President’s Postscript | On Words
by President J. Derek Halvorson ’93
I like words. In fact, it would probably be fair to say that I love words. I like big, long, Latinate words, like “obstreperous” and “mellifluous.” I like the punch and precision of short, Saxon words, like “good” and “bad,” or “strong” and “weak.” I believe that words matter, that language matters. In fact, I believe that words are crucial to, and critical for, our life together.
Many of you may not know that I fancy myself a farmer. I have learned something very interesting in my time as “farmer.” Soil matters. In fact, it matters a lot. I learned, the hard way, that the kind of soil you plant in has significant impact on the health of your shrubs or flowers. I learned how to prepare soil—how to till and condition and fertilize soil in order to create the richest and most hospitable setting possible for my shrubs.
Words are the soil of our community. Language is the material in which a community grows. This is a reality that’s reflected in the original—and now obsolete—meaning of the word “conversation.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “conversation” is (in its old meaning):
1. The action of living or having one's being in a place or among persons. Obs.
2. The action of consorting or having dealings with others; living together; commerce, intercourse, society, intimacy. Obs.
Faculty members at Covenant are often heard saying that we are inviting students into a great conversation, or the great conversation—a conversation that’s been going on for thousands of years about the meaning of life and the nature of God and the nature of man and the nature of society. But students here are also part of a conversation in the archaic sense of the word that I just defined—a life together. That common life is rooted in words.
Words matter for their effectiveness in communicating truth and meaning, but they also matter because they are inherently powerful. We, as image bearers, have words. We have the use of language. In fact, one of the first ways in which Adam exercised his dominion was by naming the animals. No other of God’s creatures has this gift of words. The imago Dei has often been thought of in terms of rational capabilities, but certainly one of the essential characteristics of the imago Dei is language. God spoke. Where there was nothing, there was something. Not only did He use the power of speech, but His speech made reality. We are human beings created in the image of a God who created something out of nothing, with words.
I think it’s this power of words to make things real that led Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his little book Life Together, to write that: “Often we combat our evil thoughts most effectively if we absolutely refuse to allow them to be expressed in words.” Think about that—how often is it that sin has become a problem for us, a reality for us, because we’ve thought on it, and muttered about it, and expressed it in words?
We need to care for our words, to cultivate healthy and rich language, to practice the use of life-giving words and to practice not using life-killing words. Our words have the power to make things real—to tear down, or to build up. It is our responsibility to take care that our words enrich the soil in which our community grows—giving life to those around us.