The Listener

January 27, 2016 (Timu):

Yesterday was quite a day. My dictionary guys came, and we had a good session. I got some lovely new words: technical, culturally highly significant, and likely very ancient. For example, /b’ej’ékù-/, ‘white ants that fly late in the season’, or /wàsò-/, ‘the stick that’s bent over as the spring in a bird snare’, or /abérí-/, ‘a white-ant colony in its highly active stage of development’.

I was amazed and thrilled when these words just fell out of Simon’s mouth like nuggets of gold. It’s like they wanted to be discovered.

From now on, I want to pray specifically along these lines, that yet unrecorded words lurking in the recesses of these men’s minds would reveal themselves to the one who is listening – Terrill.

For the last two years we were in Uganda, my professional work consisted mostly of producing an Ik-English dictionary. The penultimate phase of this project involved meeting with three old Ik men a couple of times per week to go over lists of words and discuss their meanings. Concurrently to this, I was ruminating on what could be called a ‘mysticism of science’, namely the belief that the World Spirit – however one might name it – cares intently about humanity’s growing knowledge of the world. Over time I came to believe that the world, as a dynamic evolutionary process, is one long adventure in learning.

The Cosmos is like a mirror in which the World Spirit is attempting to see Itself. It has been doing that all along through whatever qualities of consciousness the plant and animal kingdoms allowed for. More recently, through the appearance of Homo sapiens sapiens –  with their greater brain power, clarity of consciousness, and curiosity – the Cosmic Learning has transcended to another level altogether. This Learning gains even greater momentum whenever we humans wake up to the fact that we are the highly attuned eyes and ears, fingers, noses, and tongues of the World Spirit and, as such, have a crucial role to play.

Science, seen in this way, can become a sacred, spiritual endeavor.

Descriptive linguistics, the discipline in which I was trained, is particularly well-suited as a mystical science in that the source of information (the speaker) is a spiritual being! The personal nature of the Cosmos, heretofore muted and subdued in the rest of creation, becomes more fully manifest in human persons. It is not necessary to anthropomorphize the Cosmos and say it is human or even ‘personal’ per se. For we can observe that since humans emerge out of the Cosmos, the Cosmos is at least as personal as human persons and has qualities at least as human as human beings. With this perspective, by investigating the languages humans speak, we get the breathtaking privilege of literally listening to the voice of the Cosmos. Out of the mouth of Man speaks the World Spirit.

In the journal entry above, I was recounting the experience of discovering new Ik words for the dictionary that seemed to rise spontaneously to the surface of consciousness when given the invitation to do so. There was the feeling that if one listens – really listens – the Truth of Things will speak. And since in the case of linguistic research, the Speaker and the Listener are both human beings, they are also literally the mouth and ears of the Cosmos, such that an act of communication between them amounts to the Cosmos speaking to Itself – teaching Itself, learning Itself…potentially so as to love Itself more completely.

As a scientist and a mystic, that is an adventure I want to be a part of!


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