation, a re-creation in this world. May we allow those words to resonate within our soul, awakening a renewed faith in God, and bring into creation a new reality rooted in God’s sacred Word.