Let there be light!
The work that words do among us is pretty amazing, maybe even miraculous. When we use words, we are able to make things present for others without those objects and experiences being actually present. A skilled writer is able to transport her reader to another place and time by deploying words that describe what is otherwise unavailable. When two people talk with one another and describe what they are thinking to each other, the thoughts in their own heads are made available to their conversation partner. I’m typing words right now that are bringing to your attention some ideas that I’ve been carrying around for the last few days in my own imagination. No one has had access to my thinking until right now and it’s because of the words that I’m writing and you are reading.
What’s more, the very act of putting words together into thoughts and sentences either to record them in writing or in an effort to communicate with another person can help us actually formulate our thoughts, feelings and beliefs about the world around us and the experience of our lives. This is one of the reasons that journaling can be so helpful. The act of writing provides us a way of organizing our thoughts in ways that they wouldn’t be if we hadn’t taken the time to write. Organized thoughts are almost always better for us than jumbles of impressions, ideas and feelings.
Words are the way we make sense of the world.
Having someone who practices active listening with us is another way that this can happen. As I use my words to share something with you and you paraphrase what you hear from me, it helps me think things through in ways that I probably can’t do on my own. Your interpretation, shared back with me, even if it is inaccurate and I need to find other words to correct your misperception, all helps me find the right words to describe what’s going on in my life. If we say to one another, “no, that’s not quite it, it’s actually this way…” then we are further on the path to mutual understanding. All of it is made possible by words shared between two people, words that describe things as they are.
But words can do more than merely describe reality. They can actually make reality.
The English philosopher J. L. Austin described this phenomena In his 1955 book, How to Do Things with Words. It’s worth the read if you find this topic interesting. To summarize, Austin observed that sometimes when we use words, we aren’t merely describing things that exist apart from the words, we are actually constructing new realities with those words. He called these words “performative utterances”; later thinkers on this topic have used the label “speech acts” or “performative speech.” If I tell you, “I promise to have lunch with you next week,” my words are actually creating a relationship between us that didn’t exist before. Even if I fail to take you to lunch, the promise (now unfilled and therefore, unhappy) still exists. If a boss says to a worker, “you’re fired!” those words don’t just describe the worker’s unemployment. They actually make that person unemployed!
This is interesting in the context of our spiritual lives because much of what God says is actually in the category of performative speech. When the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews describes the word of God as “living and active” it’s God’s performative speech that they have in mind. When Genesis declares that God calls light into being out of the darkness God’s word is a speech act. The words themselves are actually making the light, not merely describing light that already exists.
These words that do things mark Jesus’ ministry as well. The Gospel according to John describes a miracle that Jesus does just by speaking. A man of the royal court seeks out Jesus, hoping that Jesus will heal his son who is deathly ill. Jesus is in the town of Cana, the place where he had earlier turned water into wine. The boy lies dying in Capernaum, a town about 15 miles away. The man makes his request. Jesus’ response is to tell him to return home to his son who he declares “will live.” Jesus doesn’t go anywhere. He doesn’t touch anyone. He only uses words. The father heads for home and on the way his staff meets him and shares the happy news that his son is recovering. When the father asks when the boy’s health began to improve, he is told that the fever broke at exactly the same time that Jesus announced the boy’s recovery. The relieved father makes the connection. He interprets that it was Jesus’ actual words that created health for his son.
God’s word makes things to be that were not there before God spoke. This isn’t just true in the Bible stories. It’s true for you and for me as well. Jesus calls us “blessed” in spite of circumstances that suggest otherwise. He calls us “forgiven” while we are still incapacitated. He calls us “heirs of God” while we are still trying to unsuccessfully make a place for ourselves. God’s word names us “beloved by God.” Jesus isn’t just telling us how things are. When God makes declarations over us, we aren’t being described, we’re being made. It’s miraculous.
We can participate in God’s performative speech acts for ourselves. When we say to a classmate or colleague, “You belong here,” we aren’t just describing things as they are. We are making things as they are.
Oct. 20, 2021
- James Wetzstein
- A charming tale for over-achievers
- A Lesson On Beans … and Being
- As if we needed a reminder
- Better Together
- Blessings As You Go
- Good Friday
- Imagining Eternity
- In everything, grateful
- Knowing a Good Thing When We See It
- Let there be light!
- Naming our demons
- On the day after the night before
- Persistent and Extravagant
- Right where we are
- The Trouble with Mammon
- Walking in the Light of Jesus’ Resurrection
- We’re on a mission from God
- What good is a shepherd?
- Won’t you be my neighbor?
- You might be a Lutheran if…