Can we ever really understand?

This past Sunday was what is known in the Christian church as “Christ the King” Sunday. It’s the final Sunday in the Christian liturgical year and the culmination of all our readings and understanding.

As I read the words of the scripture passages, I was flooded with the realization that we can barely understand each other when looking into one another’s eyes and working diligently to share who we are and what it is we need and want. How much more challenging it is to believe that we have any idea what was meant by those who first wrote down the words that led to our twenty-first century translations. It is ludicrous for us to make any assertions about scripture at all.

And so the theme for the week turned to the challenges of being understood. I enjoyed the article by Shaham Farooq, On the Inadequacies of Language on the Medium platform. If you take a read, you may see my comments below. I was honoured that the took the time to respond. I believe Shaham has a believer’s perspective but that doesn’t get in the way of exploring timeless issues that are as important today as they have been for millennia, with or without religious beliefs.

The very first line in Shaham’s article captivated me: “Maybe one of the most tragic love stories is between language and the need for meaningful communication.” How incredibly and painfully true. Language is a crude encryption for our longings, dreams, devastations, and hopes. Even wrapped in the most appropriate garments of transmission – voice, facial cues, body language – we so often fall short. How deluded we are if we assume another perfectly able to decrypt our messages. How enormously deluded we are if we think we can decrypt what those who wrote the prose and poetry of the Bible and other religious texts were striving to communicate. We are novices, all, when it comes to understanding.

Below the picture of Revelation 17:4 from the 4th century document, Codex Vaticanus, is my focused moment for the week.*


These are wise and powerful words.
They’ve stirred the hearts of generations,
filled them with courage, fortitude, resolve.
Inscribed on ancient tablets, scrolls,
they yet find their way
to kitchen and bedside tables,
the podiums of scholars,
the shrines of faith.

How shall we read them?
Do we pluck and parse them
one by one?
Or pour them out,
fastened one to the other,
and seek for understanding
through the in-betweens,
the silent spaces never filled?

We own this legacy of words,
handed to us
generation after generation
and still,
though we may say we know them,
we cannot say we understand
for locked in any fine construal,
is the heart that dreamt
a world unseen
and only these mere words
to make it known.

If  you look closely, you’ll see that this photograph of the Codex Vaticanus is “owned” by the Vatican and that I am infringing copyright by posting it here. It concerns me that such texts are not available for public use so I guess you could call this civil disobedience of a sort. 

5 thoughts on “Can we ever really understand?

  1. Mama D

    I am so glad I am an artist – my job is to feel, express feelings and hopefully communicate feeling. There is a neurobiologist in California – Dan ? sorry, he has a theory, among other things, that the only thing that is real is the energy that passes between us when we are within 26 inches is each other.

    1. Tris Pargeter

      That’s true I think. There is such fear and aversion in adults to being that close though, the “personal space” idea. Unless we are simultaneously focussed on something else in front of each of us that is, something to provide a distraction, a go-between, and that sets up a sort of “parallel play” situation. It’s like we need an agent to represent our keenest, most raw feelings, and religion becomes that, like the “team” some choose to be a fan of and be a part of. Our tribal side, which has clearly proven itself to be dangerous all through our history. I guess our aversion to the conflict that might well arise is why we listen to music, watch movies, read books, watch games so we can purge some of our restless need, but I would so much rather meet with people to share this sublimated version of our humanity rather than some irrelevant, top-down, patriarchal bullshit like religious doctrine. It’s been given a pass for far too long. Isn’t it obvious now, as we all recoil in alarm from the deep destabilization of “fake news,” that religion is the original form, and has opened the door for all this? Hostility toward it is normal, further “tolerance” won’t help. It’s been given an inch, and taken the proverbial mile.

      1. Gretta Vosper Post author

        “It’s like we need an agent to represent our keenest, most raw feelings…” I so appreciate these thoughts, Tris. It is too true that we find a common element, enemy, thread, whatever, through which we often channel our responses. Religion has often been that common element and has been used to manipulate disgust and focus it on everything from the ground up, including one another. Thank you for your comments. May we find some common element that elevates the dignity of all and use THAT to focus our conversations on what is crucial in the creation of a sustainable and beautiful future for life on this planet (with or without homo sapiens).

  2. raymond rakower

    When I compared the wisdom of Scriptures, namely the Hebrew Bible, to the wisdom of the life of “white ants” (termites) or with a zillion of soil bacteria, who are continuously communicating between them, in perfect understanding, my reaction is admiration towards those social insects and communities of bacteria. They don’t need any sacred word, they don’t need priests or the belief in a god-figure, they simply live and let live.
    I ask myself what the human beings have brought to Life on Earth? Pollution, suffering, so many useless things. Why didn’t our species, essentially Cro Magnon, calling ourselves Homo Sapiens Sapiens, disappear, vanish as did our cousins Homo Neanderthalensis? Our species has covered 80 % of the surface of the oceans with plastic refuse!
    The sorcerers in the caves invented gods, to manipulate their tribe. And it is in the name of these invented gods that we make wars, torture and kill one another.
    Why do we live?

    1. Tris Pargeter

      Ha ha, a valid question, but here we are. It is utterly disheartening how avid we become about power, even by proxy, but the male of our species is clearly the main culprit here. As a woman and the mother of sons, I have noted the transformative effects of testosterone on personality and its role in the problematic tribal instinct, with all its attendant aggression and insecurity. When we look at other animals and life forms, it is inarguably crucial to life, but our species has literally taken the ball and run with it, so to speak. Absolute power and all that. A social correction may finally be lurking in the wings though, as women come to the fore with their more sustainable, invaluable and decidedly different perspective. If we can just hold on long enough….Sam Harris has a recent podcast that I haven’t listened to yet entitled, “Is Life Worth Living?” Maybe check it out too.


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