To Whom Am I Speaking? Communication, Culture, and Fundamental Theology

By Karuvelil, George | Theological Studies, December 2015 | Go to article overview

To Whom Am I Speaking? Communication, Culture, and Fundamental Theology


Karuvelil, George, Theological Studies


The Second Vatican Council arose from a desire to reevangelize the world. The administrative expression of that spirit resulted in setting up such pontifical councils as the Council for Culture, for Interreligious Dialogue, and for Promoting New Evangelization. But a fundamental theology that can intellectually equip the Church to reach out to the world is languishing. (1) After an enthusiastic beginning, fundamental theology as a discipline is, in the words of Gerald O'Collins, "threatened with non-existence" and needs to be rethought today. (2) An important contributing factor is, among other things, the ambiguous nature of this discipline. Although today the discipline is considered "strictly theological," earlier practitioners of fundamental theology were ambivalent as to whether it was primarily philosophical or theological. (3) And if this discipline needs to be rethought, it must begin with reconsidering the nature of the discipline itself. My article aims to explore this question afresh from the perspective of communication theory.

The reason for adopting a communication perspective is this: If the task of fundamental theology is to reach out to the world, and if reaching out is an act of communication, then understanding communication can help us understand the nature of fundamental theology. Key concepts of Christian faith are also matters of communication: revelation is God's self-communication to human persons; evangelization is communicating the Good News to fellow human beings. Further, communication is at the heart of interreligious dialogue, an important theological concern in the contemporary world. (4) Interdisciplinary communication can help overcome false lines of academic specialization and the intellectual fragmentation that follows. (5) Interdisciplinary communication has a special significance for fundamental theology, because the desire to interrelate the divergent systems of thought prevalent in the contemporary world is among the factors that led to the emergence of this discipline. (6)

The article is divided into two main parts. It first draws on various sources in the fields of communication and philosophy to outline some basic ideas involved in effecting communication. A key idea, borrowed from existentialist thinking, is that communication is not something that takes place in the abstract, but is something rooted in the lives of the communicator and the addressee. Culture understandably, then, plays a crucial role in the encoding of the message by the communicator and the decoding of it by the addressee. (7) The second part draws out some implications of these ideas for religious communication.

I appeal to communication theory to distinguish theology from fundamental theology and to examine the implications of this distinction for understanding each of the three (propaedeutic, apologetic, and dialogical) tasks of fundamental theology.

Beginning an article by formulating a theory of communication is an unusual procedure. Ordinarily, one begins with a review of the relevant literature. But one has only to open a widely used textbook like that of Em Griffin's A First Look at Communication Theory to realize that the field of communication is populated with numerous theories, each dealing with something different, formulated for different purposes and with different emphases. (8) We seem to need a theory that can differentiate and relate theology and fundamental theology.

Communication: The Basics

Communication is constituted by a triadic relationship between the communicator, the message, and the receiver. It involves two different actions: one performed by the communicator, the other by the addressee. (9) The communicator encodes a message in signs and sends it to the receiver, hoping for a particular response. The receiver decodes the message by selectively attending to the available stimuli, interprets it, and responds to it in what seems a fitting manner. …

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