Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A 'blooming, buzzing' world

In today's Science Times, Carol Kaesuk Yoon has an eloquent reflection, "Reviving the Lost Art of Naming the World."

In example after vivid example, Yoon describes numerous "studies that show that sorting and naming the natural world is a universal, deep-seated and fundamental human activity, one we cannot afford to lose because it is essential to understanding the living world, and our place in it."

[Image from today's New York Times, a 1990 illustration by Ernst Haeckel]

We have, it turns out, a deep attachment to particularity. Who hasn't walked around a room, holding a young toddler, and watching the delight and wonder as he names "door" and "window" and "sofa." Even better, "Mommy's chair," "Fluffy's box," "my big boy bed." The curtains open, and we are in a specific story, with these things and this cast. "Peek-a-boo," we tease, waiting for the joyous response, "Here I am!"

Here. I. Am.

I'm working on an article on the Trinity (thus the renewed energy for blogging -- also balancing the checkbook, Christmas shopping, spice-shelf alphabetizing, etc.), the doctrine that emerges in Christian reflection to explain what is revealed as we claim that Jesus is the Christ, that God is one, and that we are baptized into the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Yoon's article emphasizes how important naming is to knowing, how lost we are when we cannot distinguish this from that and, more pointedly, how we seem to have an even more fundamental need to name living things, an insight the tradition of Genesis knew well. I move around in a world of things I can name (my shirt, my cell phone, my house), but I know myself even more as I name those around me, which reveals my relationship to them -- Art and Pat's daughter, Rob's wife, Margie's mom.

Naming these does not negate my own identity, on the contrary, naming my world allows me to know my own particularity. Indeed, as that toddler names the world, one of the crucial names is his or her own, a gift of self that comes with the crisis of separation -- a separation that is crucial, as it makes self-knowledge possible.

Trinitarian theology is about this reflection, that the created world in all its many-ness is made in the image of an eternally triune God. Liberal theologians love this doctrine, because it insists that plurality is important. Conservative theologians love this doctrine, because it insists that distinctions are real, and will not be lost.

Sounds like we could all be on the same side here. In different ways, of course.