V. Communication Theology

By Soukup, Paul A. | Communication Research Trends, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

V. Communication Theology


Soukup, Paul A., Communication Research Trends


Theology--the systematic reflection on religious experience--also provides an avenue through which to approach media and religion. On the one hand, some scholars focus attention first on language, interpersonal communication, or other kinds of interaction as the locus of theological understanding. Without this basis, they hold, one cannot move to the question of a theology of media. On the other hand, some look first to mass communication as the experiential basis for theological reflection, arguing that the media's structure or content either facilitates or hinders religious practice and knowledge. Both groups explore the religious meaning of the communication experience.

A. Language

In a work devoted to pastoral counseling, several writers examine how one can communicate about religious experience. There are, of course, different ways to speak about any spiritual experience. Herman Andriessen maintains that "the key role is played by the everyday language" rather than the language of theology or that of psychology (Andriessen 1998: 53). Communication involves the whole of a person and everyday language is more likely to express that whole than is a specialized language. Tjeu van Knippenberg sees a complementarity among the languages of psychology, spirituality, and theology. Doing a kind of "conversation analysis" of the transcript from a spiritual direction session, he holds that people must learn to translate from one language register to another.

   Each of the languages connected to these disciplines
   aims, in its own way appropriately to
   express systematically what has become clear, or
   what is suspected or supposed. The clarity
   obtained is related to the amount of perceptibility.
   The more directly perceptible, the more empirically
   researchable, and so the more precisely
   translatable ... (van Knippenberg 1998: 20)

Theological language aims for precision no less than other languages. Therefore the task of the pastoral counselor is to identify the language and help the one receiving direction to better perceive what is going on in his or her life. Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger offers a third approach. Holding that these languages address different logical registers, she argues that they are not translatable. In this, she draws her model from the pattern of the declaration of the Council of Chalcedon about the two natures (divine and human) in the one person of Christ. Just as they are not confused nor mingled nor hierarchically ordered but distinct, on different levels (rather than on a continuum of nature), she holds that theological and psychological concepts function on different logical orders (Hunsinger 1998: 30-33). The value of this debate among these pastoral counselors lies in calling attention to the religious uses of language, the ways of speaking about the spiritual, and the linguistic or communication underpinnings for theology.

Stephen Pickard (1999) undertakes a similar task but on a greater scale. His analysis focuses on the human communication necessary for evangelism. Asking why evangelism and theology often stand opposed to one another, he uses Habermas's theory of communicative action to explore how a theology of communication might serve as the basis for evangelism. He uses critical theory--but one attuned to theology--to unmask the "systematically distorted communication" that can lead evangelism to encourage an individualistic faith rather than one promoting Christian community. Evangelism must become "the horizontal dimension" of the praise of God (Pickard 1999: 83). For Pickard the challenge of language lies in its use to create an authentic human community. Insofar as the Gospel proclamation seeks the same end, he asks how that proclamation becomes distorted and whether the theological discomfort with certain kinds of evangelism can help to identify what Habermas calls the communication patterns that "prevent genuine understanding between peoples" (ibid. …

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