red azaleas in bloom

Speech Acts

We – users of language – “do things with words.” Make promises. Confer titles. Change the world.

The right speakers in the right context, under the right circumstances, saying the right words, make things happen. It’s a “game,” technically: one of those human activities that keeps happening as long as we keep agreeing to keep making it happen, by playing by the rules that, when played by, frame the reality we weave with our activities and our words. I didn’t make that up. It was Wittgenstein, or J.L. Austin, or some philosopher of language.

John Dewey, in Art as Experience, argues at length that when people put things in order to create a particular kind of experience, they are making art. Art involves arranging the elements of appearance and perception and sensation into a coherent, meaningful, communicative whole. We don’t always call all the things that fit that description “art.” If we do not recognize ourselves as artists, however, it might only be because no one has pointed out to us how artistic we are, or what media we work in.

We do things with words in church. We make art in church. We create memorable experiences in church. We change the world, even, in church.

We do that every day. We notice it more on some days than on others, however. Nevertheless, as Dewey said, in that book:

Mountain peaks do not float unsupported; they do not even just rest upon the earth. They are the earth, in one of its manifest operations.

John Dewey, Art as Experience (Capricorn Books, 1934, 3)

If we were not already making the artful way of life we make every day together in church, then the changes we make along that way wouldn’t stand out for us as momentous, memorable, and major.

They do, because we are.

red line embellished

Context is everything. This weekend was a uniquely awe-inspiring personal example of all the above for me. Ordination is pure speech act, and “mountaintop experience.” It is also thoroughly collaborative. A lot of people did a lot of work, creatively and beautifully and kindly and generously, to make that day happen the way it did. A lot of people did a lot, over a long stretch of time, to bring that day about. Many of them were there for the event, happily; many others were not, but were present in spirit and memory, profoundly. I don’t have enough words to express all the thanks I feel. And we are still on the human side of the event. We haven’t even gotten to God – the speech actor to transcend all speech actors – from whom all blessings flow.

Now I, too, can do things with words. [“The gifts of God for the people of God.”] Things I couldn’t do before. Hopefully, for the benefit of the church and the glory of God.

red line embellished

The bulletin

The video. It really was a longer-than-average church service. I explained this to our daughter beforehand, but I think she was still a little annoyed about that.

red line embellished

red azaleas in bloom

Image: “Red azalea flowers along Tranquility Court in the Franklin Farm section of Oak Hill, Fairfax County, Virginia,” by Famartin, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

2 responses to “Speech Acts”

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