Chapter 7: Self-Involving Language

The Language Gap and God: Religious Language and Christian Education
by Randolph Crump Miller

Chapter 7: Self-Involving Language

When one examines how language is used, it is clear that God-talk goes on and that for many people it has meaning. However, very little talk about God is possible when one is limited to descriptive language and assertions that can be empirically validated. Most religious language makes use of other categories, and it is important to know which language-game one is using and how language-games may be mixed. The word God is the key in all religious language, although phrases about him and his actions are logically odd, and we need to make use of models and qualifiers in prolific abundance if we are to provide those situations in which may be evoked disclosures leading to commitment. Although many categories of language may be used in teaching about religion, the use of poetic-simple is essential when one is seeking the possibility of new insights leading to faith.

When one speaks of commitment, however, he is led into the performative language of self-involvement.

Performative Language

Donald Evans writes that many utterances are neutral, impersonal, and descriptive.(See The Logic of Self-Involvement (London: SCM Press 1963; New York: Herder & Herder, 1969). Evans builds on the theories of J. L. Austin as found in his posthumous books: J. O. Urmson and G. J. Warnock, eds., Philosophical Papers (London: Oxford University Press, 1961); J. O. Urmson, ed., how to Do Things with Words (London: Oxford University Press, 1962); C. J. Warnock, ed., Sense and Sensibilia (London: Oxford University Press, 1963). Other utterances involve the self. If I say, "Mary is his wife," I am not necessarily involved in the relationship. In saying, "Thank you for your graciousness," I imply that I am grateful. Language is used to do things. Even if I was insincere, I committed myself to action and implied an attitude.

Such self-involving language is a species of performative language. When I say, "I submit" or "thank" or "appoint" or "judge," I am doing something, performing a speech-act. What I say is neither true nor false insofar as it is a performative, although what I say is liable to infelicities. My statement may misfire because I fail to carry through, or I am not in a position to act it out, or I make a mistake.

The self-involving performatives noted by Evans belong to two classes: Commissives and Behabitives. Commissives involve a more than verbal commitment ("promise," "pledge," "covenant," "submit," "threaten," etc.). Behabitives have to do with social behavior and imply attitudes ("thank," "praise," "apologize," "blame," etc.) Performatives need not be explicit. I can promise without using the word promise and thank without saying "thank" and worship without saving "worship." Other words, in a given context, may have the same performative force.

Evans distinguishes between the performative use of words and the causal use. The latter is not part of the meaning of the utterance but has to do with its influence on people. For example, I may evoke feelings of gratitude by saying, "Thanks be to God." The thanking is performative, but the gratitude evoked is causal.

A third use of language is the expression of feelings. Evans includes "expressive" language as a form of self-involving language. Such utterances may also express attitudes, which include being for or against someone or something. Sometimes they are strongly judgmental, including statements or implications of either opinion or value. Attitudes are relational; the expression of an attitude involves one in his relationship to another.


Some attitudes are what Evans calls "onlooks." He writes:

I have coined the word onlook as a substantive for what it is to "look on x as y." It is necessary to coin a word, for no existing word is quite appropriate. The word view would he misleading, since it is so close to "opinion," especially in its plural form, "my views concerning x." The word conception is a little too intellectual; and like "outlook" and "perspective," it lacks the element of commitment, and is too vague.(Evans, op. cit., p. 125)

Evans provides some examples that may help to make clear what he means:

I look on God as an all-knowing Judge to be feared (Or as a trustworthy Shepherd who guides me along life’s way, or as a loving Father who yearns for the return of his children). . . .

I look on my life as a game (or as a struggle, a search, a voyage, a pilgrimage, a dream, or a drama). . . .

I look on my work as a way of making money, no more (Or as one reason for living, or as my calling from God).Ibid.,p. 125.

In these onlooks there is a commissive element, for they involve policy or intention or at least a minimum of activity. There is self-involvement. There is a degree of autobiography. They take a stand. They include judgments or verdicts, for often one is ascribing status, function, or role, even though this may be only a private opinion. They may express a world view. They are expressive of feelings or attitudes. They may evoke or cause a response. These are the common features of onlooks.

Onlooks may be literal or nonliteral. When I say, "I look on Mary as a sister," this is nonliteral. If I say, "I look on the vicar as my shepherd," the onlook is parabolic, and if I say, "I look on alcoholism as a disease," it is analogical. This is the point at which I can make a religious statement, "I look on God as a Father."

This leads to the distinction Evans makes between self-involving and rapportive utterances. The former are utterances in or through which one does something. The latter are those which are understood only to the extent to which one has an affinity or rapport with what the utterance is about. All expressions of onlook are self-involving and some also are rapportive. All expressions of religious onlook arc rapportive. V/hen a person tries to understand someone of another culture, or a genius, or even a younger or older person, he has difficulty; his understanding is limited both by his own conception of what actions are intelligible and by his inability to share the other’s views. An utterance is classified as rapportive in terms of "conditions of understanding."(See ibid., pp. 104-5, 110-13)

This emphasis on rapportive utterances leads Evans to a distinction between secular-moral and religious language which he illustrates as follows:

I look on every human being as a person. By "person" I do not mean merely "human being." What I mean is this: In every person there is something which claims my concern, reverence, personal involvement and acknowledgment of value -- my "agape.". . . This attitude does not depend on his particular, observable qualities. A person is a being such that "agape" is the appropriate attitude.(Ibid., p. 134.)

As one comes to the conviction that he is in rapport with God, he looks on God as transcendent and understands that God requires unlimited submission, unlimited trust, unlimited awe, and unlimited openness.(See ibid., pp. 224-25.) To express this, he uses transcendental parabolic onlooks, involving him in worship by which he acknowledges the glory and faithfulness of God. These parables concerning God have to do with what we can see in the world, with historical events, and with the heavens which "declare the glory of God."

There is usually some authority behind one’s religious on-look. It may be a creed, a church, or a person whose judgment is considered sound. Some believe that their assertions reflect a divine onlook. Others are more pragmatic, and accept as their onlook whatever facilitates their relationship with God. There is a sense in which one "makes it true for himself" by living out the onlook in his daily life, and he is persuaded that "a hidden influence enables him to act in accordance with it."(Ibid., pp. 255-56)

Evans quotes Herbert Butterfield, who with a different vocabulary says very much the same thing:

Nobody can pretend to see the meaning of this human drama as a god might see it. . . . What one acquires is a vision for working purposes in the world, and one gains it by adopting an attitude, assuming a certain role within the drama itself . . . a mission which, though prescribed by God, must be accepted as self-assumed. . . . Ultimately our interpretation of the whole human drama depends on an ultimately personal decision concerning the part that we mean to play in it.(Ibid., p. 141. Quoted from Christianity and History (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1949), p. 86. Evans supplies the italics to make clear the correspondence of ideas.

We move from a minimal knowledge that God is to an acknowledgment of him in worship and a way of life to knowing God in acquaintance, says Evans. (See ibid., p. 200) It is this process which makes religious language essential, and to understand the process we need to understand how religious language works. Words do things. They express onlooks which are self-involving and include attitudes and commitment. Of course, men may be insincere, and hypocrisy is closely related to the misuse of performative language. Many church members have used the self-involving performative sentence, "I accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior," without involvement or commitment. But if there is a new onlook, its utterance in these words is a genuine performative. He may prefer to state it differently, as in "I commit myself to the ground of being," or "I look on the world and myself as under the authority of the creator-God revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ." Such performative utterances may still suffer from infelicities, but obviously they have implications for behavior in the world.

Dallas M. High uses a narrower view of self-involving language than does Evans. He analyzes the credo form as a performative: "I believe in. . . ." This first-person use has its own logic involving the relations between the concept "person" and the concept "belief." When I say, "I believe in Jones," I am performing an act of believing. This is different from a report or observation, "You believe in Jones." "Believing is something performed, owned, and claimed by, for someone, about and in someone or something." (Dallas M. High, Language, Persons, and Belief [New York: Oxford University Press, 1967], p. 160.) Although my believing is not infallible and is open to examination, I do not distrust my beliefs. High quotes Wittgenstein: "One can mistrust one’s own sentences, but not one’s own belief. If there were a verb meaning ‘to believe falsely,’ it would not have any significant first-person present indicative."(Wittgenstein. Philosophical Investigations [2d ed.; Oxford: Basil Blackwell, and New York: Macmillan, 1958], p. 109e.)

As we have already indicated, God-talk and I-talk are closely related. High makes the same point: "The first step in making sense of religious belief-talk, and the central claim of Christian monotheism is to observe that the word God can be quite appropriately, and, indeed biblically, modeled on the personal pronoun ‘I.’" (Dallas M. High, op. cit., p. 179.) So when I assert that I believe in God, I am willing to back up this statement with some kind of justification, reasons, or even empirical evidence. It is the kind of reasoning I use to back up my claim about my wife or my children, and the model comes from interpersonal relations. Yet I may claim that the use of the model does not mean that God is a person in the sense that you are a person, which is why all personal models for God need logically odd qualifiers.

Implications for Christian Education

As we look at the implications of self-involving language for Christian education, we need to deal with what Evans calls preunderstanding, for performatives rely on some kind of descriptive assertions about reality. There can be neutral teaching about religion, which is proper in American public schools, although it approaches a spectator sport. But the teaching of religion leads us to consider the situation and possible decision, of which rejection may be one response. Confirmation needs to be reinterpreted in terms of the significance of self-involving, rapportive, performative language. Adult education, also, must be linguistically performative, leading to action. Finally, we look at the power of words to evoke new insights and to stimulate greater loyalty and action.

Before we can turn to performative language in Christian education, some kind of preunderstanding is necessary. If a policeman says, "I arrest you for driving too fast," we can point to his authority to make an arrest, to you as the driver of the car, and to the automobile. These exist as a basis for his performative utterance. We can explain this process to the little boy in the back seat. But if I say, "I accept God’s call to follow the vocation of druggist," I find that I can only point to myself. John McIntyre tells us:

In other words, a performative statement is parasitic. For this reason we can never resolve religious statements altogether into "performatives." By their very nature as "performatives" they entail for their understanding what we might call "host" statements, some at least of which must be descriptive. The linguistic analysis of religious statements cannot finally, therefore, replace the ontological enquiry concerning the descriptive account of the contextual framework of the performatives.(From The Shape of Christology, by John McIntyre, pp. 164-65. Published in the U.S.A. by the Westminster Press, 1966. © SCM Press, 1966. Used by permission.)

The word parasitic means, I presume, to live off another. McIntyre says that a "host" statement must be strong enough to carry its parasites. Every performative statement presupposes at least a minimal knowledge on which it is based. Evans is content to leave it at this. In saving, "I acknowledge God as Lord," I presuppose that there is a God, but my acknowledgment takes me into the self-involving language that completes my picture of him through parabolic onlooks. Parables concerning God are connected with observable events and people, but the onlook points to God’s hiddenness.(See Evans, op. cit., pp. 223-27; also Evans’ essay, "Differences Between Scientific and Religious Assertions," Ian C. Barbour, ed., Science and Religion [New York: Harper & Row, 1968], pp. 101-33.)

In Christian education, therefore, we can do little about self-involvement and performatives until there is some empirical anchor. Discernment or disclosure, in Ramsey’s terms, is prior to commitment. Yet if teaching is mostly on the level of descriptive, neutral, and nonself-involving discourse, how can the student find in this a basis for a response that is self-involving in terms of behavior and commitment? Evans does not provide a solution to this problem.

The problem is easy to see. We have tools of discourse, mostly in descriptive terms, derived from scripture, tradition, and modern situations. We may use various literary forms in order to present and clarify the beliefs of the churches. Even the indifferent student may participate in God-talk at this level, for it is safe. In worship, where the language tends to be self-involving, he can remain at the spectator level. Instead of worship being an "empirical anchor," the only response is a surface one or is negative. As Bushnell saw, merely to increase teaching at this level adds to the resistance of the pupil.

Such neutral teaching may be proper in the schools, where teaching about religion in an objective fashion is the norm. But there is a large gap between such purposes of a secular school and the primary goal of Christian education. The language of the Christian faith, like the language of friendship, is meant to be performative, in terms of trust, decision, commitment, followed by behavior in both words and deeds.

This means that we need to look again at the educational implications of the suggestions of Ramsey, Bushnell, and Drinkwater. Language may be used in such a way that a disclosure may be evoked, a discernment may occur, or the imagination may be stirred. If the "light dawns" and the "ice breaks," we have a basis both for "belief that" and "acknowledgment of" which is open to analysis and checking for "empirical fit," and this can lead to commitment. The language used for such teaching is at least indirectly causal.

If the response we hope for is to come, the self-involvement must be linguistic and more. This suggests that the conditions of social learning must be such that the situation is suitable for the logically odd, poetic use of and exchange of stories to illuminate the situation. It means that what has been called "an atmosphere in which grace flourishes" must predate the language used. This places the responsibility on the teacher and the class, as reflecting the larger life of the congregation, to create the kind of interpersonal relationships in which mutual trust is possible. When anyone in a class is treated as a means or a thing, as a bag to be filled with factual knowledge that can be dumped out for examination, there is no starting point for self-involving language. When each one is treated as a person, to be respected and listened to, to be given an opportunity to tell his story as he sees it, to respond to the story of the gospel if he wishes, there may be a situation in which both existential and linguistic self-involvement may be evoked.

Of course, any situation leads to performative language. If I say, "I reject all that stuff you have been trying to put into my head," it is a strong negative judgment which is nonself-involving. If I say, "All that information about Jesus Christ leaves me cold," I am making a statement that is autobiographical and implies a negative performative. If I say, after months of struggle with an issue, "Now I see the light; this is what you have been saying all along, and I couldn’t get it," I am making an autobiographical report that includes two levels of performative, negative and positive. If we have been using many models and qualifiers, many parables, many words employing the richness of the performatives of the biblical onlook of our teaching, listening within the dialogue to whatever the students have to say, perhaps there will be moments of discernment, but this is not guaranteed by either the content or the method.

The problem involves more than the situation and the language. We are dealing with growing persons who develop new capacities for insight, discernment and commitment from day to day. For example, if we take confirmation or declaration of faith as in some degree requiring the capacity to understand, to acknowledge, to decide, and to make a commitment, we need to reconsider the age at which this can occur in the light of the findings of developmental psychology. The current practice ranges all the way from seven to eighteen years among the major denominations. For some it is the precondition for receiving Holy Communion, for others the First Communion is prior to confirmation. In the Orthodox tradition, baptism, chrism, and Holy Communion may be given to infants. If it is to be a childhood decision, with limitations on the significance of both the event and the decision, we may settle for the ages between seven and twelve. If we believe that the adolescent is seeking to stand on his own feet and identify with adults and that the church can provide an environment in which he is treated as an adult, we may place confirmation between the ages of twelve and fifteen. If we are concerned with the identity crisis, with the development of the attitude of basic trust, with the acceptance of adult responsibility within the congregation and in the world, the proper age for confirmation should be not earlier than eighteen or the school-leaving age.(See Religions Education, LVIII [Sept-Oct. 1963], pp. 411-42, and LX [July-Aug. 1965], pp. 290-302, for two symposia on "The Proper Age for a Declaration of Faith." See also W. Kent Gilbert, ed., Confirmation and Education [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969] and Confirmation Crisis [New York: Seabury Press, 1968], especially F. J. Warnecke, "A Bishop Proposes," pp. 134-43.) If confirmation is based on the expectation of a full-fledged self-involving per-formative, based on judgment, behavior, and faith, including the expression of a biblical onlook centered in Jesus Christ, as Our rituals indicate, then it is sheer hypocrisy to expect this to he a possibility prior to eighteen. If young people leave school at eighteen, if men may be drafted at eighteen, if girls may marry without parental consent at eighteen, if young people can vote at twenty-one, society is providing for self-involving performatives at an age when they have significance, meaning, and effective expression.

Even if there is agreement on a later age, confirmation poses another problem. Walter Neidhart cites the situation in Switzerland, where, at the suggestion of Karl Barth, the Apostles’ Creed is used at confirmation, and many of the confirmands either move their lips silently or keep quiet and the congregation, not being used to this creed, does not recite it either. The ceremony becomes an empty one for all. Some pastors have reacted by eliminating any declaration of faith or vow. The words used in traditional forms have become meaningless and have no performative value, or, if they have, it is open to question whether the evidence for their effectiveness can be found in church attendance or some kind of social action. Neidhart concludes that as long as confirmation is "closely connected with social prestige, this period of life is certainly not the most favorable for a public declaration of faith and the ceremony related to it should rather remain without a vow."(Religious Education, LX [July-Aug. 1965], p. 297.) Thus, we end with a nonself-involving and meaningless religious ritual.

Russell Becker suggests that there must be enough instruction prior to confirmation so that the ceremony is a performative, and that afterward education through small groups can reinforce both understanding and commitment as one moves toward maturity.(Ibid., pp. 292-94.) This leads directly into a new level of training which is essential for the churches: lay training. Confirmation would become, as Bishop Warnecke suggests, "commissioning of the layman for his ministry in God’s world. It would be a commitment to the process of becoming, not a status quo membership."(Confirmation Crisis, p. 139.)

The adult Christian, no matter what the degree of his psychological or spiritual maturity and commitment, needs education in terms of increased understanding and strengthened performatives at and beyond the level of language. He needs to see the significance of self-involving language as he makes judgments about God, the world, and other people, as he acts in various ways as a Christian in society, and as he expresses his commitment in word and action. For many, this process begins with a deepening of understanding of a Christian or biblical onlook (which may still reflect his childhood onlook). This is why theological investigation and reflection, insofar as such endeavors are relevant to the situation, are absolutely essential; one learns to think theologically about the meaning of events in his daily life, to look on the world with all its difficulties and problems as God’s world, to look on the work of Christ at least in Ramsey’s minimum statement ("God did something through Jesus Christ"), and then to respond in terms of his developing onlook. Thus, he may be led to grasp what responsible Christian behavior is for him in his work, his home, his community, and his nation. He looks on the church, with the help of biblical images, as a community of the Holy Spirit in the world rather than as a withdrawn pietistic communal group. Hopefully, he looks on worship as the "empirical anchor," the source of indwelling strength, and the expression of his onlook toward God and man.

As we have examined the self-involving language of performatives and the significance of onlooks, our analysis has opened up another channel of Christian education. When a person uses such language, his assertions do things, provided that they are not misplaced and do not misfire. Words also have causal use. They not only reflect our experiences, relationships, and attitudes, they also have the power to change one’s onlooks. Words have changed the course of men’s lives and of history. Great preaching has been the means of disclosure and commitment. Great teaching, especially when it operates within an atmosphere in which logically odd situations are evoked, has been the means whereby the "light has dawned" and a self-involving response in words and deeds has occurred. In Austin’s phrase, when we know How to Do Things with Words, the emphasis is on "do."

The potential in Christian teaching is great, and the crime has been our failure in so many times and places to make the proper use of words. We have put great effort and devotion into using the wrong language-games. Our dry, sterile, impotent theologizing and catechizing has produced, as Drinkwater says, "neither light nor heat," and while we were talking our listeners, like Eutyches when Paul was lecturing, fell asleep. But it need not be so, if we begin to see how the imagination can create models and metaphors, can use logically odd qualifiers, can present ideas in poetic-simple language, so that new onlooks may occur. But can onlooks be changed and how? To that problem we now turn.