Part 4: Communication and Communion
It is a mistake to see language as purely instrumental in the sense of being just to convey information or to get things done. Some aspects of verbal communication don’t have any particular conceptual content to them – rather they are there to form or to maintain a connection between persons. For instance, “How are you?” is not primarily a request for information but a means of forging contact with another human being, as is asking about the weather, at least in Britain. Likewise, utterances such as “Mmm … yeah … uh huh” and so on that indicate that one is still listening are a means of maintaining human contact.
The cultural anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski coined the phrase “phatic communion” to describe this function of language as he observed it in Melanesia. Malinowski defines phatic communion as “a type of speech in which ties of union are created by a mere exchange of words.”1 Making a similar argument, the fantasy writer Ursula Le Guin calls the language of power that is abstracted from the world and gets things done the “father tongue” and the fuzzier conversational and domestic language that maintains connection with the world and with other persons the “mother tongue”.2
Le Guin does not identify the “father tongue” with male speakers only or the “mother tongue” only with female speakers, though they seem to correlate at least with social constructions of typically masculine and feminine roles. A similar distinction is made in more directly gendered terms (which I would not necessarily endorse) by one of the characters in C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, the third novel in Lewis’s Space Trilogy:
“The cardinal difficulty,” said MacPhee, “in collaboration between the sexes is that women speak a language without nouns. If two men are doing a bit of work, one will say to the other, ‘Put this bowl inside the bigger bowl which you’ll find on the top shelf of the green cupboard.’ The female for this is, ‘Put that in the other one in there.’ And then if you ask them, ‘in where?’ they say, ‘in there, of course.’ There is consequently a phatic hiatus.”3
To speak is to give of oneself to the person addressed. “Communication” and “communion” are almost the same word and historically have significantly overlapping meanings – though not the most common meaning in everyday conversation, to “communicate” can still mean to participate in communion in the sense of the Eucharist/Lord’s Supper. As time has gone on, “communion” and “communication” have drifted apart in meaning, with “communion” retaining the sense of connection at a deep level, a belonging together, and “communication” becoming thinned out to mean the conveyance of disembodied bits of abstract information.
Mark Gring, a communication studies professor at Texas Tech University, argues that “communication is itself a covenantal activity”, with the shared conventions that make linguistic exchange possible signifying the interpersonal commitment of members of a given community to one another.4
One aspect of humans being made in the image of God, it seems, is that God speaks and so do we. I would suggest that there is another way in which human communication images God. Since humanity is made in the image of God, and God is Trinity, it seems reasonable to suppose that some aspects of God’s triune nature are reflected in human experience.5
God not only communicates with his creation, but God communicates within himself. The threeness of God means that God is a relational being. God is not just loving, God is love – loving is the essence of who God is. Augustine suggested that the Holy Spirit is the bond of love between the Father and the Son. The Cappadocian Fathers spoke of the Trinity as being constituted by a mutual interpenetration, a constant giving of one person to another in an eternal communication of love.6 Although I do not think that the persons of the Trinity communicate with one another through sound waves or marks on paper, it seems plausible that human language images in some way the inter-Trinitarian communion of love.
Communication necessarily entails communion, perhaps of a minimal kind, but to get something across to someone requires us to acknowledge that someone, at least for a moment. It might make a difference, though, if we were more conscious of this and more deliberate about speaking in a way that affirms the other’s humanity, to use words not just as tokens for things but as connections to persons, and to communicate in such a way as to foster communion.
1 Bronislaw Malinowski, ‘The Problem of Meaning in Primitive Languages’, supplementary essay in C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards, The Meaning of Meaning: A Study of the Influence of Language upon Thought and of the Science of Symbolism (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1923), p. 478.
2 In a 1986 commencement address at Bryn Mawr College, published in Ursula K. Le Guin, Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places (New York: Grove/London: Gollancz, 1989), pp. 147–60, and discussed by Rowan Williams in Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 2000), pp. 72–5.
3 C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (London: Bodley Head, 1945), p. 203.
4 Mark A. Gring with Bill Strom, ‘Communication, Covenant, and Community: Theoretical and Ritual Interconnectivity’ (unpublished paper, National Communication Association convention, Orlando, Florida, 18 November 2012). I am grateful to Dr. Gring for sending me a copy of this paper. Cf. Kevin Vanhoozer’s view that we should see language not primarily in terms of conventions of discourse but in terms of “the covenant of discourse” (Kevin Vanhoozer, Is there a Meaning in this Text? The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (Leicester: Apollos/Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), pp. 204–7, 432–36; Kevin J. Vanhoozer, ‘From Speech Acts to Scripture Acts: The Covenant of Discourse and the Discourse of Covenant’, in Craig Bartholomew, Colin Greene and Karl Möller (eds.), After Pentecost: Language and Biblical Interpretation (Carlisle: Paternoster/Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), pp. 1–49).
5 The finding of analogies in the world of human experience to the Trinitarian nature of the Godhead is a precarious business – hence Calvin, for instance, was suspicious of analogies to the Trinity drawn from the natural order. It seems to me that, while we will go off track if we seek to come to an understanding of God by tracing back from analogies in the natural order, it is valid, having received God’s revelation about his own nature, to see intimations or reflections of God’s triune nature in the world around us. For some interesting historical examples of analogies for the Trinity, see Dennis R. Klinck, ‘Vestigia Trinitatis in Man and his Works in the English Renaissance’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 42.1 (1981), 13–27.
6 This was termed perichoresis, a term whose etymology is contested, but which some have claimed derives from the idea of “dancing into” one another, a suggestive image whether or not the etymology holds.
David Parry currently teaches early modern/Renaissance English literature and practical criticism for various colleges of the University of Cambridge, where he pursued his undergraduate and graduate studies. He greatly enjoyed a year’s postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Toronto before returning to Cambridge, and appreciates the ongoing friendships forged there. He is currently writing a book entitled Puritanism and Persuasion: The Rhetoric of Conversion and the Conversion of Rhetoric, and has published articles on various sixteenth- and seventeenth-century topics. He is an Associate Editor of The Glass, the journal of the Christian Literary Studies Group (UK). He is also involved in the Cambridge University Christian Graduate Society and in Christians in the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (CHAS), an informal group of Christian graduate students and academics interested in relating their faith to their studies. Some of his academic work can be viewed at https://cambridge.academia.edu/DavidParry.