Faith, Science – and SpeechPosted by Lori Wilson on February 6, 2013
From time to time we owe the discipline of philosophy a debt of gratitude for its gift of helpful, concrete and actionable ideas. One of those gifts is the theory of “speech acts.” As initially developed in the 1950s by J.L. Austin, it points out something that we intuit but seldom make explicit: in the act of speaking, we do more than transfer information, we also “do” something.
To borrow an example, imagine that I shout, “There’s a spider on your lap!” While it’s true that I’ve just communicated a fact to you, it’s also quite likely that I’ve frightened you. Furthermore, we can reasonably assume that you’ll now jump up or brush off the spider – though I haven’t in fact suggested that you do so – or not in so many words. The six words that I used to announce a fact have done quite a bit more than merely convey a piece of information.
Predictably, the theory gets fairly involved and elaborate, and philosophers have debated the nuances a great deal. What relates to our work at TCF, however, is the way in which this theory helps us think about our language. When we’re dealing with controversial issues, it’s more important than ever to really be intentional about what we’re doing with our words – and speech act theory helps keep us honest.
In an environment of heightened tensions, words tend to do more than we might usually recognize. It’s tough to ask an “innocent” question when any remark is likely to tap deeply held convictions. When I engage a controversial issue – say, evolution & creation – it’s crucial that I be clear about just what it is I’m after. If I ask you, for instance, “Do you believe God created the world in six days?” it’s important that I recognize what I’m really trying to get at. Is it a mere question about your thoughts on the means of creation? Or am I trying to discern what theological ground we have in common? Am I really asking: “Can I trust you? Or will your beliefs threaten mine?” In addition to my being honest about my own speech, I must realize that my words will have an impact on you. By merely asking the question, it’s entirely possible I’ve caused a spike in your blood pressure. Regardless of my intent in asking the question, you’re likely to wonder, “Does she really just want to know? Or is this a test?” As you can see, in any conversation there’s often a great deal more “going on” than first meets the eye.
By acknowledging the “active” power of words, we not only guard against harmful language, but we also find ways of speaking that build up the body of Christ. In a contentious conversation, I can choose language that defuses the strain, rather than heightening it. “Tell me about how you see God in creation,” puts me on an entirely different footing with you. Your blood pressure doesn’t rise, and you’re reminded of the awesome majesty of the world around us. We continue our conversation about God, and creation – and we may even get to a discussion about the six days. But the words that launched our conversation “did” something different: they reminded both of us that we’re together in looking for God in this amazing creation all around us. They signaled that we’re on the “same side,” and that we can trust each other. That our conversation is rooted in what we share in common.
As we work to extend God’s love to one another – even (or especially) in difficult conversations – speech act theory is one tool to help us along the way. We at TCF try to keep an eye out for “gifts” like this one – insights to support practices which in turn can shape us as Christians who increasingly “disagree well.” We firmly believe that a deeper awareness of the active power of our words will help us to better reflect Christ, the Word of God, as the one in whom all things hold together.
Note: The classic text on speech act theory is J.L. Austin’s highly accessible How to Do Things With Words. The “spider” example is borrowed from Steven Davis’s article, “Perlocutions.” Speech act theory has been particularly useful in the field of biblical interpretation; see for instance Richard Briggs’s Words in Action: Speech Act Theory and Biblical Interpretation.
Lori Wilson, Project Coordinator for TCF, is currently on study leave at King’s College, London. She is working towards an MA in Systematic Theology, with an emphasis in “Transformation Theology” – exploring the day-to-day implications of God’s transformative presence in our world. Her work with the Forum centers on the practice of hospitality as a Christian virtue. Lori and her husband Kurt, along with their two teenagers, are enjoying this year of double-decker buses, proper cups of tea, and quite a lot of rain.