Posted by: gcarkner | November 17, 2012

Language as Speech Act

Watch Your Language!

We have had two posts on language in the past month. This one is about God Talk (D. Stephen Long), or God Speaking. This usage of language goes beyond description to engagement. Language is an important means of God’s prophetic communication with humans. Word was used in creation as speech act (John Searle, Wittgenstein). This is more like parole than langue. There is something quite significant about the impact of a Creator in dialogue with his creature, a significance we have yet to fathom. Jesus is claimed by Christians as God’s Word made flesh, dwelling among us. Here speech is embodied, full blooded, not flat and lifeless. It is a sign, communicative action (Kevin Vanhoozer, Jurgen Habermas), more than the mere letter. It is poetic, pedagogical, testimony, a guide to life, vitality. It rocks our world!

We are drawn up into a divine dialogue, to reason with our creator. Wow. That is just the greatest thing imaginable! A perlocutionary act is a speech act that produces an effect in an addressee by a speaker’s utterance.Hans urs von Balthasar (Word and Silence) sees the Word of God revealed in three rich and powerful ways: Creation, Scripture, and Incarnation. He also notes carefully the important tension between word and silence in God’s speaking. This captures something of a response to the emphasis on the sublimity of silence in some current late modern writers. It is not coercion.

Revelation, for von Balthasar, is  key to avoiding mythology in dealing with the human search for transcendence. Zen Buddhism, the religion of the unword or via negativa, is the clearest contrast to Christian revelation. With the Christian God, there is both speaking and silence or listening, revealing and self-protection or hiddeness. Von Balthazar is a genius on the crucial connection between word and world that makes life full with meaning. By addressing us personally, God in some sense calls us into human being (sons of Adam and daughters of Eve), beings with a higher meaning, image bearers. Do you feel God calling you to be something or someone more that you are right now? That’s not a problem; it’s a great sign of transcendence. That’s the kind of universe we inhabit; it is one where God calls us up and forth into newness, shows us the more of language and life and liberty. New qualitative properties emerge in your identity. It re-interprets you afresh.

The incarnation (John 1:1-5; Colossians 1:15-20) in particular provides a vision and a grounding to restore the broken relationship (trust) between word and world (a problem which Steiner addresses in Real Presences). The Doctrine of the Incarnation challenges our modern Gnostic view of self. It challenges the amoral and utilitarian orientation of the self or the conquering dominating self of colonialism. It affirms that nature and the body are significant, not because they are useful tools of imagination, willful human activity, but because God took on human form and dwelt among us and used our language (Roger Lundin, The Culture of Interpretation).

The incarnation answers some of the issues and problems in our great cultural transition: affirming speech, the body/the physical, and the self/agency. God uses language to communicate to humans and language is his gift to human persons, a most wonderful, powerful, formidable and dangerous gift. Enjoy language to the full; use it to God’s glory and to the flourishing of others; find your conversation, your voice and grow into it. Eugene Peterson speaks to this spirit of significance profoundly:

Christian followers of Jesus have an urgent mandate to care for language—spoken, heard, written—as a means by which God reveals himself to us, by which we express the truth and allegiance of our lives, and by which we give witness to the Word made flesh…. Contemporary language has been dessicated by the fashions of the academic world (reductive rationalism) and the frenzy of industrial and economic greed (reductive pragmatism). The consequence is that much of the talk in our time has become, well, just talk—not much theological content to it, not much personal relationship involved, no spirit, no Holy Spirit…. We need a feel for vocabulary and syntax that is able to detect and delete disembodied ideas, language that fails to engage personal participation. We need a thorough grounding in the robustness of biblical story and grammar that insists on vital articulated speech (not just the employment of words) for the health of the body and mind and soul…. Words don’t just sit there, like bumps on a log. They have agency. Scott Cairns, reflecting on his work as a poet working with words in the context of a believing community reading the Scriptures, says that we “are attending not only to a past (an event to which the words refer), but are attending to a present and a presence (which the words articulate into proximity for their apprehension)… leaning into that articulate presence, participating in its energies, and thereby participating in the creation of meaning, with which we help to shape the future. (The Jesus Way, 67-8)

What else can we say?

Gord Carkner


John Searle Mexico 2005

John Searle Mexico 2005 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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