5 March 2008

Acts of Language

I finally got around to reading Pope Benedict's Jesus of Nazareth. Thus far, one line in particular has jumped out at me. It's this one, on page 65: "The second element is the calling of the twelve Apostles, which is both a symbolic gesture and a totally concrete act by which Jesus initiates the renewal of the twelve tribes, the new assembly of the people of Israel." This rather innocuous line struck me because of his use of the phrases "symbolic gesture" and "totally concrete act", which took me back to the long years of university and my tedious training in, rejection of, and battles with the adherents to deconstruction.

Let me explain a little. When examining language, and trying to come up with a theoretical approach to examining language as a whole, among the various basic starting points are two questions: What does language say? and What does language do?

The examination of language based on a model of saying, of language as a method of conveying meaning, lead down an interesting and ultimately, it seems to me, futile path. The theoreticians generally start with a model developed at the beginning of the twentieth century by a scholar named Ferdinand de Saussure. Simply put, it creates the concept of the "sign" which is made up of a "signifier" which consists of a sound, or the noise we make when speaking, and a "signified," which is the idea we attach to that sound. As you can see, the sound is not attached to an external reality, but rather to our ideas. For example, if I were to say "the dog ran down the street", on the one hand we may have a fairly clear idea of the meaning, but on the other hand, there is a wide variety of interpretations. People may think of a variety of dogs, running at their own speeds, down a another variety of streets. The meaning of that statement cannot be nailed down definitively. As such, language fails to convey real meaning definitively. Pushed to the extreme, as it was in my time at university under deconstruction, it cannot convey meaning at all.

The irony of the position was exacerbated by many scholars writing thick, fat, verbose tomes on the subject, elaborating at great length how words fail to mean, understanding is an impossible dream. Many of them seemed depressed by their own ideas, and the theme of entrapment within meaningless language became common.

Now, before I continue, It seems to me that this can be a very subtle attack on religion, specifically Christianity. What does it mean for the Word of God, if words are ultimately meaningless?

The second question, the one which I preferred and drew a fair amount of flack for preferring it, was the question "what does language do?" If you look at language as a doing rather than a saying, as a means of action rather than a conveyor of meaning, a very different picture emerges. We begin to see that language exists to do, not to describe.

Let's take an obvious example. Say I were to say to someone "I bet you ten dollars...." that some event would take place. I am not describing a bet, but am in the process of making one. Further, whatever the other person's reaction- let's say "You're on!" or "Forget it."- is also an action. We are not trying to relay information, but rather to perform an act. Unlike the indefinite nature of meaning, something concrete and definitive does happen here: the bet is made, or not. And there are many other examples. If a priest, under the proper set of circumstances, were to say, "I now pronounce you man and wife," he is making the couple man and wife right there. If I were to say "thank you," I would be thanking you.

And it goes on. If I were to tell a joke, for example, you may laugh, or not. Either way, something definite has happened. Let's say in an attempt to explain a point I were to give as an example the sentence "the dog ran down the street." As a conveyor of meaning it may be subject to a plethora of meanings- perhaps infinitely so. But as an example, it either works to illustrate my point, or it does not. The point is explained, or it is not. Either way, something definite has happened.

When this model of language (usually called speech act theory) is applied to theology, a different picture appears. God's Word is a Word in action throughout human history, not a futile description, but forming and guiding. God's Word is a concrete act, capable of taking the form of flesh, that it may speak to us more clearly.

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