Inexpressible

This week’s guest essay is written by another college friend, Tiffany Yecke (now Tiffany Brooks). Tiffany and I spent a semester together in Greece, where I learned how very smart and fun she is, and how beautiful her heart is. Tiffany is incredibly talented and works full-time as a writer, so I was very grateful that she agreed to write a little something for my blog space! If you want to read more of her musings, you can find her at Preach Write Act (www.preachwriteact.blogspot.com)
The Inexpressible
By Tiffany Yecke Brooks
Imagine and describe an animal you’ve never seen. Easy enough, right? We’ve all done that at one point or another in our childhoods. Now imagine and describe a food or dish you’ve never had. This one may be a little harder, since it involves having the figure out what the taste or texture or aroma might be in terms of mixing ingredients and mode of cooking—but it’s still doable with a little effort. Now, imagine and describe a color you’ve never seen. Whoa—what?
Go on, just give it a try.
It kind of boggles the mind once you start really thinking about it, doesn’t it? I mean, we’ve all seen the color wheel, which encompasses every hue of visible light. We have seen every color that exists, and we know from basic color theory what combining different colors will produce (blue and yellow make green; green and blue make turquoise or teal depending on how much white or black is also involved; blue and red make purple; purple and green make a gross, muddy brown, etc.). But the fact is, there really isn’t any way for the human mind of conceive of a brand-new-never-before-made color or color mix or shade or tint or anything else because we have already exhausted our ability to see color in all of its various hues. Such a thing as a “new color” simply does not exist given our finite spectrum of visible light.
Without going into a complex explanation of the anatomy of the human eye (mainly because, for some unknown reason, they don’t cover that in English major courses in college so I don’t really know that much about it myself), sight is possible through a complex series of rods and cones that absorb and reflect light onto receptors, which our mind then registers as colors. Human eyes have cones that register red, blue, and green as our primary colors, and then mix the intervening hues accordingly and automatically—almost like autocorrect on your phone or auto-formatting in text documents. If colors are opposite one another on the color wheel or visible light spectrum, like red and green, they render one another nil and instead of mixing, just descend into the dull, muddy family of browns.
[Side note: You probably learned that yellow is one of the three primary colors, not green. And this is true when speaking of a color as a fixed hue. But light exists as both a particle AND a wave, so yellow is the third primary as a particle but green is the third primary when it is a wave. Yeah, I know. I don’t really understand it either. We’re getting into some fairly complex physics here, but you can look it up on Wikipedia if you’re interested in learning more; just trust me that this is a very basic explanation of light theory.]
God invented the whole system of the inner-workings of the eye, and it’s pretty impressive. But here’s the thing: There are colors that exist that we can’t see.
I’m not talking about infra-red camera images or ultra violet lights in those fascinating-but-horrifying exposes about the hidden germs in hotel rooms or on shopping carts or whatever. I mean that there are colors that exist that the rods and cones of the human eye are not capable of mixing, such as red and green, but that are visible to other creatures with different ocular anatomy, such as birds. But that doesn’t make those colors any less real—it simply means that they do not exist on our spectrum of visible light.
There is a fascinating article, which you can read here, that explains this all much better than I can; but, essentially, in 1983, researchers Hewitt Crane and Thomas Piantanida conducted a study published in the journal Science wherein they were able to hold the human eye so precisely steady that the waves of both red and green light were able to hit the subjects’ eyes’ microscopic light receptors individually so that only red and only green as individual colors were registered, without any of the mixing and subsequent cancelling out that would normally occur and result in brown. As the above article states:
The color they saw was “simultaneously red and green” Crane and Piantanida wrote in their paper. Furthermore, “some observers indicated that although they were aware that what they were viewing was a color (that is, the field was not achromatic), they were unable to name or describe the color. One of these observers was an artist with a large color vocabulary.” . . . It seemed that forbidden colors were realizable—and glorious to behold.
Just stop and let that sink in for a minute. Can you imagine what that must have been like to witness a whole new realm of color for which your mind does not even have a category to express, let along to fully fathom?
I wonder if this was part of Paul’s experience, when he writes in II Corinthians, 12:2-4, “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows—was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell.”
Maybe this is part of what John attempts to capture in his description of his vision of the heavenly city in Revelation:
He took me in spirit to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. It gleamed with the splendor of God. Its radiance was like that of a precious stone, like jasper, clear as crystal . . . The foundations of the city wall were decorated with every precious stone; the first course of stones was jasper, the second sapphire, the third chalcedony, the fourth emerald, the fifth sardonyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh hyacinth, and the twelfth amethyst. The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made from a single pearl; and the street of the city was of pure gold, transparent as glass . . . The city had no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gave it light, and its lamp was the Lamb.
There is no way to know for sure, of course—not in this life, anyway—just what it was those men witnessed that transcended description in human words. But it is incredibly humbling, is it not, to think of the realm of the unseen, the magnificent and inexpressible splendor of the fullness of creation and God’s majesty? To behold the awesome, dazzling, indescribably glorious presence of God, unencumbered by the limitations of our earthly bodies and minds? To see with the fullness of the universe? And not just with the fullness of colors, but with the fullness of time, of possibility, of reason, of understanding? The completeness of God’s works, His plan, His love?
Let us cling to this knowledge—that there is a realm outside of our ability to glimpse or comprehend, but no less real—when all the possibilities of our visible lives seem exhausted. That is our hope and our salvation. That is our ultimate goal. As Paul reminds us in I Corinthians 13:12, “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”
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