Words, Words and more Words

Posted: April 26, 2012 in Hermeneutics
Tags: , , , , , , ,
Cover of "The Way of the Heart"

Cover of The Way of the Heart

In his little book, The Way of the Heart, Henri Nouwen writes in response to the inundation of verbal information, both written and spoken, “Words, words, words! They form the floor, the walls, and the ceilings of our existence.” He precedes these words with the qualitative descriptions of the means by which they are disseminated. He says that they are “softly whispered, loudly proclaimed or angrily screamed; words spoken, recited, or sung; words on records, in books, on walls, or in the sky; words in many sounds, many colors, or many forms; words to be heard, read, seen, or glanced at; words which flicker off and on, move slowly, dance, jump, or wiggle.” Essentially you get the picture that we live in a world of words. Centuries ago words, especially the written word, held a significant authoritative value within the community. In the post-modern world, however, the proliferation of words is has come to mean many things particularly what the interpreter of those words wants them to mean.
In as much as people try, human beings have a gross tendency of filtering perception through the lenses of personal desire. This in effect allows us to see and learn only what we want to learn. Stanley Fish illustrated this tendency anecdotally with a class he taught. Using a series of random words written on the chalk board as a list, he had his class interpret them. The result was that the class interpreted the words as according to their previously formed hermeneutical lens. The result of his demonstration is that words can “often” mean what the interpreters want them to mean. Without even a conscious recognition any given interpreter will apply her/his own agenda to the task of interpretation, thus coming to a predetermined outcome dependent upon the hermeneutical starting point of the said interpreter. Admittedly this seems like a skeptical perspective regarding the endeavor of interpretation. However, the element that restrains the manipulative attempts of individual interpretation is the presence of community. Even as Alasdair McIntyre has argued regarding the essential role the moral community plays in the process of interpretation, I would argue further that within the church there exists (or at least should exist) an interdependent dialogical element which holds these interpretations in tension with the hermeneutical community (in the best functioning cases). This brings me to the heart of my point in this blog entry. Even as Nouwen has identified this inundation of words in our society as a threat to meaning, I would argue that in the process our society (the US culture as a child of modernity in its many layers) has redefined the English words the church has historically used to express the character and purpose of its presence. For example, as I published in a previous post, “justice” carries particular definition and connotative meanings primarily shaped by western democracy setting it apart from biblical terminology used by the church historically. This is true for many of the words we use.
How this occurs is through the rapid and prolific repetition of these terms within particular contexts that slightly adjust the meanings. Over time these new meanings become the norm for usage in the popular culture. Unfortunately for the church, and the Church of the Brethren in particular, with the reinterpretation of the core convictions of the community and the adoption of western modernity as the controlling hermeneutical lens, the church finds itself in a particularly confusing predicament regarding communication and interpretation.
As the diverse constituencies engage in conversation they use the same language but ultimately talk past each other because the meanings of particular key words have different meanings for the various groups. A simplified example of this is as group 1 communicates message A, group 2 interprets it as message B then re-communicating it back to group 1 as message B group 1 then interprets it as message A. Obviously unacknowledged this becomes a frustrating cycle creating a sense of betrayal leading to mistrust. What becomes most troubling in this process is if any of the constituencies purposefully use the plurality of meaning as a means of manipulating the process of conversation to attain their own purposes. Even while it may not be intentional, the result is divisive as trust in the process is broken and words become meaningless.
So what is the answer? Much like a therapist with an embattled couple, the solution begins with active listening as a corrective to the plurality of meaning. It is only in the dialogical process of stating, asking for clarification, and restating that the hermeneutical gap can be spanned. The biggest challenge is for the parties involved to create a space in which they can sit down to begin the hard work of communication. Unfortunately, with Nouwen I agree that our words have lost their “creative power.” We have spent so much time using words to argue our points, rationalize our positions, fortify our perspectives that when we do speak the other isn’t able to hear us but only speculate as to what our motivation or agenda is. We have created our own vocabularies of power words with especially significant symbolic meanings to the relevant constituencies. In all our efforts we have dismantled our ability to communicate in meaningful and creative ways.
With all this said I’m suggesting a moratorium on words. I know this is an impossible suggestion, but imagine how much more carefully we would choose what we would say and how we would say it if we spent a year in complete silence. Maybe the desert fathers had a point. Perhaps there is some wisdom to be gleaned by spending an extended time together in complete silence. Perhaps the Word might again mean something to us.

  1. Benb says:

    While active listening and intentionality in communication can be almost unbelievably effective when dealing with miscommunication – even seemingly intractible miscommunication – I’m not sure what, if anything, can be effective if there is or has been intentional use of language or manipulation of meaning underlying to create an illusion of ‘miscommunication’.

    With the embattled couple or parties in a legal dispute, dialog is effective if clarity is the end goal for each. That desire for clarity can wear a lot of clothes – self-absorbption is a favorite coat – but in the end, it is effective communication that can peel back the layers and get to the base desire for understanding and clarity – not unity or agreement or any of those things that get wrapped up with bows – and create opportunity for transformation.

    When one or both of the parties is crystal clear as to where they are headed and that the trip doesn’t have much to do with the other – unless of course the other is willing to resounce where they were headed and change course – and when effective communication or dialog or active listening or mirroring or reflection (or whatever your tool du jour) is not aimed at clarity but at convincing the other to join the trip or stay at home, transformation — at least beneficial transformation — isn’t on the menu.

  2. Andrew says:

    Hey Ben,

    Thanks for the comment. You have illustrated perfectly how frustrating the church’s predicament is. Even while active listening is a starting point there necessarily is a multitude of other factors required for transformation to take place, an open willing determination first and foremost. What is especially frustrating for me is that in the process of words being manipulated we have a tendency to surrender these same words completely. We simply stop using them because the painful experience of their misuse leaves a bad taste in our mouths. And so we discard them making any process that could or would lead to transformation that much more difficult. We see this in our refusal to use words such as, elder, discipline, and accountability within our church polity. Now in our current context, with the misuse of words such as justice, righteousness and sin, there is a real potential that we will abandon those terms as well. What has become increasingly apparent is that all parties involved are increasingly applying post-modern methods of interpretation and manipulative communication practices (spin) to further their agendas. You know as well as I do how frustrating it is to try to work with integrity in such a climate.

  3. Benb says:

    Well said. There is tremendous power in framing the conversation. Much of what we see as miscommunication all too often is either an intentional framing of the conversation or response to that framing. The world of the conversation gradually becomes narrower and narrower and steered in one direction or the other until all involved find out that they are neither on the same page nor in the same book. Your post nails it.

    There are things to do when you discover that and better want to understand how you got there (or here) – the tougher question is what to do if upon discovery (if indeed discovery was necessary) you are happy with the book you are in. Enjoy the blog! Post more often.

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