• Vested Interest

Doing Things With Words

Mary Davenport Davis
January 20, 2016

One of the best books I read in graduate school was How to Do Things With Words, by the philosopher of language J. L. Austin. The words “graduate school” and “philosopher” notwithstanding, the book’s enduring value for me lies in its simplicity. In 150 concise and engaging pages, Austin lays out a truth both blindingly obvious and rarely articulated: Language is not just about communication. We do other things with words besides conveying information.


Let’s take an example: what’s the difference between saying “I’m sorry” and “I apologize”? Say I tell my husband that I will make dinner, but, absorbed in the new episode of “Sherlock,” I forget. I might say “I’m sorry,” by which I’m communicating information: I regret that this happened. I wish I’d remembered at least to order pizza so that we wouldn’t end up hungry and angry and exhausted. This kind of statement has truth value: I could be lying. Maybe I don’t regret it at all, and would much rather enjoy the latest puzzles from Mark Gatiss’s devious mind than throw some pasta and jarred sauce together. Luke might even challenge me on the truth value: “You’re not sorry!” I could imagine him saying.


But if I were to say instead, “I apologize,” what kind of a statement is that? I’m not really communicating information—not directly. You might infer information, such as my guilt, repentance, or regret; but what’s really happening with these words is an action rather than a communication: the act of apologizing. By saying, “I apologize,” I am doing the thing which we call an apology. This sentence doesn’t have truth value in the same way. So if Luke suspects that I chose diehard Sherlock/Moriarty shipping over his grumbling stomach, he can’t say “You don’t apologize!” What sense would that even make? He might say, “You’re not sorry,” or “That’s not a real apology because it’s not sincere,” but there he’s questioning the implied truth, not the stated truth. (Note: No relationships were harmed in the making of this blog post. Also, feel free to yell about Sherlock in the comments.)


Here’s the plot twist: Of course, the “I’m sorry” example isn’t entirely accurate. We do say “I’m sorry” when we’re not sorry, all the time; and even when we’re insincere, the statement still functions as an apology. Think about teaching a toddler manners: “Say sorry!” we insist. We can’t make our kids be sorry; but we accept that the apology has value in itself.


Now for the liturgical tie-in. If I ask you what your biggest problem with a church service is, what comes to mind? Bet you a cookie it’s the Nicene Creed. Everyone struggles with the Nicene Creed. “We believe,” we say, and then we give a laundry list of increasingly implausible statements. Do we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church? Do we really? Do we even know what we mean by that? Some of us do (I occasionally count myself as one of them). Many of us don’t.


The part that breaks my heart is that we feel so guilty about this disbelief. We may cross our fingers as we speak, or just fall silent for things we don’t feel comfortable espousing. Many of us find the Creed alienating—if I don’t believe what we say we believe, do I still belong here?


Here’s what I believe: The Nicene Creed, like so much of our spoken liturgy, is what we call a speech act, or performative utterance. Its value lies outside of the realm of truth value. If I say “I believe in the resurrection of the body,” God isn’t going to reply, “No you don’t! Liar!” Speaking the words of our faith tradition aloud is, itself, doing something. It’s making us part of one community. It’s anchoring us into the generations of Christians who came before (some of whom also, I can assure you, wanted to cross their fingers during some phrases). It’s owning a truth that we do not understand and that lies outside of our power to communicate through words. It’s claiming our foundational hope: the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.


At "Vested Interest," church nerd Mary Davenport Davis explores all things liturgy and music at Trinity and beyond. Chime in with comments and questions!