I love Languages Week at Saint Ignatius, and not only for the semi-controlled mayhem of the Chariot Races on the Mall. I love the fact that we put a spotlight on one of the most important things that anyone can ever learn - the language of another person. Language is the only hope that we have for any kind of peace and harmony on a global level because language is necessarily linked with the one thing that humans have at their disposal that separates us from the brute force of the animal world: logos.
Those who have sat in my class or have a cursory knowledge of these blog entries know that logos is my version of a Nolan Ryan fastball. All difficult questions can be answered by leaning back and throwing the high hard one known as logos.
Logos is the Greek term used by St. John the Evangelist to describe the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. Sadly, St. Jerome flattened the globe of Logos into a circle when he translated it into Latin as Verbum. To translate Logos as “Word” takes away any depth of meaning that all Greek philosophers since Heraclitus saw in the term as they tried to explain the rational intellect of the divine.
The upside of using the term Verbum is that it reminds us of the creation story in the Book of Genesis. God creates through His Verbum - He speaks, and it happens. The subtle presence of the work of the Blessed Trinity is made clearer when we see that the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity is the Verbum spoken by God when He brings creation into existence. And when we note that God’s Ruah, the Hebrew for “Spirit,” is also involved, then we see the Trinity acting as One even at the very beginning of the universe.
Sadly, the state of perfect Logos had a short lifespan, and within eleven chapters, God needed to intervene in the affairs of mankind first by sending Adam and Eve away from Eden and the Tree of Life and then by bringing about the great flood that allowed for a worldwide do-over. Then, following quickly on the heels of that second beginning, He had to bring down the Tower of Babel and, with it, the universal language of all mankind.
Since that time, humans have dealt positively with this state of affairs by, on the one hand cultivating languages along ethnic lines and, on the other hand, trying to overcome it by both learning other languages as well as creating a lingua franca or “common language.” It is no surprise that the port at Piraeus in Athens was the hub of the lingua franca of the Greco-Roman culture from the time of Alexander the Great until the early Byzantines. Known as Koine (“Common”) Greek, it enabled Greek and Roman culture and commerce to flourish. Because it was the language of the New Testament, Koine was both the source and vehicle of early Christian evangelization and theological inquiry.
But humans have also dealt negatively with the proliferation of languages and their cultures by trying to get rid of them. Ever wonder why the Irish speak English and not Irish? Ethnos without logos causes mankind to revert to the law of the jungle where might makes right. Ethnos within logos calls each ethnic group to respect the others because logos grounds their beliefs and actions in logic, reason, natural law, or whatever other terms people use to describe the dominion of the Mind of God over His Creation.
Because today’s lingua franca of culture and commerce is English, and maybe even “American” English, we have a unique opportunity to be a voice for logos both at home and abroad. To paraphrase Jim Skerl’s statement about an Ignatius education, our privileged place in the world as speakers of the present-day lingua franca should make us better for others rather than make us think that we are better than others.
Ours is a nation without any specific ethnos, but we are united - or need to be united - under the authority of logos in the form of our Constitution, our laws, and our core rights and responsibilities. This frees us to undertake the learning of other languages and cultures without fear of undermining or lessening our own.
If all Americans are guided by one vision of logos in a world where almost every ethnos speaks English, then our place of privilege can be used as a platform for humble service to the world. We, of all nations, have the freedom to learn to speak to others on their terms and in their language because ours is a culture and language akin to Koine Greek - so universal that it is the air that the world breathes.
The Tower of Babel was destroyed not because people spoke one language but because they used that language to play God. By letting God be God - letting Logos be Logos, humanity can share a common tongue and understanding of order, reason and truth, thus contributing to the preservation and growth of the beauty of each and every ethnic culture and language in our world.