So Speak and So Act…

Language, the essentially human in [humankind], can be abused in order to dehumanize [humanity]. The task of a theory of language in the most ambitious sense therefore consists of a defence of the humanity of language, for the sake of the language of humanity.[1]

What we say sits right beside who and what we are. Our speaking does not take us away from the particularities of our life. Language is a central part of our being-with one another. It has two kinds of significance; we use language to communicate with one another in daily life. This is something of a ‘second-order’ kind of significance, since we (Wittgenstein and others notwithstanding) don’t spend that much time reflecting on the basic and fundamental structure of language. The other kind of significance I call ‘first-order’ because the feelings of discomfort that it evokes in others, is very acute. What I have in mind is expressions of pain. In the past few days, I’ve been thinking about crying in public. People do not know what to do with this. It’s considered a disruption of the dominant aesthetics in the public sphere. In other words, it’s an act that acknowledges that things have gone wrong. This expression of pain is a form of language that is rarely, if ever truly heard. The cries of Tina Fontaine’s mother and others like her, have been overlooked and simply ignored for as long as this country has existed. The screams and tears of those being bombed and losing loved ones in Gaza is drowned out by the sound of the next explosion. The agonized screaming of those who are exhausted by the non-value attached to black life, is silenced with tear gas and rubber bullets.

Throughout his work, Gerhard Ebeling makes reference to what he calls “the experience of the world”. For him this is essential for Christian faith. I think he is correct, and for this reason, I will use the term with reference to the experiences of those on the underside of various forms of violence and domination in the world (western cultural hegemony, patriarchy, state violence, etc.). As I said before, language is an important part of our being-with one another, and this involves pain and suffering. Going back to contemporary events, such as the turmoil in Ferguson following the murder of Michael Brown, and the recent murder of Tina Fontaine in my own city , I’m wondering what people have said in light of this? There has been screaming, lament, condemnation and prayer, among other things. With this in mind, I think Ebeling is right when he says that “Language contains within itself the whole fullness (and paradoxically this also includes the whole poverty) of the life and suffering of the human race”[2].

One of the problems in Christian communities of faith is the question of what must be said. Too often nothing is said, or a posture of (false) mediation is assumed. This is unacceptable. The debilitating force of settler colonialism and the non-value attached to black lives are not unspeakable evils; they are very speakable evils. The task at hand for those communities who choose silence, is to join those who are speaking the language of suffering. Ebeling is right when says that “If the language of faith ceases to be in dialogue with the experience of the world it has effectively become the language of unbelief”[3].

The church who is not engaged with the troubles of ‘undersided’ bodies, must become nothing by entering the spaces of non-being. So far we know this involves speaking, and for the church, speaking always includes proclamation; there is something to be said, and said with boldness. So with my companion Gerhard Ebeling, I would like to ask this question: What is the language of faith? What should it be? The first thing that should be said, is that the language of faith is thoroughly historical (to use a somewhat dated ‘existential term).The speaking of faith does not remove us from the world and our responsibilities in it. It is not something distilled out of the ordinary language of the world. For Ebeling the “language of the world” refers to the ‘confusion of the languages of the world’. He explains what all of this means:

It covers the whole complexity of what cannot of itself be uttered on the basis of faith, but within which the language of faith, accepting and rejecting it responding to it and contradicting it in all kinds of ways, takes living form. Only within this encounter with the language of the world, and indeed only by this means can faith be uttered at all. And the language of faith exists only because of this encounter[4]

The language of faith is simply impossible without the language of the world, as the language of faith comes to speech through the language of the world. Ebeling’s work on this topic, and this particular insight (the inseparability of the articulation of faith and social-historical context) has much to contribute to hermeneutics, and it also has ethical implications. My guess would be that Ebeling inherited his concern for the language of the world, from his teacher Dietrich Bonhoeffer. For the two of them, the world can never be abandoned. It would be safe to say that for the two of them, Christian faith ceases to be Christian faith when it abandons the world. A faith that does not attend to the wretched of the earth is a faith without Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the sole criterion for the language of faith, and as the sole criterion, he does not ‘come to speech’ without the world:

The constant reference of the language of faith to Jesus forces it into the dialogue of faith with the experience of the world. Consequently, this all-embracing process of language cannot attain any definitive final resting point within history, in which the language of faith would be out of danger, uncontested and beyond dispute. Nor can there be any standpoint outside one’s own participation in this process of language from which one can decide upon or resolve the dispute as a neutral arbitrator.[5]

To speak the gospel of Jesus Christ, is to address the world, not as one standing over it (neutral arbitrator), but as one bound up with its various systems and spaces. Christian proclamation should be intersectional. As language in dialogue with the world it must attend to the social matrix in which we find ourselves, such as race, gender, power, sexuality, etc. This means that the language of faith of must risk its certainty in its engagements with the world. Its truthfulness is not guaranteed prior to its engagement with the world. According to Ebeling: “the claim to truth can only be put forward here on the condition that it is permanently challenged.”[6].

It should go without saying, that Christian proclamation is concerned with truth. But what does that mean? Those who gather around the proclamation of the crucified Jesus , are not only called to speak , but to act ; however centralizing the efficacy of white people is the purpose nor should it be the cause of Christian speech and action. For those who gather around the Christian proclamation there will be times when we are in the uncomfortable position of standing behind wounded and afflicted bodies, and taking their lead. This requires ears to listen and hear the truth.

On the question of what it means to speak the truth, Ebeling writes:

If the language of faith is to be in harmony with Jesus, then it must have an unreserved obligation to tell the truth. We must at once add, in explanation of this, that we are referring to the truth which concerns the whole [person]; the truth by which one can live and on which one can rely in life.[7]

Here we find Ebeling drawing a connection between truth and life. (i) Commitment to Jesus means commitment to truth (ii) commitment to truth means commitment to life. What is commitment to life in the face of death? It is best to answer this question by attending to the spaces of death in one’s own social-historical context. For myself that would be the ongoing struggles of Canada’s Aboriginal people after centuries of settler colonialism. One of the most acute results of this is the ongoing epidemic of missing and murdered Aboriginal women. In my own city it is far from uncommon for Aboriginal women to go missing and never return. For those of us in my city who gather to hear the proclamation of the crucified Jesus, what is the truth that we must hear, from those who have lost mothers, sisters, friends, lovers, and neighbours? What must we say when we must speak?

I cannot say what we are to hear in the abstract, so I can only repeat the words of Tina Fontaine’s mother: “It just hurts”. It is words like this spoken , in the middle of a circle of candles , that should keep our mouths closed and our bodies standing still; aware of the fragility of space and the violence of eliminating somebody else’s. To answer the second question, the first thing that we can say is that these murdered and missing women bear the imago dei (a doctrine that is rarely affirmed in any meaningful sense) , and the effacement of their personhood , and the attachment of non-value to their lives is unambiguously evil. These are the truths that must be spoken on behalf of life. This interplay of speaking and listening will be costly! Identities will be opened, returned and decomposed. If we are really interested in the truth, then there is no backing away from the task of learning to love those who have been defined as non-persons. On the connection between truth and love, Ebeling writes:

If the language of faith is to be in harmony with Jesus, then for the sake of truth, it has an obligation to love. It would perhaps be more accurate to say that it has an obligation to truth for the sake of love.[8]

To conclude this post, I will repeat myself: In light of Gaza, Ferguson and the murder of Tina Fontaine, and the broader problem of state violence against non-white bodies, those of us who gather to hear the proclamation of the crucified Jesus, are obligated to speak the truth and to be confronted when it is spoken. With that said, I will let Ebeling have the last word:

[The] gospel does not take the form of isolated words existing alongside a supposedly naked reality. The only way in which it can be uttered is by referring to the reality which in some form or another has already been brought to utterance, the reality which makes such complex claims upon men and is so passionately disputed amongst them. This process of language, which has already been going on for an immensely long time, and in which the experience of the world is concentrated in an infinite variety of forms, is essential to the word of the gospel.[9]







[1] Ebeling, Gerhard. Introduction to a Theological Theory of Language;. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973. 128.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid. 192

[4] Ibid. 189-90

[5] Ibid. 195

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid. 196-97

[8] Ibid. 198

[9] Ibid. 203


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