The Worlds We Make

We can have words without a world but no world without words or other symbols.—Nelson Goodman, Ways of Worldmaking

The first line of the Dhammapada, a collection of the Buddha’s sayings, is, “All that we are is the result of what we have thought.” With that, the Buddha signals that thought precedes action and mind shapes character. This is in common with the words of another sage: “As a man thinketh, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7), a maxim which suggests in its context to beware of the stingy who insincerely invite one to share a meal. They are not to be trusted, for the hidden thought will be exposed in the interplay between the two.

So, I am here quoting those who once lived upon this earth, people we know only through their words. The gulf that lies between the utterance of those words in time and where we stand today is not just about the millennia that have passed between us, but about the worlds those words brought into being and the worlds that arise when we read them today. Are they the same worlds?

We create worlds through our words, says Nelson Goodman, in Ways of Worldmaking. In a few pages of closely reasoned arguments, Goodman shows that the frames of reference we construct to describe what we experience are systems of description; they are not that which is being described. We never truly apprehend the object of our experience, only the description we construct to talk about it.

An example: If we say, “The sun always moves,” and “The sun never moves,” both statements are equally true and equally at odds with one another. Goodman asks if these statements describe different worlds — whether there are “as many different worlds as there are such mutually exclusive truths?” No, rather we make accommodation by saying that under this frame of reference this statement is true and with another frame of reference the other statement is true. “Our universe, so to speak,” says Goodman, “consists of these ways rather than of a world or of worlds.”

I find this both invigorating and disconcerting. In a way, Goodman is playing games — language games — to make a point: there is no irrefutable foundation for all truth, only descriptions that are more or less right for their context. The fact that we construct these descriptions out of what we find in anthropology, physics, psychology, literature, philosophy, theology, and other disciplines, means that we are constantly remaking our worlds of thought. “Worldmaking as we know it,” says Goodman, “always starts from worlds already on hand; the making is a remaking.”


Here are some materials at hand that we can make a story out of, a description of something and someone that matters a great deal to us.

Jesus is crucified about 33 CE and the first gospel, generally thought to be Mark’s gospel, is written about 70 CE. That is a gap of about 40 years — a whole generation — without any written source of Jesus’ life. The people who gathered each week in small groups to remember the Lord were those who had had first-hand knowledge of Jesus. The boy who gave over the loaves and fishes that Jesus fed five thousand people with would have been a man with children and grandchildren of his own. Lazarus, raised from the tomb and given a second life, would have passed on by this time. The disciples, men with families when Jesus chose them, would have grown old and scattered, some to Rome, others staying in Jerusalem, Thomas (as legend has it) making his way to India to establish a Christian community, and Philip probably down in Ethiopia. All of these people lived and died on the stories that were told and retold about Jesus, as they met together in upper rooms, sometimes in a wealthy person’s home, sometimes on the run, often over a meal with song and celebration. They were people, quite literally, of the word, the Word that came and lived amongst them.

Think of the stories they told, the anecdotes tenderly passed down through the family chain like pearls of great value. From the sayings of Jesus to the signs he performed to the parables he told, these narratives sustained these groups through their days and eventually formed the web of Mark’s gospel.

In his breathless and rustic style, the author of Mark’s gospel creates a narrative — a world! — that Matthew and Luke break down to use in the remaking of their individual worlds. Later, around 90-100 CE, comes John’s gospel, a parallel universe to the previous gospels, converging at points, but drawing its own course through its orbit. It closes with these tantalizing words:

“But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”

These gospels are the Gospel, the good news about Jesus who came into the world and “the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him (John 1:10).”


We read these words today, millennia away from their creation, in the awareness that the bone and sinew, words and meaning of their author and the person of which he wrote come down to language and symbols, marks on paper or pixels on a screen. Despite the billions of words devoted to this Jesus, the stories that could be told have no end because these words, having been written, continue to produce new stories in the strength that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it (John 1:5).”

Instead, we may become accustomed to these stories to the extent that we no longer take in their meaning. Our eyes pass over the letters, we register the shape of the words as we would the silhouette of objects whose outlines against the light are familiar only because of the form of their darkness.

“This world, indeed,” notes Goodman, “is the one most often taken as real; for reality in a world, like realism in a picture, is largely a matter of habit.”

“Language can create faith but can’t sustain it,” says Christian Wiman in Ambition and Survival. I’m not so sure. When I read of the Buddha holding up a flower before his gathered disciples and one of them — only one — smiles, and Buddha says the equivalent of “He gets it!,” something in me thrills to that imagined scene. When Jesus begins with “The kingdom of heaven is like…,” it’s “Once upon a time” all over again. We’re hardwired for stories: good, bad, mediocre, we pick them up, and turn them over and over in our hands until we find the seam that opens them. From these we fashion a world that we can live in.

“To have faith in a religion, any religion,” continues Wiman, “is to accept at some primary level that its particular language of words and symbols says something true about reality.” That I can agree with.

He goes on: “This doesn’t mean that the words and symbols are reality (that’s fundamentalism), nor that you will ever master those words and symbols well enough to regard reality as some fixed thing. What it does mean, though…is that the only way to deepen your knowledge and experience of ultimate divinity is to deepen your knowledge of the all-too-temporal symbols and language of a particular religion.”

Separated as we are by thousands of years and the innumerable worlds of language and imagination between us and Jesus, these slender figures on our pages are the portals between our worlds. The path to the divine remains, astonishingly, through the darkness and light that is our world.

Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, and communications for 28 years at Columbia Union College, now Washington Adventist University, and business communication at Stevenson University for 7 years. He continues as adjunct professor in ethics and philosophy at Trinity Washington University, D.C. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods.

Photo by Lydia Shi /

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Beautiful, Barry…so many deep, rich, thoughts here. You could have really expanded out past this article in so many directions but what you have written is more than we can process. I especially like this:

"This world, indeed,” notes Goodman, “is the one most often taken as real; for reality in a world, like realism in a picture, is largely a matter of habit.”

So, so, true. We often let others “see” for us and “experience” for us…which in turn, becomes a distorted view of our world. This reminds me of our spiritual journey and how important it is that we allow ourselves and others to “experience” the Divine in their own ways.

"The path to the divine remains, astonishingly, through the darkness and light that is our world."

We do “share” a world…but the “world” within is so much deeper and Divine than the one without.


Thank you, Kim! Like C.S. Lewis says in the Last Battle: The inside was so much larger than the outside.

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I agree that it is through story that we can better communicate and better understand the essence of another person’s attempt to put into words his/her ideas or conceptions of what is “reaI” and “true.” I would also add to story, analogy as being as important in transmitting and understanding another person’s conception of “truth/reality,” And, of course, the collected accounts of Jesus are awash with both. Thanks for introducing us to Nelson Goodman.


“COINAGE of Words”
This is what Barry has described in his study.
A Dictionary of English words prior to William the Conqueror would look different that
one in times of Elizabeth I when French words, possible German words invaded the
English language.
the Enlightenment brought more.
The 21st Century has lots of 18th, 19th, 20th century NEW words coined.
Words that we can add to our “thinking processes” and ability to describe
to other what we are experiencing, sensing, creating, enjoying.

The Thinkers of 2000 B.C., 1000 B.C., 200 A.D. were limited in their thinking, in their
ABILITY to describe what it was they were seeing and contemplating.
Thinkers are limited in their thinking and articulation of emotional and visual data by
their interaction with lack of interaction of other cultures that might provide increased
way to describe what one [they] were experiencing.

Thinking requires words to process in our minds our body and our ‘outside world’.
Without the “coinage” of words, we could have no written language, be unable to
share our intimate thinking with others and to recite to them what we thought. To
pass these thoughts on to other generations.
Nor would we have the recorded history of the Bible to read for ourselves, to have
those with the Original pens and ink speak to us as if they were NOW in our presence
to hear them recite their thoughts.


To go along with my previous post, I would like to add this thought from the book.
“The Limits of my language means the Limits of my world,”
quote from Ludwig Wittgenstein by the author.

This has a huge application to the Humans who wrote their “bible” stories, their
discussions with themselves about God, and their prayers.
And their perceptions about the world around them in such places as the Psalms,
Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, even Song of Solomon.


At the tower of Babel, God confounded the language of the people so that, unable to understand each other, they went their separate ways. It’s a profound illustration of the usefulness of language (beyond affording vocalizations and their comprehension) in being the foundation upon which, and the means through which, we share our lives, our worlds as you pointed out.

But consider this interesting story. In a synagogue in Capernaum, Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” The amusing thing is that those present grumbled among themselves, asking, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (John 6:22-71)

I bring it up because it speaks to a very important component of language that can be easily taken for granted: intent. Jesus’ intent was to show the necessity of being his friend in order to live forever, much like one must eat and drink to continue living now. But that intent was completely lost on those who were listening to him because their mind was on the temporal provision of food. There was somebody, they thought, who was an endless spring of bread and fish! They were never going to starve, ever again! Because of their mindset at that time, they completely missed the intent of Jesus: to show that he was the source of life itself, and therefore eternal, and that he was willing to share that life with them if they would only believe in him.

Intent. Lost.

There is a famous testimony that people often give of the scriptures: that every time they return to the same passage, they discover new ideas – as if the passage were something deep, mysteriously many-splendoured, shape-shifting. Well, the truth is: the passage is just the passage; but our different states of mind at different times see different aspects of the passage as important to the extent that each aspect uniquely shapes the whole in its own way in its own time.

But what really, pray tell, was the intent of the author in the first place?



Thanks, Steve, your thoughts on coinage and vocabulary are central to understanding how we create meaning. And I suppose that even our discoveries would be rendered less helpful if we couldn’t somehow articulate what makes them new. Imagine: in order to communicate about something we’ve never experienced (say, the disciples at the transfiguration of Jesus), we have to use the same words we’ve always used, but configured in new ways. That’s why languages are never static because they must keep up with our experiences and conceptions.

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You’re so right, James. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bought a book, thinking I’d be ready to take it in, only to discover that I wasn’t ready or didn’t really care that much. Months later, sometimes years later, I pick it up and it’s exactly what I need at that moment. I grew into it or perhaps my needs changed. In any case, I believe something prompts us to try it again, just at the right moment. As to the author’s intent, this is where all the tools of Biblical study can come into play, yet we may not even then get just what the author intended.


“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

It is amazing that Thomas Jefferson, an atheist, has so profoundly influenced billions for societies betterment. Once we hear these words we are never the same. I wonder what how history would have been re-written if the OT prophets had repeated these words (concepts)? Maybe the OT accounts of race betting against the idol heathen worships would have been civil and respectful.

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We now have a Joe McCarthy on steroids in the White House and a mini in the G C. Mankind is on the brink of his own folly. Can we stand like Paul?that is the real question. Oh to live by faith in the face of power. Even so come Lord Jesus.


Barry, I appreciate your article on the importance of words. Indeed all faith’s are BASED on the words of their founders. The danger inherent with postmodern thought is to deconstruct the meaning of words and what the normal perception/meaning it has for the hearers. KInda like what is the meaning of " is." :slight_smile:
The Judeo- Christian Faith’s are totally dependent on the meaning of words both expressed in doctrinal statements as well as the way words are used in story.
Notice how Moses relates to the importance of words given and the fact “covenant words delivered” are made known and are not mystery. “11 Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. 12 It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 13 Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” 14 No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it. Deut.30:11-14.”
So the written word is the foundation of “the faith” Jewish and Christian.
Christ tells us, “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The ‘words I have spoken to you’–they are full of the Spirit and life. Jn.6:63”
Jude confirms, “Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for “the faith” that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people. Jude 1:3”
So, the Christian Faith’s foundation is in “the words delivered as well as exemplified in the life of Christ.” This constitutes “THE FAITH.” We are to have faith in “the faith” and our hope is that this “word/The WORD” revelation is both true and real. Once the words are deconstructed then so is all true faith.

The uniqueness of the Christian faith is the person of Christ and the spoken unique words of scripture to it’s followers unlike any others held by “people of other faiths” who are not privileged to the “unique body” of teaching and thus the uniqueness of “THE CHRISTIAN FAITH”.



I don’t see politics like you Tom but I do see Paul pretty much identically. You are my brother in Christ…not politics and consider the former the most important. I don’t see the latter as you do because then we would both be wrong. :slight_smile:


Pat, thanks! What I like is the nursery Gospel song— “This Little Light of Mine.” Public evangelism At least in my area of Georgia is Gloom and Doom.

I would see a series based upon John 3, Romans 1-8,Phil 2: 5-11, Eph. 2, The book of Hebrews. Rev 4 and 5.

I would reinforce those Gospel themes with Ps 22, 23, and 24.

The I would end with Christ’s Triumphal enter into Jerusalem with emphasis on the mother hen analogy.
Faith not fear is the Evangel.


My understanding is that Jefferson and others were deists, not atheists, products of the Enlightenment’s respect for rationality, but not opposed at all to the idea of the existence of God. And we shouldn’t be surprised that people who don’t hold conventional views on religion could give us such liberating and inspiring ideas. After all, people of whatever faith don’t have a lock on great ideas. Ideas should be judged on their merits, not on their origins or authors.


You are correct. Yet I remember that during the presidential campaign against John Adams Jefferson was accused of being an atheists. Like Washington he was not a man given to prayer. He believed in a God of no miracles having removed them from his Jefferson Bible. He believed in the moral values taught in the Bible but did not have a traditional believe in God. He despised Calvinist.

You are so right. I think the words of Ps 23 have profoundly influenced humanity, above all the Torah laws, giving comfort in the experience that God is MY shepherd. Jefferson did not bring God close to us–he brought human beings closer to each other in mutual respect. Christian England for hundreds of years had the Bible and thousand of preachers, yet they preserved their class society as if it were God given.


52 of the 55 delegates to the Constitutional convention were listed as Christian. 50 Protestant, 2 RCC, 3 Deist. Deist were more moderate in belief in America than their European counterparts.
Jefferson received his degree and training at William & Mary in Williamsburg, an Anglican school in origin. Students were accepted who were Anglican.
Madison was trained by Scottish Presbyterian theologian Witherspoon signer of the Declaration, at what was to become later Presbyterian Princeton. Presbyterian thought and influence on covenant and thus a “written constitution” were very influential.
The Christian understandings underlying the founders simply can not be denied. They did however choose to acknowledge that by “civil law” this was not a “Christian nation” as noted by both Jefferson and Madison most notably.
PS. And something for even “Historic” :)…G.C. p.441. "The Christian exiles who first fled to America, sought an asylum from royal oppression and priestly intolerance, and they determined to establish a government upon the broad foundation of civil and religious liberty. The Declaration of Independence sets forth the great truth that “all men are created equal,” and endowed with the inalienable right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” And the Constitution guarantees to the people the right of self-government, providing that representatives elected by the popular vote shall enact and administer the laws. Freedom of religious faith was also granted, every man being permitted to worship God according to the dictates of his conscience. Republicanism and Protestantism became the fundamental principles of the nation. These principles are the secret of its power and prosperity. "
I don’t mind using her where I feel it is a true statement…and don’t mind ignoring when I don’t think it is true.


If Ellen was speaking exclusively of the Puritans, they had in their “religious genes”
some of the intolerance and ability to be cruel like where they came from.
They were very abusive to Roger Williams [who had to live in a tree all one winter
to escape], and was finally able to found Rhode Island with Providence the capitol.
Allowing any religious or non-religious persuasion persons to live in peace.

Anglicans had the sheriff and the civil government behind them, at least in
Williamsburg, VA. One was REQUIRED to attend church on Sundays [or the
local magistrate asked why not]. One was required to rent a pew box for the
family. [thomas Jefferson’s name is on one]. One was required to pay their
“church tax”. If not, the sheriff came around collecting it.

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tim –
It was through the early Catholic church that the Doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings
[God appointed kings to rule, people to obey] came into being and infused all European
When the Americans rejected Kings, they also rejected the Divine Right of Kings, and
did not transfer this Doctrine to the NOW ELECTED by the People persons.

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Thanks of the EGW thought, having read it many times it is impressive.

Yet, I wonder how Protestantism became joined with Republicanism? Luther and Calvin early founders were adverse to any kind freedom of worship. Calvin only permitted one faith in Geneva, while Luther could make no concessions to Calvinism. This spirit of contention was the direct cause of the 30 years war that hastened early deaths for thousands of believers in God.

Even the great 10 commandments promise God’s judgements to the 3rd and 4th generation of anyone who worships idols. There is no freedom of worship is found in the theology of the OT. The NT’s mission is to convert the world, not accept any other faith on terms of freedom of worship.

Jefferson, a product of the enlightenment, forever changed theology into something that prophets, priest and disciples never envisioned. One can worship idols, work on Sabbath, have other Gods before them and take God’s name in vain–as a right and privilege.