Language is at the heart of Creation. Because we are created in the image of God who spoke and created intelligible matter, our language mirrors Creation in a hazy, incomplete way. Our speech calls into existence names and creates a narrative to link together our experiences in a coherent way. A life without words is impossible for us to envision.

On December 24, 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 read in turn from the Book of Genesis as they orbited the Moon. William Anders read, “And God said, ‘Let there be light: and there was light,’” probably for Christians the most well-known passage from the Hebrew Bible, and one of the most ambiguous ideas in theology. At the time of the flyby of Apollo 8, I was an atheist; that God merely spoke and light appeared made no sense to me; that later His Speech brought into existence, the stars, the Earth, plants, fish, birds, and land animals, including man, was incomprehensible to me. I suspected that was the case for most Christians, maybe even for the great theologians Augustine and Aquinas. I had no idea, then, that language is at the heart of nature and human life, nor did I know that the origin of science was in Christianity, for the history of science taught to me was an Enlightenment rewrite that portrayed Galileo at an intellectual hero casting off the fetters of the Church.

Astronomy and the Book of Genesis

Copernicus began astronomy where the ancient Greeks could not, with the book of Genesis. From Revelation, Copernicus concluded that the cosmos was fashioned by “the Best and Most Orderly Workman of all.”[1] Consequently, the cosmos must be intelligible and beautiful. Copernicus’ main critique of ancient astronomers, of Ptolemy and his disciples, is that they did not discover the chief point of astronomy, the beautiful form of the cosmos. The geocentric cosmos of antiquity lacks unity, and the parts are not harmonious; each planet is a separate entity, moving without relationship to the others. Copernicus likened a Ptolemaic astronomer to an artist taking hands, feet, head, and limbs from his different drawings of humans, each part beautifully drawn, and assembling them together; the result was a monster since no two parts matched. From Genesis, Copernicus deduced that the Ptolemaic cosmos must be wrong.

The second principle that Copernicus drew out of Genesis was that since man and woman were made in the image of God, natural philosophers can discover “the truth in all things, in so far as God has granted that to human reason.”[2]

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-28)

In Book One of On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (1543), Copernicus hurries to persuade the reader of the truth of the heliocentric cosmos; he offers as overwhelming proof the harmony and proportion of such a universe when seen from the outside, from God’s vantage point. (See illustration.[3]) Copernicus exclaims, “How exceedingly fine is the godlike work of the Best and Greatest Artist!”[4] We laypersons can see the truth of the heliocentric cosmos by simply looking at the illustration of the cosmos.

Following Copernicus, we immediately grasp that in a heliocentric cosmos, the Earth is a planet, a wandering star: “The center of the Earth too traverses that great orbital circle among the other wandering stars in an annual revolution around the Sun.”[5] No longer are the stars remote; we are riding on one in our annual traverse around the Sun.

From God’s vantage point, we see that the Aristotelian division of matter into celestial and terrestrial is wrong. The Earth is a wandering star, so either the Earth is divine or the stars are mundane like the Earth. The Earth, clearly, is mundane; thus, the stars must be too. In the Copernican cosmos, the planets and the Earth move in perfect circles. Somehow the mundane matter of the Earth must have regular mathematical properties and thus must be intelligible.[6]

The truth of the heliocentric cosmos gave rise to a pressing problem. The mathematical properties of a shovelful of dirt are not obvious.

The Language of Matter

Although Galileo’s telescope revealed that moons orbit Jupiter and thus offered evidence for the correctness of the Copernican system of the Sun and planets, his inclined plane experiment to determine how terrestrial bodies accelerate touched nature deeper. For the first time in history, Galileo showed that terrestrial matter obeys mathematical laws, a more powerful confirmation of the heliocentric universe than the observation of the moons of Jupiter.

Galileo enunciated the grand vision of the Copernican Revolution and thus modern science: “The grand book [of] the universe, which stands continually open to our gaze…. is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it; without these, one wanders about in a dark labyrinth.”[7]

The mathematical nature of the universe is astounding. Except for the vague, mystical theories of Pythagoras, the ancients never envisioned that terrestrial phenomena obey mathematical laws. Earthly motion is bafflingly complex, and unlike the Sun and Moon, the prediction of the future of anything on Earth seems impossible. It is far from evident that a projectile on Earth traverses a parabolic path, that the colors of the rainbow exhibit a simple mathematical pattern, and that underlying the bewildering, everyday world of chemical changes, such as the rusting of iron or the burning of sugar, are simple, mathematical rules.

Nature is not just sort of mathematical; it is staggeringly so. Newton verified the law of gravity with a four-percent accuracy; subsequently, the law was determined to be accurate to a ten-thousandth of a percent. Modern physics experiments are unbelievably accurate. Consider the magnetic moment of an electron, which is something like the force of a tiny magnet. Its value in certain units that are not important for the present discussion is around 1. The experimental value is 1.001159652188, with an uncertainty of about 4 in the last digit; the value calculated from the theory of quantum electrodynamics is 1.00115965214, with an uncertainty of about 3 in the last digit. This agreement between theory and experiment is like the measured and the calculated distance between New York and Los Angeles agreeing within the width of a human hair.[8] “The numerical agreement between theory and experiment here is perhaps the most impressive in all science,” physicist Steven Weinberg declares.[9] The mathematical nature of the universe is truly amazing.

The uncanny accuracy with which theoretical physics describes nature led Einstein to say, “The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible.”[10]

Physicist Eugene Wigner succinctly describes the three miracles that science relies upon: “The miracle that the human mind can string a thousand arguments together without getting itself into contradiction… [and] the two miracles of the existence of laws of nature and of the human mind’s capacity to divine them.”[11]

Wigner calls these “miracles” because no scientist has even a bad idea to offer about how mind could evolve out of matter and then come to comprehend the deep mathematical structure of matter. Not one neuroscientist has proposed even a goofy mechanism for how a complex arrangement of neurons in the human brain can give rise to the Ricci curvature tensor of general relativity or to the Hilbert spaces of quantum mechanics, nor has any evolutionary psychologist shown how the Schrödinger equation resulted from the reproductive success of our ancestors on the African savannah.

Divine Speech

Once the truth that no arrangement of matter can produce mind is acknowledged, then the most straightforward explanation of these three miracles is that the universe results from the Divine Mind and that in some way the human mind is akin to the Divine Mind. Reflecting on the mathematical structure of the universe, physicist Paul Dirac suggests, “It seems to be one of the fundamental features of nature that fundamental physical laws are described in terms of a mathematical theory of great beauty and power, needing quite a high standard of mathematics for one to understand it… One could perhaps describe the situation by saying that God is a mathematician of a very high order, and He used very advanced mathematics in constructing the universe.”[12]

The only clue we have about the origin of the universe’s amazing mathematical structure comes from the book of Genesis. From primordial chaos, from a formless, undifferentiated, watery substance, God spoke and created intelligible matter. In His Speech, a complete mystery to us humans, the word and the deed are identical, the word and the creative act are the same.

The Language of Life

Every herder and farmer, since the domestication of animals and the inception of agriculture, knew an offspring resembles its parents, but Gregor Mendel was the first person to discover the laws of inheritance. Mendel, a Czech monk, published, in 1866, the paper “Experiments on Plant Hybridization” in the obscure journal Proceedings of the Natural History Society of Brünn. Unread until the early 1900s, Mendel’s seminal work earned its author the title “father of modern genetics.” Mendel showed experimentally that specific traits, such as the color of a pea, or the smoothness or roughness of its skin, could be inherited independently of one another and that the laws of inheritance are written in terms of simple, whole numbers. The new science of genetics introduced into biology the idea of genes, the units that transmit specific traits, such as eye color, from one generation to the next.

How genes are stored in an organism was unknown until 1953, when Francis Crick and James Watson announced that the physical structure of the DNA molecule, the basis of heredity in all six kingdoms of living things, is a double helix. (See illustration.) Strictly speaking, the physical structure of DNA is part of the language of matter; Crick and Watson analyzed crystallographic data to discover the structure of DNA.

The four bases always form two pairs, A–T and G–C.

Chemical analysis showed that DNA is made up of four bases, adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine—abbreviated A, G, C, and T. These four bases always form two pairs, A–T and G–C, so that the amount of A equals T and that of G equals C. (See illustration.) A DNA sequence is a side-by-side arrangement of bases along a DNA strand (for example, ATTCCGGAT). The order of the bases of an organism’s genome (its total complement of DNA) spells out the precise blueprints and exact instructions required to create a particular organism with its unique traits.

In 1977, Frederick Sanger and his colleagues at the Medical Research Council in Cambridge, England decoded one of the first genomes, that of an extremely small bacterial virus. The representation of its 5,386-base-pair genome in terms of A, G, C, and T filled one page of small print.[13] More than 500,000 such pages would be needed to similarly display the human genome made of 3 billion base pairs that contain approximately 30,000 genes. The human genome totals six feet of DNA in length. Since there are 1013 cells in a human being, the total length of DNA in a human being is 10 billion miles! The Earth is about 93 million miles from the Sun.

Through a series of complex biochemical steps in the cell, the information encoded in a gene is used to produce one or more proteins. Called the “workhorses” of the cell, proteins carry out most of the functions of a living system. For example, the catalyzing protein hexokinase carries out the first step in capturing the energy in glucose and changing it into a form the body can use; the protein collagen makes up most of the skin; the protein rhodopsin initiates vision. The building blocks of proteins are twenty amino acids.[14] A protein chain typically has anywhere from fifty to one thousand amino acids.

The information for a cell to make a protein chain is written in the genetic code, a comma-less, triplet code. A set of three bases determine an amino acid; for example, the codon TTA on DNA determines the amino acid leucine. (See the DNA codon table in the endnote.[15]) A string of triplets specifies the full sequence of amino acids in a protein chain.

The distinguished evolutionary biologist George Williams points out that “a gene is not a DNA molecule; it is the transcribable information coded by the gene,”[16] or said another way, “a gene is a package of information, not an object. The pattern of base pairs in a DNA molecule specifies the gene. But the DNA molecule is the medium, it’s not the message.”[17] Information theorist Hubert Yockey concurs: “The genetic message… is nonmaterial but must be recorded in matter or energy.”[18]

Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist, describes the language of life: “What lies at the heart of every living thing is not a fire, not warm breath, not a ‘spark of life.’ It is information, words, instructions.”[19]

Unlike atomic elements and chemical compounds that arise by physical or chemical necessity directed by the language of matter, organisms are built according to genetic instructions. Matter does not need special instructions to manufacture a snowflake or a sodium chloride crystal, but matter has no innate inclination to produce a petunia or a cat, any more than it has an innate inclination to produce a chair or a microchip. Matter must be directed to produce a petunia or a cat cell by cell, protein by protein, through a blueprint and instructions encoded in DNA, through the language of life, through “information, words, instructions.”

If scientists mapped the cat genome (the Cat-Word) in biochemical notion, it would look something like this: ACCTGG… and so on for some 3 billion bases. These encoded blueprint and instructions are the same as those in the cat; however, the chemical-notation code can never make a cat, because of the absence of an information processor that can express Cat-Word. The identical information inside a fertilized cat ovum is written in terms of chemicals that are potentially active and occurs in a cell that can read and articulate Cat-Word. When the proper conditions are present, the material of the fertilized ovum becomes active, beginning complex chemical processes headed toward the production of a kitten.

The seemingly infinite variety of objects that surround us arise either from matter acting out of physical necessity or from the nonmaterial (words, information) directing matter to some end. The quartz crystal on my desk is a continuous framework of linked silicon–oxygen tetrahedra and is a consequent of geological processes. The chamisa in golden bloom in my front patio, the turkey vultures I occasionally see circling overhead on an afternoon updraft, the coyote that snoops around my garden every morning, and I embody the nonmaterial in different ways. Biologically, each of us is an expression of Chamisa-Word, Turkey-Vulture-Word, Coyote-Word, and Human-Word, respectively.

Every living organism that you and I encounter is the result of either a spoken Animal-Word or Plant-Word. These Words cannot be a result of the language of matter, because they are nonmaterial: “Information is information, not matter or energy.”[20] We live in a world of Divine Speech. Clouds, mountains, deserts, and oceans are Divine Speech; aspens, junipers, hawks, and squirrels are Divine Speech. Language is at the heart of Creation.

Human Speech

We humans are the only creatures to possess speech. Animals have the shadow of language. Ants communicate through smell, bees through dance, and chimpanzees through sound and gesture, but animal communication is not a diminished version of human language. The numerous attempts to teach chimpanzees American Sign Language ended in failure: The signing of the chimps lacked syntax. Robert Sapolsky, a primatologist and neuroscientist, explains why nonhuman primates cannot learn any language. Only the brain of Homo sapiens has Broca and Wernicke areas, the regions needed for language production and comprehension, respectively. The brains of the other primates, including chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos, orangutans, and rhesus monkeys, have only the beginning of these structures, a mere cortical thickening.[21]

Language is so much a part of our lives that we find it impossible to envision a life without words. Helen Keller gives us a glimpse of how the world is experienced in the absence of language. When she was 19 months old, an acute disease, possibly scarlet fever or meningitis, left her blind and deaf. She soon “felt the need of some communication with others and began to make crude signs. A shake of the head meant ‘No’ and a nod, ‘Yes,’ a pull meant ‘Come’ and a push ‘Go.’ Was it bread [she] wanted? Then [she] would imitate the acts of cutting the slices and buttering them.”[22]

Without language, Helen’s interior life had been limited to sense perception, motor skills, tactile memory, and associations. She had neither will nor intellect and had been “carried along to objects and acts by a certain blind natural impetus.” She had felt anger, desire, and satisfaction; however, she had never “loved or cared for anything.” She describes her inner life then as “a blank without past, present, or future, without hope or anticipation, without wonder or joy.”[23]

Ms. Keller reported that the digital sign language she learned from Anne Sullivan “made me conscious of love, joy, and all the emotions. I was eager to know, then to understand, afterward to reflect on what I knew and understood, and the blind impetus, which had before driven me hither and thither at the dictates of my sensations, vanished forever.”[24] She no longer lived an animal life; language freed her to be human.

Without language, the mental capacities that Ms. Keller, you, and I were born with would have not developed, and our lives would have not been much higher than that of an animal. Therefore, one given of human life is that we are social beings and always in need of others, not just for the growth of our interior life but for our physical well-being also. In our highly technological society, no person understands or knows how to produce everything that he or she consumes or uses in a single day. Who knows how to grow broccoli, make eyeglasses, weave cloth, and generate electricity? The community of humans supplies all our needs.

The community of humankind supplies all our needs. The farmer is given the fruits of five thousand years of experimentation with the growing of crops; the poet, the poetry of Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare; the physicist, the understanding of Newton, Einstein, and Bohr. No farmer, no poet, or no physicist could ever pay for all the gifts he or she receives. But each of us can humbly accept what is freely given, preserve and add to it if possible, and then pass it on to others. When we understand ourselves as parts of a whole and recognize that our lives are possible only because of the group, we see that such destructive emotions as anger, envy, and self-pity are contrary to our social nature, and we willingly work for a community life that promotes peace, cooperation, and generosity.

Because we are created in the image of God, our language can mirror Creation in a hazy, incomplete way. God spoke forth the creatures of the water, land, and air; later, Adam named them. Like Adam, our speech calls into existence names. To name is to classify, to order in some way. When we name a three-side rectilinear figure as “triangle,” we collect together a group of geometric figures that is distinct from all others. Such collection and division reveal our rational nature.

Our entire linguistic world of ideas may or may not correspond to reality. Because we are only an image of God, our natural sciences are, at best, an image of His Creation. We creatures of God are limited; we cannot grasp the complexity of the whole of Creation, and thus, we rely primarily upon storytelling, such as given in Genesis and by philosophic and scientific worldviews told much later.

For instance, Aristotle thought that the universe was eternal and that the moving patterns of the stars and the terrestrial cycles of generation and corruption repeated themselves forever. Furthermore, he believed that plants and animals possessed an inner agency that caused them to emulate the Prime Mover (Aristotle’s version of God); every plant and animal desired full actuality and that caused seeds and fertilized ova to grow into adult organisms. Also, each plant and animal desired immortality, but the instability of matter prevented that, so a plant or an animal settled for what was second best, reproduction of itself to continue its species, and that explained the cycles of generation and corruption found throughout nature. The great principle of nature was not material causation but love.

Modern scientists, in the main, are committed to materialism, where every object as well as every act in the universe is matter, an aspect of matter, or produced by matter. The concrete form of this materialism is “the universe, including all aspects of human life, is the result of the interactions of little bits of matter.”[25] Life is a mechanical phenomenon. Rain falls; water seeps into the ground; its absorption by a seed starts a chemical reaction; the seed sprouts, eventually sunlight impinges upon the new leaves; the resulting photochemical reaction supplies the energy for further growth. In a similar mechanical manner, the plant reaches maturity, reproduces, and dies. The development of an animal fits into the same mechanical scheme; a fertilized ovum replaces the seed, and food plays the part of sunlight.

In the Aristotelian worldview, the Big Bang and the evolution of plants and animals are absurd. In the modern scientific worldview, the determinism of matter means human free choice and thus science are absurd.[26] Differing worldviews, contrary opinions about human nature, and imaginative literature demonstrate that through language we freely create.

As we have seen, because we have speech, we are social, rational, and free; arguably, our speech is an image of God’s Speech; however, unlike His Speech, our words and deeds are not identical; we must implement our words. For example, the rocket engines, the onboard computer, the life support system, and the physical structure of Apollo 8 existed first in speech, in ideas, in blueprints, and in schematics. Wernher von Braun, the Director of the Marshall Space Flight Center, did not speak into existence the Saturn V super heavy-lift launch vehicle that propelled the Apollo 8 spacecraft to the Moon; the launch vehicle resulted from the collective speech and effort of thousands of scientists, engineers, and technicians.

The Self Is Spoken into Existence

We do speak into existence one thing—ourselves. Without inner speech, we have no self, a surprising fact Helen Keller discovered on her own. She said, “Before my teacher came to me, I did not know that I am.”[27] After Helen learned manual sign language, she became determined to communicate with others as normally as possible and learned to speak aloud. (See Helen Keller speaking with the help of Anne Sullivan.) As a child, her inner speech was spelling to herself on her fingers, but when she learned to speak aloud, her inner speech did not differ that much from yours or mine.

In our inner speech, the life narrative we tell ourselves integrates the events of everyday life into a coherent whole, in which we are both narrator and the main character. Without a narrative to link together experiences, our memories of events would not last, even if intense.[28]

When we tell others who we are, we tell our life story, what has made us who we are and what we hope to become. Our idea of our self is a narrative about our successes and failures, our hopes and fears, our joys and sorrows, a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. We care intensely about the narrative of our life and cast ourselves as the central character, even as the hero, of what we hope is a good story. Maybe, we tell ourselves and others how in the third grade we refused to learn the multiplication tables and our father scolded us, or how in the eleventh grade we tricked Sally Burnham, the most popular girl in school, into accepting our invitation to the Junior Prom, or how in college we learned to praise wine, women, and song.

For all of us, our life is a story that imposes a coherent structure on incongruent experiences, not that at times, like Macbeth, we think that our life is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”[29] Yet, we constantly seek meaning to our lives by highlighting certain events, ignoring others, and seeing stages and causal connections that add up to more than a tale told by an idiot.

We repeatedly tell our life narrative, adding layer upon layer, incorporating new experiences into our stories, and often embellishing past events to such a degree that they become distorted or even fictitious. Like young children, we develop intense attachments to certain memories, revisiting them again and again, for weeks, months, and even years. In this way, our self both solidifies and changes. Hence, the self is not a static thing or a substance just waiting to be known.

Memories Are Not Trustworthy

Our life narratives are not entirely of our own making. As infants, we do not enter life as isolated, autonomous individuals, but as members of a family and as participants in the surrounding culture. Others instruct us how to behave and teach us what is important in life; the world assigns us a unique node in a social web. Psychologist Jerome Bruner elaborates: “When we enter human life, it is as if we walk on stage into a play whose enactment is already in progress—a play whose somewhat open plot determines what parts we may play and toward what dénouements we may be heading.”[30] The English word “person” is derived from the Latin persona and the Greek prosopon, words that originally meant the masks worn by actors on stage.

Our memories of past events are not sealed within our skulls immune from external influence. When we tell parts of our life narrative to others, we enhance those parts that others respond to positively and delete those parts that others dislike. Our desire to tell a good story changes our life narrative.

When a young mother shows to her child pictures on her cellphone of their trip to Disneyland and says, “Annie, you had such a great time talking to Mickey Mouse; that was the best part of your summer,” she is implanting a memory in her child.[31]

Memories are not like a read-only computer file stored in the brain, and remembering is not like retrieving an uncorrupted digital document of our history faithfully and permanently recorded. Daniel Offer and his colleagues at the Northwestern University Medical School, examined “the differences between memories adults had of their teenage years and what they actually said when they were interviewed as adolescents” thirty-four years before. “The subjects’ recollections were about the same as would have been expected by chance… the accuracy of recalled memories was uniformly poor.”[32] The subjects, all male, had only two memories that accorded with what they said as adolescences: the expectation of earning more money than the father and the importance of having a girlfriend.

Recently, I received from a childhood friend a photograph of our third-grade class in 1944. I was shocked to see forty-two pupils, for I remembered the class as no more than eighteen students. I recollected that my classmates and I were from the solid middle class; so, I was surprised to see that most of the girls wore homemade dresses and scuffed shoes and that the boys had on well-worn clothes, except for two boys with ties, Joey Prinko and Patrick O’Neill, my two best friends, both of whom I had no difficulty recognizing. I immediately recalled that once when clowning around with them, I broke a bottle I held. I still have the scars on my index and middle fingers of my right hand. The memory of this foolish episode has been embellished from years of retelling to myself and to others, probably like the childhood scars on my soul; yet, the scars confirm certain events happened.

Furthermore, our memories are limited. I look at my face every day in the mirror while shaving, yet cannot find in my memory an image of my face in the mirror, though I can easily remember a photo taken of me last summer seated outdoors at Restaurant Counterculture with a glass of red wine on the table in front of me. I can recall with clarity great photographs by Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, and Dorothea Lange I had seen years before, but I cannot see in my mind’s eye scenes I had personally seen the previous week. In the same vein, I cannot recall with vividness the restaurants and bars I frequent. Rick’s Café Américain in Casablanca, Morocco is more real to me than the Eldorado Hotel bar in Santa Fe, New Mexico; at will, I can recall a vivid image of Sam, the black piano player at Rick’s, while my image of Señor Mendoza, the guitarist at the Eldorado, is feeble at best. I do not think I am an anomaly with a quirky memory. When we are in the world, we experience too much to remember—sights, sounds, tastes, and smells, all constantly changing. The camera, both still and motion, drops out virtually everything we experience, and this depleted world—that of images—can easily be stored in and recalled from memory.

Two summers ago, I visited a friend who lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts. When I returned to Santa Fe from Cape Cod, I had vivid, physical memories; I could feel my toes in beach sand, the glaring sun in my eyes, and the smell of sea breeze. The more I told these memories to myself and friends, the weaker the concrete memories became, until now they exist only in speech.[33] With the possible exceptions of wine connoisseurs, painters, and musicians, most of whom maintain that certain things are better left unsaid, verbalization erodes concrete experience until it is replaced by speech. Hence, our life narratives are based on untrustworthy memories that are a shadow of concrete experience.

The Spiritual Obstacles Induced by Inner Speech

No matter what the culture or what the era, every human being goes through three stages of the acquisition of speech: public, private, and inner. At eighteen months, we participated in public or social speech, when we begged, threatened, and asked questions. From two to seven years of age, we engaged in private speech, spoken aloud to our self and not intended for or directed to others. We gave a running discourse on what we were doing. While drawing, we may have said out loud to ourselves, “I need a blue pencil.” When we were around seven years old, our private speech went “underground” and became inner speech.[34]

As we have seen, with inner speech, we speak our self into being by constructing a life narrative that integrates our experiences into a coherent whole. Our life storytelling, in which we are both narrator and main character, necessarily makes us the center of existence to which everything is ordered, and thus is at odds with reality; God is the center of all existence, not the self we constructed through inner speech, the self exiled to East of Eden.

Given that God is the Unnamable [35], the image of God within us means that the essence of each one of us is unnamable and that we are known to others only through our activity in the world, that is, through our constructed self. We are unknowable to ourselves, although through meditation, we can witness our thoughts, memories, and storytelling, and thus know that we are not what we witness; we are not our inane thoughts, our untrustworthy memories, or our fanciful storytelling.

At the core of our being is the unnamable, the “empty mind” of Zen Buddhism, the “pure consciousness” of Hinduism, and the “spirit” of Christianity, although all words ultimately fail to capture our Self spoken by God. We, the unenlightened, believe that the self we constructed is permanent and fail to see that this self is an illusion, no more permanent than a smoke ring, destined to vanish with the death of the body. Our Self spoken by God is always present, completely perfect with no need for development from us; we must merely step aside. Our spoken self is egotistic and thus faulty by nature and always in need of betterment.

Inner speech induces two primary obstacles to the spiritual life: 1) Our spoken self, by nature egotistic, takes itself to be God and confidently declares what is true, good, and beautiful; and 2) Inner speech never ceases, and thus we cannot hear other persons, experience nature, or encounter God.

Every spiritual master calls for the death of our spoken self and a spiritual rebirth beyond egoistic desires, beyond religious practices, beyond any given culture, beyond the dictates of society, into the law of love, into compassion for every living being.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus preaches that we follow a path in the world that is a direct assault upon our spoken self: “I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take you coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.”[36] If we love our enemies, if we do good to those who hate us, if we bless those who curse us, and if we pray for those who abuse us, expecting nothing in return,[37] then our Self spoken by God is present in the world; the image of God in us has displaced our spoken self, or in the words of St. Paul, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”[38]

Silence and self-forgetfulness are at the heart of Christian mysticism. Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite reports, apparently from his own experience, that the higher we soar in contemplation “the more our words are confined to the ideas we are capable of forming; so that now as we plunge into that darkness which is beyond the intellect, we shall find ourselves not simply running short of words but actually speechless and unknowing.”[39] The contemplative, then, experiences God while simultaneously aware that in His essence God transcends contemplation.


Human life has a strange trajectory. All of us start off speechless with a world no larger than our mother’s arms and breasts. As toddlers, we lived an animal life; when our desires were not immediately met, we grew angry and cried. Like the blind-and-deaf child Helen Keller, we had no “I,” no past or future. We learned a language, engaged in private speech that eventually went underground to become inner speech that regulated our behavior and actions. Through language, we acquired an “I” instilled with cultural values. Our inner speech is usually an unceasing commentary on the choices and actions of others and ourselves. A few of us, not necessarily saints, stilled our inner speech, transcended human life, and egoless in silence experienced the presence of God; those happy few followed a trajectory that began speechless and with an extremely narrow animal life and ended speechless with a vast spiritual life that touches God.

Republished with gracious permission from All the Light We Can See (2020).

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[1] Nicolaus Copernicus, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, trans. R. Catesby Taliaferro in Great Books of the Western World (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1939), vol. 16, p. 508.

[2] Ibid., p. 506.

[3] All illustrations are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and are in the public domain.

[4] Ibid., p. 529.

[5] Ibid., p. 525.

[6] For a detailed discussion of what Copernicus wrought, see George Stanciu, “The Copernican Revolution: The Defining Event of Modernity.”

[7] Galileo, “The Assayer,” in Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1957), pp. 237-238.

[8] All the numbers for the properties of an electron in this paragraph are from Steven Weinberg, Dreams of a Final Theory (New York: Pantheon, 1992), pp. 114-115.

[9] Ibid, p. 115.

[10] Albert Einstein, quoted by Banesh Hoffman and Helen Dukas, Albert Einstein, Creator and Rebel (New York: Viking Press, 1972), p. 18.

[11] Eugene P. Wigner, “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences,” Communications in Pure and Applied Mathematics 13 (February 1960) in Wigner’s collection of essays Symmetries and Reflections: Scientific Essays (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1967).

[12] P. A. M. Dirac, “The Evolution of the Physicist’s Picture of Nature,” Scientific American 208 (May 1963): 53.

[13] Robert Cook-Deegan, The Gene Wars: Science, Politics, and the Human Genome (New York: Norton, 1994), p. 62.

[14] The twenty amino acids are alanine (ala), arginine (arg), asparagine (asn), aspartic acid (asp), cysteine (cys), glutamine (gln), glutamic acid (glu), glycine (gly), histidine (his), isoleucine (ile), leucine (leu), lysine (lys), methionine (met), phenylalanine (phe), proline (pro), serine (ser), threonine (thr), tryptophan (trp), tyrosine (tyr), and valine (val).

[15] Below is the DNA codon table. Many amino acids are represented in the table by more than one codon. For instance, there are six different ways to write leucine in the language of DNA.

[16] George C. Williams, Natural Selection: Domains, Levels, and Challenges (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 11.

[17] George C. Williams, “A Package of Information,” in The Third Culture, ed. John Brockman (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), p. 43. Italics added.

[18] Hubert. P. Yockey, Information Theory, Evolution, and the Origin of Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005) 2nd edition, p. 7.

[19] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (New York: Norton, 2015 [1986]), p. 159. Dawkins, an evangelical atheist, is one step from a modern, sympathetic reading of Genesis.

[20] Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, (Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press, 1961), 2nd edition, p. 132.

[21] For a witty, short history of the efforts to teach American Sign Language to nonhuman primates, listen to the last twenty-five minutes of Robert Sapolsky, Human Behavioral Biology, Lecture 23 On Language.

Human speech also requires the correct anatomy, see Philip Lieberman, Why Human Speech Is Special, The Scientist (July 1, 2018).

[22] Helen Keller, The Story of My Life (Mineola, New York: Dover, 1996 [1903]).

[23] Helen Keller, The World I Live In (New York: The Century Co., 1904,1908).

[24] Ibid.

[25] H. Allen Orr, “Awaiting a New Darwin,” The New York Review of Books, 60, No. 2 (February 7, 2013).

[26] For a detailed discussion of why materialism denies the possibility of any science, see George Stanciu, “Determinism: Science Commits Suicide.”

[27] Keller, The World I Live In.

[28] See Gordon H. Bower and Michal C. Clark, “Narrative Stories as Mediators for Serial Learning,” Psychonomic Science (1969) 14 (4).

[29] Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5, line 30.

[30] Jerome Bruner, Acts of Meaning (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), p. 34.

[31] For a scientific study of implanted memories, see I. E. Hyman, Jr. and J. Pentland, “The Role of Mental Imagery in the Creation of False Childhood Memories,” Journal of Memory and Language (1996) 35 (2): 101–17.

[32] Daniel Offer, Marjorie Kaiz, Kenneth L. Howard, and Emily S. Bennett, “The Altering of Reported Experiences,” Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (June 2000), 39 (6): 735-42.

[33] See Jonathan W. Schooler and Tonya Engstler-Schooler, “Verbal Overshadowing of Visual Memories: Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid,” Cognitive Psychology 22 (1990): 36-71.

[34] See Lev Vygotsky, Language and Thought, rev. and ed. Alex Kozulin (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1986), pp. 232-235

[35] For a detailed discussion of why God is the Unnamable, see George Stanciu, “Death and Blind Hopes.”

[36] Matt 5:39.

[37] A paraphrase of Luke 6:28, 6:35.

[38] Galatians 2:20. RSV

[39] Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Mystical Theology, in Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, trans. Colm Luibheid (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 1033B.

The featured image is a detail from The Creation of Adam (c. 1511) by Michelangelo (1475–1564) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.

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