Essay
Character
Comment
6 min read

Our language use is leading to a cultural abyss

We are witnessing a profound loss of commitment and discernment in the use of language, writes Oliver Wright.

After 15 years as a lawyer in London, Oliver is currently doing a DPhil at the University of Oxford.

Four rugby players stand and watch beside a referee gesturing with his arm.
Rugby players wait upon Wayne Barnes' word.
RFU.

The 2023 Rugby Union World Cup Final was one of the most iconic international matches in living memory, involving two of the most iconic teams – the All Blacks and the Springboks. It’s not surprising that after reaching such a pinnacle of a sporting career, there should be retirements that followed. But two retirements caught my eye. Not from players, but from referees: Wayne Barnes, the most experienced international referee in the world, the main match official, and Tom Foley, also highly experienced, the Television Match Official. Why? Wayne Barnes’s statement is particularly gracious and thoughtful. But the reason given in common with Tom Foley, and indeed many others in similar situations and similar high-pressure roles in the public eye, is worrying: online abuse. After the cup final, death threats were even sent to the school of Foley’s children.   

Online abuse has become an endemic, worldwide problem. There are real people issuing these threats and abuse; and there are real people receiving them, and responding in some way. Of course, there is also the problem of online ‘bots’. But they only succeed in their abuse because of their imitation of real abusers.  

It’s worth asking why, because we can go beyond the helpless handwringing of ‘the perils of being online’. There are philosophical and indeed theological reasons, and philosophical and theological ways, I suggest, of climbing out of the abyss.   

In fact, all words ‘act’ in some way. Even plain truth-describers assert something, such that an interlocuter can learn or discern for themselves. 

Let’s go back to the 1950s, when two important advances in the philosophy of language and in religious language occurred. The first came from Oxford, and the White’s Professor of Philosophy, J.L. Austin. The second came from Durham, and its then Bishop, Ian Ramsey.  

Austin, whose remarkable life and work has now been brilliantly documented for the first time in the biography by Mark Rowe (published by OUP, 2023) was a decorated Second World War veteran in the intelligence corps who was widely recognised as being one of the masterminds of the success of the D-Day Landings. On his return to Oxford in the late 1940s he perceived with great dissatisfaction a certain philosophical move which accorded the greatest importance in language to words and phrases which described things, which indicated some form of empirical truth about the world. For sure there were other kinds of use of language, religious language, emotional language, and so on, this argument continued. But that was fairly worthless. Describing cold hard scientific truth was the true utility for language.  

Austin’s most famous response was in his book How To Do Things With Words. The function of language goes way beyond the scientific description of the world. Language acts, it does things. We promise, we name, we cajole, we threaten, we apologise, we bet. There is no real ‘truth’ as such conveyed in such ‘speech-acts’. Their importance lies, rather, in what is thereby done, the act initiated by the words themselves. Or, in the Austin-ian jargon, the ‘illocution’ within the ‘locution’.   

But Austin realised something even more important as he investigated this form of language – these performative utterances. In fact, all words ‘act’ in some way. Even plain truth-describers assert something, such that an interlocuter can learn or discern for themselves. What matters is how ‘forceful’ the relevant act of speech is in each case. Sometimes the speech-act is very simple and limited. In other cases, such as threats, the performative aspect of the utterance is most forceful indeed.   

Austin’s student John Searle took the idea of performative language to America, and developed it considerably. Most notable for our purposes, however, over against Austin’s idea, was the separation of speech from act. By analysing the conventions and circumstances which surround the performance of a speech act – a baptism service for instance – we can observe how and why the act occurs, and how and why such an act might go wrong. But the debate was then divorced from the context of speakers themselves performing such actions, an integrity of speaker and action. The philosophical problem we then hit, therefore, is that a spoken word and the associated act (‘locution’ and ‘illocution’) are two entirely separate ‘acts’.  

Let’s move now from Oxford to the great Cathedral city of Durham. At the same time as Austin was teaching in Oxford, the Bishop of Durham Ian Ramsey – apparently unaware of Austin’s new theory of performatives – investigated religious language to try and get to grips with both how religious language does things, and what it says of its speakers and writers. Ramsey developed a two-fold typology for religious language – that of commitment and discernment. First, religious language implies two forms of commitment: there is the speaker/writer’s commitment of communicability, a desire to communicate, to be comprehensible, to ‘commune through language’; and the speaker/writer of religious language also  entertains prior commitments for the language adopted – language is rarely neutral when it comes to religion. Second, religious language implies a form of discernment about the words that are being invoked and for what purpose. They are not universals, but carry special meanings according to the particular conventions involved. Commitment and discernment.  

But this new innovation in the philosophy of religious language too was taken up and developed away from Ramsey’s idea – particularly in the much more famous work of John MacQuarrie, a Scottish philosophical theologian who spent much time teaching both in the States, and in Oxford. In MacQuarrie, writing at the height of the influence of thinkers such as Heidegger and Bultmann, Ramsey’s ‘commitment’ and ‘discernment’ got subsumed into existentialism and myth. The religious speech act became merely an event or an act for the self, a personal matter which might involve transformation, but might not.  

 These two strands, of the philosophy of language as it got taken up by Searle and his American counterparts, and of the philosophy of religious language as it got taken up by MacQuarrie, have for some time now predominated. And it is only recently that scholars on both sides have begun to perform a ressourcement, both on Austin, and on the nature of religious language in the wake of Bultmann.  

 The Twitter-sphere seems irrevocably to have divorced the bonds that tie speaker to their acts. In these fertile conditions, abuse flourishes. 

We can now return to the cases of Wayne Barnes and Tom Foley, and many others in many different walks of life just like them. Undoubtedly, the emotional, existential, and physical distance secured by interacting online has created the conditions for online abuse to flourish. But at a deeper level, what we are witnessing is a profound loss of commitment and discernment in the use of language, in society as a whole and also in the Church. Real people feel free to use language oblivious to any inherent act contained within it. The Twitter-sphere seems irrevocably to have divorced the bonds that tie speaker to their acts. In these fertile conditions, abuse flourishes. Similarly, in the Church, the commitment and discernment which has lain behind millennia of liturgical and doctrinal language has become a private spiritual matter; or indeed has been neglected in public when religious witness has not been matched between word and deed.  

How do we walk back from this cultural abyss? There is an ethical, and, potentially, a religious choice to make. The ethical choice is to think about what our language does to those who read (or hear) it, and to change the way we speak or write, accordingly. Ramsey's modes of ‘commitment’ and ‘discernment’. The religious dimension is to recognise that our words bind us to a system of belief, whether we like it or not. Saying one thing and doing another in a religious context implies a diminution in value of language for all concerned, not just the private life of the individual believer.  

Actions speak louder with words.  

Article
Belief
Comment
Life & Death
Politics
4 min read

Did God save Donald Trump?

In the aftermath of the assassination attempt, Graham Tomlin asks whether or not we can see the hand God at work.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Red hat with the words Make America Great Again

Given the polarised nature of American politics and the venomous nature of the debates, the assassination attempt on Donald Trump was not entirely a surprise, even if a massive shock to the system. It was both tragic for those who were killed and yet a relief for everyone that Trump survived, not least for the unimaginable consequences across the country if he had not.

It doesn’t take a very deep dive into the maelstrom that is Twitter/X these days, to discover a common theme among Trump supporters - that God shielded him from a certain death. “God protected President Trump,” Senator Marco Rubio posted. “God saved the life of Donald Trump” say a million others, confident that the seemingly miraculous slight head tilt at the moment of the shot that ensured the bullet hit his ear, not going through the back of his temple, was a moment of divine intervention.

Yet look elsewhere on X and you can find vast numbers of people equally certain that this is complete nonsense. God did not save Donald Trump, either because there is no God to save anyone, or because if there is a God, either he doesn’t intervene at all, or even if he did, he certainly wouldn’t want to save the likes of Donald Trump.

If God saved Trump, they say, why did he not save the life of Corey Comperatore, the volunteer fireman who was killed by bullets fired from the gun that was used in the attack?  Trump supporters respond with the claim that Trump has a special calling, justifying divine intervention, to ‘restore the Judaeo-Christian heritage to America’ as one tweet put it.

So, which is it?

Christian thinkers have normally held to the possibility that God can and does, at decisive moments, interrupt the normal flow of history.

Christian thinkers have normally held to the possibility that God can and does, at decisive moments, interrupt the normal flow of history. After all, the central Christian claim is that he did this in remarkable acts of deliverance such as the Exodus, at key moments in the history of Israel and most importantly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And, they claim, he does it in less prominent ways, as testimonies to prayers answered and apparently miraculous occurrences suggest.

Yet divine interventions like this are by definition rare. In one of Douglas Coupland’s novels, one of the characters ponders a Christian group that expects constant miracles: “They’re always asking for miracles and finding them everywhere. In as much as I am a spiritual man, I do believe in God - I think that he created an order for the world; I believe that, in constantly bombarding him with requests for miracles, we are also asking that he unravel the fabric of the world. A world of continuous miracles would be a cartoon, not a world.” He has a point.

Yet a world without any interventions at all would be a world which God had seemed to abandon to its fate. The idea that God set up his world to run like clockwork with no further intervention is Deism, not Christianity, a theology popular in the C17th and C18th, still found today, but leaves God watching us from a safe and uninvolved distance. It would lead to the conclusion that God did not really care that much about the world, leaving it to its own devices, especially when evil runs riot and nothing seems to prevent it. Such interventions are best seen as signs, special indications that do not ‘unravel the fabric of the world’, yet are tangible reminders that even though it is broken, God has not given up on this world, and will one day redeem it.

Yet if God can and does step in at certain moments to divert the course of history in a fallen and broken world, that doesn’t mean that every claim to divine intervention is genuine. So how can you tell? Who do we believe?

If God can and does step in at certain moments to divert the course of history in a fallen and broken world, that doesn’t mean that every claim to divine intervention is genuine. So how can you tell? Who do we believe?

At several points in the Old Testament, writers wonder how you can tell the true prophet from the false. One of them answers like this: “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken.”

To be honest, this doesn’t appear to help much. You can tell if a person has got it right if their prediction comes true, but at the time, you have no idea whether it will come true or not, so it still leaves you in the dark as to who to believe.

Yet it does suggest an important insight. You can only tell God’s intervention retrospectively. You can only say with a degree of confidence that God has ‘intervened’ when looking back on events and seeing how they turn out.

If Donald Trump is elected, and somehow brings about harmony and flourishing for as many people in the USA as possible, stabilises the economy, enabling all people to live a decent life, not just the rich and powerful, restores a sense of civility and generosity to public life, resists the forces of harm and evil in the nation and in the world, and brings freedom for Christians and others to practice and promote their faith, then maybe we might look back in future years and say that God did step in on July 14th 2024 to frustrate the purposes of evil in the world.

Yet if none of that happens, and what results from his survival is instead a deeper fracturing of social cohesion, a coarsening of public debate, a siege mentality that divides the world between ‘us’ and ‘them’, an increasing divide between the rich and the poor, the elites and ordinary people, then we might in future say it was mere chance, one of those random things that happen in this created yet fallen world with its mysterious blend of order and chaos.

Which will it be? Time will tell. Until then, we’d better be cautious about claims of divine intervention. Not because God never does it, but because we’re not very good at telling when it happens.