The Vocal Stylings of Parents and Pet-Owners

Big Jowls Susie By Alberto Gonzalez
Big Jowls Susie By Alberto Gonzalez
Have you ever watched someone lean into a pram and talk to a baby in a series of nonsensical cooing sounds? You know the type: high pitched, lots of vowels, pronounced glissandos, full of ums and goos. It’s known as IDS: Infant Directed Speech. Child development specialists tell us that it’s an aid to cognitive development, but let’s be honest, that’s not why we do it. I don’t meet a friend’s newborn child for the first time and think, “let’s begin your cognitive development right away!”

No, it’s an odd quirk of human nature that we like to mimic things that are less rationally advanced than ourselves, as a sign of affection. We do the same with pets, and we’d never dream of doing it with our human peers. We greet a dog by scratching behind its ears and adopting a weirdly pitched tone of voice, whilst we ask it poorly enunciated rhetorical questions like “oo’sa goo dorg?” Or worse still, we bark and howl in our very best canine impression.

Strange though it is, I think the vocal stylings of parents and pet-owners tell us something unexpectedly profound about the difference between knowledge and love.

Thomas Aquinas argues that love conforms the lover to the beloved, whilst knowledge conforms the known object to the knower. So he writes, “The love of God is better than the knowledge of God; but, on the contrary, the knowledge of corporeal things is better than the love thereof”(Summa Theologica, I, 82, 3).

When we strive to know a dog or a baby, we raise it up to our level, imagining that it has rational faculties and capabilities, which it really doesn’t. When we love a child or a pet, we express that love by becoming like them: drawing close and mimicking their speech patterns. Parents become childlike. Dog-owners become doggy!

When we strive to know God, we drag Him down to our level. We imagine He is like us, and so we do Him a disservice. We anthropomorphise Him; we make Him more human, less powerful; more normal, less awe-inspiring. We change Him when we try to know Him. But when we love God, it is us who are transformed. Our speech is altered, our tone changes. We find ourselves mimicking Him as an expression and outworking of love.

Now, I don’t know if Aquinas cooed at babies or woofed at dogs, and I doubt very much that he means it is totally inappropriate to love corporeal things – children, spouses, family members! But I like that insight as it relates to our interaction with God. Loving God is more appropriate and fruitful than knowing Him because whilst knowing God tends to change Him, loving God changes us. When we love God we don’t condescend like an adult to a baby, we ascend. We improve; we flourish as the kind of beings we were created to be.

Of course the ideal is to both know Him and love Him. The two go hand in hand. If knowledge doesn’t result in love, our lives may well go largely unaffected. But when we love Him who’s nature is love, we both know Him better and become more like Him. As John puts it, ‘Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love’ (1 John 4:8).

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