I have always had interest in languages, and four factors have particularly deepened my interest in the whole subject of communication.
First of all, as an undergraduate I majored on the study of historical linguistics, looking at the evolution of the Germanic and the Slavonic languages from their Indo-European roots. This gave me the ability to understand the basic mechanics of language, and an insight into the circumstances which cause a particular language to change.
Secondly, on a personal level, I have developed a particular interest in autism, and the issues of communication that confronts someone who is autistic in a neurotypical world. My experience has led me to appreciate the non-verbal aspects of communication, and recognise the way language only expresses a certain percentage of what is being communicated.
Thirdly, for the past fifteen years, I have been ministering in an environment which is very different from my own natural background – not so much culturally, as in the fact I have a very high level of classical education which has shaped and moulded the way I express myself. This has not always been an advantage!
Fourthly, and most importantly, God has called me into a relationship with Himself through the death and resurrection of His Son Jesus Christ, who is Himself called the Word of God. My life’s work therefore is to understand that relationship and to respond to God’s call upon my life. This means above all else that I need to learn how God communicates with me, and how I might by His grace and mercy communicate with Him.
So the issue of communication is at the heart of my academic interests, my personal life, my ministry and my faith.
What, then, is communication?
That’s a question which has occupied philosophers for millennia. My rough working definition is that it is about someone expressing something of meaning in such a way that another person is able to understand and respond to that expression. I am sure there are better definitions!
First of all, we need to tackle the question of meaning. It has become fashionable during the course of the last century to even deny the very idea of an objective meaning. Culturally the works of people like Jackson Pollock and John Cage call into the question there is any meaning to works of art, at least meaning that is accessible to anyone other the creator of these works (Francis Schaeffer’s work is very helpful at this point). Philosophically post-modernism has rejected the idea of an authorial meaning. Meaning is whatever the person receiving the communication wants it to be. There is no one standard of truth, which of course raises all kinds of questions about societal norms, shared ethics, education etc. etc.
On a popular level the question of meaning has also been raised by the rise of what has been called the post-truth society. Increasingly truth is no longer seen as something agreed or negotiated, but as a matter of personal experience or what works for me. We can see this, for example, in the current debates within the church about human sexuality where for many people the starting point for any discussion is their own experience. The problem is, as the church is discovering, it is hard to build a general consensus which enables the whole to function well together, when the foundations are subjective and individualistic.
Secondly, and more helpfully, post-modernism does remind us that so often communication is used as a tool of power and potentially of abuse. Those with power are often the ones who communicate and they expect those without power to receive their communications passively or unquestioningly. As a church we need to be reminded how words have all too often been agents of oppression, and the legacy of abuse the church still bears to its shame is one that we need to own and to confront.
That’s why a genuine Christian faith has to start with the Word of God who uses His power not to be served, but to serve and give His life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). The way He demonstrates His use of power is to bend down and wash His disciples’ feet (John 13:3-4), pointing forward, of course, to the cross where, as the apostle Paul reminds us, made himself nothing, taking the very form of the servant.
But there is the still very real question of whether the original meaning behind a communication can be recovered. This is particularly true of an ancient group of texts such as the Bible, written anything between 2000 and 3000 years ago (roughly). However what marks out the Bible, as opposed to many other religious texts, is that it is open to critical analysis:
- There are an ever increasingly volume of ancient manuscripts, unparalleled by any other writing of that era, and taken in conjunction with growing understanding of other texts of the time we are able to interpret the linguistic data in most cases with a fairly high degree of confidence.
- Archaeological discoveries are increasingly corroborating the historical data of the Bible, for example the first inscription referring to Pontius Pilate discovered at Caesarea Maritime in 1961 or the first extra-Biblical reference to the house of David found at Tel Dan in 1994.
- The interpretative history of the church which although problematic in some areas has helped to draw out key doctrines from the Bible such as the nature of the Trinity and the divinity of Christ.
Of course in a post-truth society the labours of such critical analysis are not seen as carrying much weight, no matter how impressive the evidence. So the search for meaning needs to go deeper, and this is where we need to bring in a factor which secular philosophy by definition tends to reject – the person and nature of God.
The message of the Bible is that we have a God who speaks. The first recorded speech-act took place when God said, “Let there be light” and there was light (Gen 1:3). The whole story of the Bible affirms that God speaks through creation (e.g. Psalm 19:1), through the history of His people, and supremely through His Son Jesus Christ. To quote the opening words of Hebrews: “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.”
Of course we have to then ask ourselves how we hear Jesus speak to us today. This is where we have to bring in the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Central to the Christian faith is the claim that God the Father and God the Son comes to live in the hearts of those who believe (John 14:23) and that the role of the Holy Spirit is to guide such believers into all truth (John 16:13).
Communication theory has taught us that if we are understand clearly what someone is saying, it is important not to understand the words but also know the identity of the speaker. Knowledge of the speaker’s identity helps us to ascertain the truthfulness of the words we are hearing and the intent behind those words. It is this personal knowledge which the Holy Spirit imparts about Jesus the Word of God and enables us – amazingly enough – to understand the good, pleasing and perfect will of God Himself (Rom 12:1-2)
Or to put it another way, effective communication is a product of relationship. The fact we have just mentioned God Father, Son and Holy Spirit points to the reality that however we understand the Trinity, there is an unbroken and eternal relationship at the heart of God, with perfect and loving communication between its three members.
Having a Trinitarian understanding of God also helps us to appreciate more deeply what it means for us humans to be made in the image of God. We communicate because we reflect the very nature of a God who communicates. Our relationships have meaning because they are ultimately created by a God who is relationship and who seeks a relationship with us. It means that there is a way out of the existential maze where everything is relative and truth is only personal and subjective.
To quote Francis Schaeffer: The validity and meaning of love rest upon the reality that love exists between the Father and Son in the Trinity. When I say I love, instead of this being a nonsense word, it has meaning. It is rooted in what has always been in the personal relationship in the Trinity before the universe was created…Love is a thing not only of meaning, but of beauty and wonder to be nourished in joy (F.Schaeffer, the God who is there, p.106 in Francis Schaeffer trilogy, Crossway Books 1990 (reprinted))
Therefore the question of communication is not only a philosophical or linguistic issue, but also a deeply theological one. To quote from the Puritan writer, Richard Baxter:
Nothing can be rightly known, if God be not known; nor is any study well managed, nor to any great purpose, if God is not studied. (R.Baxter, the Reformed Pastor, p.56, The Banner of Truth 1983 (reprinted))
That is why any theory of communication needs to take seriously the reality of revelation, and the uncomfortable truth that we have a God who speaks. Equally, however, if the church is to address what is for many people a difficult question of truth and meaning it needs to show that the Biblical metanarrative is credible, is real and relevant. That is the challenge we need to address, and with some urgency, if our voice is to be heard in any way at all.