by Clarence Brown
American Reporter Correspondent
October 9, 2002
BEFORE THE BEGINNING
SEATTLE,Wash. -- The huge thought for today is inspired by a book entitled "God, Chance, and Necessity," by Keith Ward (1996). He is Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford and a member of the Society of Ordained Scientists.
What was there before the Big Bang? This has always struck me as the unaskable question that we ask anyway, trapped as we are inside the language that takes as normal our ideas of space-time. The word "before" is meaningless if time itself began with the Big Bang.
But there might be a more comforting answer. Nothing material came "before." But if you believe, as I do, that there is something besides matter in the universe, and that the Big Bang was the beginning of matter only (only!) then one might answer the question of what there was before the Big Bang.
Try for instance: the rules of arithmetic. Before God struck the match on the seat of His pants and lit the fuse of the BB, He had already seen to it that the sum of two plus two was four.
Two what? Don't be silly. There was enumeration before there were oranges or at-bats. Two is an abstraction without the slightest stain of matter on the hem of its skirts.
I think that what I am clumsily trying to say is what the writer of the fourth Gospel said with supreme eloquence: "In the beginning was the Word."
We are stuck with this translation of the Greek that John actually wrote, which was: En arkhe en ho Logos.
Logos means "word" only in certain contexts, for beginning students of Greek. Its larger meaning is the wholly abstract system of relationships, starting at 2+2=4, but branching from there to mean everything that we understand by organized, disciplined thinking. Our word "logic" comes from it. The Big Bang, in other words, had to bang within the lines. Or not at all.
This idea is not by any means exclusively Christian. For Jews, also, the Law (Torah) existed before God created the world.
This connects with my ideas about the abstractness of language. The defining human trait is not material at all: it is the abstract system of relationships that we know as language.
Language is not noise, or print, or semaphore, or the gestures of ASL (American Sign Language), the language of deaf mutes, which has not the slightest dependence upon sound or print. Language is the abstract system, with no material basis other than the many used to express it, that distinguishes us from whales and wolves and honeybees, all of whom have incredible codes to keep in touch without coming anywhere near the utterly abstract Logos that makes it possible for you to understand this paragraph. (I didn't say like. I said understand.)
The writer of the fourth gospel was not of course aware of modern theories of the origin of the universe, and for him the word Logos meant not "word" or "reason" only; it meant the person of Jesus, one of the three aspects of God. When Jesus says, in that grammatical shocker of a sentence, "Before Abraham was, I am," he is in a way confirming the first verse of John's gospel. In the beginning was the Word.
After the Doxology, may I ask that you leave the sanctuary quietly, so as not to wake those brethren who are sound asleep in their pews? May God send them, and you, sweet dreams.
Clarence Brown is a cartoonist, writer, and Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Princeton University.