Theological Aphasia and Language as Communion

There is language as communication and there is language as communion. The difference between the two is that the second is always personal. For those who believe in a personal God, language as communion is possible between both man and God. I describe some of the issues of human language in the secular and theological context.

The three paramount concerns of language, or aims of discourse, are the creation, expression and communication of meaning, which could be summarised as “learning how to mean” ( Halliday, M.A.K. Learning how to mean. London, Arnold, 1975). ”Functions” of language is the major dimension of language study ” (Kinneavy, 1983:131) because the functions of language tell us about the why (content), the where (context) and the how (well) of language use.

Roman Jacobsen defines the different functions of language:

The Referential function (transactional, informational) corresponds to the factor of context and describes a situation, object or mental state.

The Expressive (“emotive” or “affective”) function relates to the addressor (speaker) and refers to utterances that do not change the denotative (informational) meaning of an utterance but adds information about how the addressor feels about something.

The Conative function involves influencing or trying to change the Addressee’s (listener) behaviour.

The Poetic Function focuses on “the message for its own sake” (Jacobsen) as in literature and slogans. The Phatic function (the term was coined by Bronislav Malinowski) involves language in interpersonal/social interaction; for example, greetings and casual chat. (”Phatic” from Greek phatos ”spoken.” Aphasia is a speech defect). The Phatic function is the “getting to know you (better)” function; small talk, where the emphasis on the communication of information is small, while the emphasis on the communication of feelings is big.

The Metalingual (“metalinguistic” or “reflexive”) function – what Jakobson calls “Code” – is language used to think about, discuss, describe itself. (See my “Cognition and Language Proficiency”).

Chomsky suggests that expression, not communication, is the central function of language (Chomsky, Language and Responsibility, 1979:88). Ryle (1959), in a similar vein (at the end of his introduction to “The concept of mind”), states: “Primarily I am trying to get some disorders out of my own system. Only secondarily do I hope to help other theorists to recognise our malady and to benefit from my medicine.”The “purgative” (“suppository”) function of language is one function that did not occur to Jacobsen; and neither to Chomsky – I suppose.

Consider Devitt and Derelny’s view on the origin and functions of language. (Devitt, M., and Sterelny, K. 1987. Language & reality: An introduction to the philosophy of language. Basil Blackwell). Devitt and Derelny (1987) are committed to “physicalism”, that is, people are nothing but complex parts of the physical world. Devitt and Derelny (1987:127) maintain that language originated out of a need to understand the environment and ourselves in order to use and control the environment. Primitive man conveyed meaning through body language such as grunts and gestures. Grunts and gestures caught on out of which linguistic conventions were born. The capacity to think – according to Devitt and Derelny – is borrowed from those who created these conventions and thus primitive thought was made easy. The drive to understand leads to more complicated thoughts, to more complicated speaker meanings to more complicated conventions.

“If this sketch is right, we have, as individuals as a species, engaged in a prodigious feat of lifting ourselves up by our own semantic bootstraps…The picture is of a language of thought expanding with the introduction into it of a public language.” (Devitt & Derelny, 1987:127).

Devett and Derelny’s description echoes the modern atheistic-Darwinian view of the origins and function of language. Contrast this view where the main emphasis of language is theological:

“God speaks humans, like the rest of creation, into being. “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness’…” (Genesis 1:26). In the creation stories in Genesis God’s speaking is God’s doing. “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light” (Genesis 1: 3). The relationship between God and creation and the relationship in particular between God and human beings is mediated by the Word. God creates by speaking and humans are to listen and then in light of what they bear address God and one another. Human speech, therefore, is neither exclusively nor even primarily a social phenomenon between neighbors, but first and foremost a theological reality. Speech has something to do with who God is and what it means for humans to live, first, before God, and second, in communion with one another” (“Before God:” A Crisis in Sin and Redemption” by George Stroup).

(The excerpts above are from one of Stroup’s lectures. This lecture has been fleshed out in his book “Before God”).

The language of theological reality in Christianity  is the biblical narrative, which is at enmity with the worldly narrative. Here is the biblical communicative relationship between addressor and addressee:

“In biblical narrative humans are called to listen because it is God who speaks first. Human speech, therefore, is true when it responds obediently to the prior reality of God’s Word and God’s address. False speech—the lie—is not simply the distortion of the truth, although it is that, but, more significantly, it is speech that is not obedient to the Word by which it has been addressed, but an attempt to find some ground, some basis, other than the reality of God’s Word and God’s address…To live before God and to be truly and faithfully human is, first, to allow oneself to be addressed by God, and, second, to speak truthfully to God. It is listening to and speaking obediently to God that is also the basis for allowing oneself to be addressed by and to speak truthfully to one’s neighbor.”

In sum, those who reject the theological priority of language suffer from theological aphasia. The Apostle John provides a scriptural basis for Stroup (above):

“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:1-3 ESV).

In the phatic function of language, says Malinowski, ”The breaking of silence, the communion of words is the first act to establish links of fellowship, which is consummated only by the breaking of bread and the communion of food.” For the Christian, communion – which is the gathering of believers to break bread before the Lord’s Table – is the consumate theological emphasis on the Word made flesh.