Story, Value, and Becoming More Real
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To Call Each Thing By Its Right Name

January 12, 2023

For a moment she rediscovered the purpose of her life. She was here on earth to grasp the meaning of its wild enchantment and to call each thing by its right name.” – Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago

To call each thing by its right name is the original urge, roiling within us since word and Spirit first called us out of the dust. Barely had Adam found his bearings in the newborn world, but the One who spoke the shimmering cosmos into being brought the wonders of His creation to creation’s crown “to see what he would name them” [1]. This episode in Genesis 2:18-20 establishes a mandate for human discernment of the created order, “the act of truly perceiving and giving voice to the given nature of each thing” [2]. The sequence of events in the narrative underlines the central importance of naming to the economy of creation: before any other work was done, before Eve was ever called from Adam’s rib, Adam was presented with the newborn world and called to name it.

Only one obligation on Adam takes precedence, the call to listen to the twofold ordinance of Eden: “you are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die” [3].  In the economy of creation, naming is subordinate to obedience. The Lord speaks His creation into being, then He speaks His law into the created order, and only then does He invite the spoken response of his image-bearer. Adam is granted freedom to speak, but this agency is not unbounded. As sub-creators, we image-bearers bear the inherent obligation to “speak rightly about things according to their natures” [4]. And by His attentive act of listening, the omniscient Lord graces his image-bearer with high dignity: “whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name” [5]. The Lord’s image-bearer, speaking under the Lord’s authority, named the Lord’s creation: an act of “participation in the wisdom and goodness of God by the human person, formed in the image of the Creator” [6]. But this noble right is inseparable from the duty to name in recognition of divine authority.

Naming is intensely ethical. The Lord of all is listening. What we say, and how we say it, matters.

As in Genesis 2, all acts of naming make present to ourselves and others – human and divine – what may be perceived through our God-given faculties of sense and reason. It encompasses a multitude of vocabularies and grammars, verbal and non-verbal, by which we make present to ourselves and to others our perceptions of the world. Each of the individual brushstrokes of a painting, the notes of a symphony, or the words of a poem, has a distinct identity as a symbol in a vocabulary, but stands also in relation to other such symbols in complex grammatical patterns. Such grammars enable simple symbols to inform one another’s meanings, enabling us to give voice to – to name – the totality of what may be perceived, both immanent and transcendent.

When this noble freedom is exercised under God’s authority, and in God-given sensitivity to reality and its harmony of particulars and universals, we can make present to others aspects of reality which were previously unrecognised. A hearer may find that “their own rejected thoughts come back to them in alienated majesty” [7]. Through the act of naming – in prose, poem, painting, song, mathematics, or any other language – our comprehension of reality is extended far beyond private perception, bringing us into closer relationships with the Lord, with His sacred order, and our fellow image bearers. The naming of the animals in Genesis 2 is only a foreword to the centrality of naming in the cultural mandate. Through their God-given capacity to express reality in language, Adam’s descendants will build communities, steward creation, and return praise to the Lord. To name truly, whether in word, or art, or music, is to declare – in chorus with the heavens [8] – the glories of the Creator.

Naming is a consequential pursuit. Only when this is grasped can we appreciate the cataclysmic, all-encompassing nature of the semantic shifts we have of late endured. We wander now a long way East of Eden, children of the Cartesian turn, lost amongst the ruins of pre-Modern epistemology. As heirs of the Enlightenment, we have inherited its central epistemic achievement, a “shift in the location of meaning… moving it from “the world” into “the mind” [9]. We inhabit the leading edge of a centuries-long epistemological project, the fruit of which has been “to negate… the correspondence between human discourse and the ‘reality’ or correspondence of the world” [10]. Whereas the naming of Genesis 2 established a mandate and duty to conform our reason and speech to external realities, the Modern world has sought to subordinate the external world to conformity with the inner world of the mind [11]. Our discourse continues now beneath the shadow of a modern-day Babel, the attempt to wrest reason and discourse from divine coordinates and set them on the foundation of the finite human self. To George Steiner, it has been our dubious achievement to “break of the covenant between word and world… one of the very few genuine revolutions of spirit in Western history” [12]. As for the architects of Babel before us, the implications for our comprehension of the world have been immense.

Above the gates of the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz hangs the darkly ironic slogan ‘Arbeit macht frei’ (work sets you free). Where Hannah Arendt saw in the atrocities of Nazi genocide the banality of evil [13], there is also absurdity. Genocide does violence to reason. It is the negation of the golden rule, incurring semantic as well as human casualties. Such epistemic fragmentation is inevitable. As Genesis 2 testifies, the duty to name truly – under divine authority – is intrinsic to our dignity as image bearers. Because genocide denies both the imago dei and divine authority, it is unsurprising that what Primo Levi called the ‘demolition of man’ [14] in the death camps was inextricable from the demolition of language. Auschwitz became, in Levi’s words, “a perpetual Babel, in which everyone shouts orders and threats in languages never heard before” [15].

It is symbolic that on entry to Auschwitz, the names of image-bearers – conferred in parental love, signifying shared history – were negated; replaced with numbers seared crudely into the flesh. Levi recounts how this de-naming – a demonic inversion of baptism [16] – could be tragically internalised. In his memoir Survival in Auschwitz, he recalls the existential disintegration of a man known only by the last three digits of his assigned number : “…everyone was aware that only man is worthy of a name, and that Null Achtzehn is no longer a man. I think that even he has forgotten his name, certainly he acts as if it this was so. … it is foreseeable that when they send him to his death he will go with the same total indifference” [17].

The fragmentation of the imago dei is inextricably intertwined with that of language. What we say and how we say it matters.

Michael Brendan Doherty has called the wars of the 20th Century and their attendant atrocities a ‘bullet in the head of Western Civilisation’ [18]. The bloodletting of the Somme, the death camps, and the Gulag, were an orgiastically violent coda to the Enlightenment project, a funeral pyre for the optimistic dream of progress, founded on finite man. As the poet Wilfred Owen would lament after the Battle of Dunkirk; “…we who have put our faith in the goodness of man and now see man’s image debas’d lower than the wolf or the hog— Where can we turn for consolation?”. The absurdity of war smote a festering wound in our courage and capacity to name truly. The rise of irony in post-war discourse, so central to Postmodern modes of communication, correlates directly with the profound loss of hope engendered by the human meat-grinder of modern war. As Paul Fussell writes,

every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected…. But the Great War was more ironic than any before or since. It was a hideous embarrassment to the prevailing … myth which had dominated the public consciousness for a century. It reversed the Idea of Progress.” [19]

The 20th Century tumult of totalitarianism, war, and genocide has (at least temporarily) abated, but the semantic landscape left by the receding floodwaters is marked now by epistemic exhaustion. The death toll has been too vast, the atrocities too unspeakable, for an innocent return to the epistemic optimism of the Enlightenment. And so the West wanders, numbed by the hell of anti-humanism into which we were paradoxically plunged by the humanist experiment. Like weary travellers, thrown reeling from every inn of potential epistemic rest, we have slumped into what Charles Taylor has called the ‘malaise of immanence’ [20], inhabiting a culture in which, in Thoreau’s words, “…the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”. Paying testament to this malaise is the tragic epidemic of overdoses, suicides, and other so-called ‘deaths of despair’ [21], and the ever-easier access to assisted suicide. In many so-called ‘liberal’ democracies, “…[those] who suffer from mental illness, poverty, or chronic pain frequently cannot get help – but they can get killed” [22].

If the 20th Century did dirt on collective trust in Man’s unencumbered reason, the answer has not been a constructive return to the semantic mandate of Genesis 2. Far from heeding the call to “call each thing by its right name,” semantic chaos is the spectre at the feast of much of our Postmodern malaise. Our culture and discourse are mired in what has been called a ‘meaning crisis’ [23]. There are things we simply will not or, worse, cannot name. It is darkly ironic that the failure of the Enlightenment project has, if anything, pushed us ever deeper into the inner spaces of our own, psychologized selves; further from constructive engagement with the world as it is [24]. As Jean Vanier has said,

We are often frightened of reality because reality can be painful and a source of disappointment. We tend to escape into a world of illusions and to seek refuge in dreams. We bury ourselves in ideas and theories, or fill our days with distractions.” (25).

But this doubling down on the sovereign self as the locus of meaning has led to ever deepening fragmentation in our capacity to name anything truthfully. This side of Derrida, Lacan, and Foucault, and the ‘discursive turn’ of their post-structuralist project [26], we cannot now unsee the capacity of language not only to ‘read out’ external realities, but to coerce; not only to exercise dominion, but to dominate. Yet, divorced from its rightful context [27], this acute recognition of the authoritative facet of naming has further fragmented our ability to name anything rightly. Having rejected the divine authority which underwrites the ethics of naming, (post-)modern discourse is now framed as no more than a cacophony of competing claims from atomised sovereign individuals. Every speech act is subject to suspicion as a bid for the domination of others.

By simultaneously fixating on the authoritative connotations of naming, yet erasing the divine authority in which the freedom and duty to name are rightly based, we have further deepened the shadows of Babel.

As Alasdair Macintyre has suggested of Modern ethics [28], we have endured an unrecognised cataclysm of epistemology, the survivors of which hold only isolated and defaced fragments of a once-coherent semantic philosophy. Each fragment contains a partial truth, but isolated from the holistic context of the creation mandate, they become weapons of epistemic chaos instead of instruments of epistemic healing. The concept of ethical duty in (post-)modern naming is entirely alien to that transcribed by Genesis 2. The dignity of naming, inherent to image bearers, now floats free from the authority of either divine or natural law. Where the sole recognised duty is “to thine own self be true” [29], the prime responsibility in naming is not to faithful exegesis of the sacred order under divine authority, but to compliance with the varied, self-defined ‘realities’ of a plurality of ‘sovereign’ individuals. Such naming owes no essential fealty to either divine or natural law. As Carl Trueman has recognised, only in such a context can a phrase such as ‘a man trapped in a woman’s body’ be regarded as coherent and meaningful [30]. Livelihoods, and even freedom, can be lost for failure to adhere to these modern dogmas [31]. The near-religious zeal with which this absurd semantic turn is increasingly defended betrays the extent to which expressive individualism has blotted the sacred order from view. As exiles from the new epistemology, Christians who continue to name in submission to the creator, in the lineage of Genesis 2, have arrived, as Chesterton foresaw, in the age when

fires will be kindled to testify that two and two make four. Swords will be drawn to prove that leaves are green in summer. [Where] we shall be left defending, not only the incredible virtues and sanities of human life, but this huge impossible universe which stares us in the face.” [32]

Too often, Christians have responded to this epistemic and semantic chaos with legalistic condemnation, beating ploughshares into swords and tilting at windmills. Not only is it not in our gift to bludgeon others into conformity with Christian epistemology, but ironically, attempts to police and coerce the language of others plays directly into the charge of semantic domination central to the post-structuralist critique of the discursive turn. Too often we have chopped at the epistemic chaos of our age with the unthinking abandon of Mickey Mouse slashing at the magic broom in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, only galvanising the resolve and amplifying the confusion of our hearers. We have for too long left unused one of the most potent and luminous instruments in the arsenal of Christian love – the duty and freedom to name, and to do so in the freedom and fullness that is our birthright as divine image bearers.

Out of faithfulness to the Living Word who called light out of the primordial darkness, and compassion for our fellow image-bearers, we must follow in the footsteps of Adam, rediscovering the noble duty and ethical obligation to speak the truth in love. It is our high calling to meditate on the whole sacred order, and “call each thing by its right name,” in every medium gifted to us as sub-creators. As Brad Littlejohn puts it,

[we] are sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. [We] have been called to name the world, to give voice to the voiceless creation. [We] have been called to proclaim its glory and tell forth its story, and to repeat the tale of deeds that might otherwise be buried and forgotten. [We] are the heralds of creation. [33]

Aleksandr Solzhenitzyn’s famous charge to ‘live not by lies’ cannot be seen as our destination. It is but a prerequisite to the constructive act of naming in spirit and truth. It is a tragic irony that the self-styled defenders of our faith have too often spoken with the same poverty of vocabulary and strangled grammar as the benighted (post-)moderns they have sought to engage. We must look outward, turning our fortress into a fountain, expressing to a desiccated world the glories of the sacred order in the fulness of their form and being. We must grasp the courage to name, and let out the sails of every God-given faculty to the wild, bracing winds of truth. J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and the other Inklings met the malaise and despair of the post-war West with the potent instrument of truth, laying their imaginations and semantic prowess on the altar to be transfigured into instruments of extraordinary apologetic power: a reason for the hope they had, which actually tasted of hope. Like the greatest of our artists, they honed, under divine authority, the capacity to show, rather than tell, making us feel rather than simply giving rational assent to, the hope of a transcendent possibility [34]. The Inklings did battle not with dry rhetoric, but with beauty, placing their God-given fluency in naming at their Master’s disposal, and so channelling rays of imaginative light, showing a twilight world that “the Shadow [is] only a small and passing thing: [that] there [is] a light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach” [35].

The present semantic darkness is great, and the need for light acute, but we must not lose hope. The author N.D. Wilson, recounting a recent performance of Handel’s Messiah by the New York Philharmonic, noted the beautiful irony that the fashionable Moderns of pagan New York would flock to hear a 280-year-old, explicitly Christian work, noting how the Messiah

…overwhelms people … with its power and beauty … [a] burning fire of gospel. And these pagans recognise the brightness of this beauty … they are just … overwhelmed by it and sucked into its mission, carried on the tide … It is weird to watch pagan nations erect a lighthouse of grace and beauty and Gospel goodness.” [36]

The culture war has, for the most part, been waged with the weapons of the enemy. We have forgotten the bracing, luminous power of attentive and sanctified naming; that to “speak the truth in love” [37] means more than a Bible verse on a lawn sign. In a world which has “exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator,” our naming can be a bright fire of hope amid the semantic and imaginative malaise of the world. Let us sing in our varied voices strains of the old, old, story, in faithful hope that a wounded, weary generation might “seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward Him and find Him, [for] He is not far from any one of us.” [38]



[1] Genesis 2:18-20 (NIV).

[2] Rhys Laverty, 2022, Nominatio Animalium: An Enquiry Into the Significance of Adam’s Naming of the Animals for Language in Relation to Natural Law, Unpublished

[3] Genesis 2:17 (NIV)

[4] Rhys Laverty, 2022, Nominatio Animalium: An Enquiry Into the Significance of Adam’s Naming of the Animals for Language in Relation to Natural Law, Unpublished

[5] Genesis 2:18-20 (NIV).

[6] Paragraph 1978, Catechism of the Catholic Church, Catholic Church, Second Edition, 1995 

[7] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self Reliance,” 1841

[8] Psalm 19 (NIV)

[9] James K.A. Smith, How (Not) to be Secular, p28

[10] George Steiner, Real Presences, p87-93

[11] Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution, 2020

[12] George Steiner, Real Presences, p. 102

[13] Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, 1963

[14] Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz, p. 22

[15] Ibid, p. 33

[16] Ibid, p. 23

[17] Ibid, p. 37-38

[18] Michael Brendan Doherty, ‘The Editors’ Podcast, National Review, Episode 504, “The Causes of Western Greatness”, 2022

[19] Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, p. 8

[20] Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, p. 309

[21] Anne Case and Angus Deaton, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, 2020

[22] Jonathon Van Maren, Canada’s Killing Regime, 2022, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2022/10/canadas-killing-regime

[23] John Vervaeke, https://www.meaningcrisis.co/

[24] Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution, 2020

[25] Jean Vanier, Befriending the Stranger, 2005, Darton Longman and Todd, p. 5

[26] Rhys Laverty, Passing the Linguistic and Discursive Turns: A Metaphysical Enquiry Into the Ethics of Naming, 2022, Unpublished

[27] Genesis 2:17-20 (NIV).

[28] Alasdair Macintyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory

[29] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3

[30] Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution, 2020

[31] “Teacher who refused to use student’s pronouns jailed after returning to school”, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/teacher-jailed-school-suspension-pronouns-b2160904.html

[32] G.K. Chesterton, Heretics

[33] Brad Littlejohn, “Giving Voice to the Voiceless Creation”, Ad Fontes, August 25 2021, accessed March 31, 2022, https://adfontesjournal.com/brad-littlejohn/giving-voice-to-the-voiceless-creation/, cited in Rhys Laverty, Passing the Linguistic and Discursive Turns: A Metaphysical Enquiry Into the Ethics of Naming, 2022, Unpublished

[34] George Steiner, “On Myths and Music”, https://youtu.be/oKh7edvRvFQ

[35] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

[36] N.D. Wilson, Stories Are Soul Food, Episode 98, The Messiah in Manhattan

[37] Ephesians 4:15 (NIV)

[38] Acts 17:27 (NIV)



Featured image is courtesy of Donnie Rosie on Unsplash. We are grateful for his generosity.



 

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  1. June says:

    Much of this excellent essay is above my intellectual pay grade. However, the Chesterton quote spoke a warning. And I believe we can give a reason for our hope by showing the world (rather than telling, although we can do that, too) Beauty through whatever medium God has gifted us with. In doing so, I think we are naming rightly the beauty that exists.

  2. Emily says:

    I am learning, more and more, the consequences of our disordered world and our lack of common language. I’m thankful for your call on our courage and imagination to restore some of that language, drawing people to the glory and hope of God’s story. Your words really have me thinking about my participation (or lack of participation) in this.

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