Let me give you some dry theory—of the “analytic philosophy of language” variety—and then do something with it. I will be brief with the theory. If you find the philosophy tiresome, feel free to skip the next section; the doing that I do, I think, will be able to make do without it. To keep the reader on the hook: the “doing” in question is an explanation of why many college ministries, even those run by godly and well-intentioned Christians, are inherently self-undermining.
In his seminal work How to Do Things With Words, J. L. Austin divides a speech act, a verbal utterance that functions as an action, into three components:
- The locutionary act is the actual utterance of the words themselves. (Ex: “Please pass the salt.”)
- The illocutionary act is what the locutionary act constitutes. (Ex: a request that someone pass the salt.)
- The perlocutionary act is what is accomplished by the utterance, assuming it is successful in its goal. (Ex: someone passes the salt.)
Now, imagine the sequence of steps in which a total speech act is performed: a locutionary act, followed by the recognition of the illocutionary intention by some second party, followed by the corresponding perlocutionary fulfillment of that intention.
Borrowing Austin’s framework, the British neo-Kantian philosopher Rae Langton has argued for the existence of a certain form of agential harm that she calls illocutionary silencing. Illocutionary silencing occurs when an agent fails to accomplish her intentions in a speech act, due to external, environmental circumstances which cause that second, intermediate step—the recipient’s recognition of the locutionary intention—to misfire. In a case of illocutionary silencing, the recipient does not understand what the speaker is intending to do, and so the speaker’s intended effects upon the recipient are nullified, and the perlocutionary act never occurs.
(Specifically, in her paper “Speech Acts and Unspeakable Acts”, Langton argues that a culture that has normalized pornography makes it difficult for women to deny consent to sex, because men enculturated with media in which sex is never refused will not readily recognize the speech act of a refusal—even something as straightforward as “No”—as being what it is.)
Now, with the notion of illocutionary silencing in your back pocket, indulge me as I relate one of the most impactful moments of my life.
Some time in late 2019, I was in the balcony of Johnson Chapel, one of the oldest buildings on the Amherst College campus, watching the college’s a capella groups perform their sets for the parents’ weekend showcase. The Christian group, Terras Irradient, soon took the stage. I knew and loved (and know and love) many in that group, and had prayed powerfully with several in particular; so I knew the genuineness with which they sang, and, indeed, experienced it with them as worship.
Before a stage of visiting parents, hyper-secular students, and college dignitaries, these young Chrisitans poured their hearts out to Jesus Christ. It was palpable that they were not primarily performing, but worshipping. During one song, this refrain built higher and higher: “Here I am, at Your feet, in my brokenness complete . . . and I know I’m weak; I know I’m unworthy to call upon Your name; but because of grace, because of Your mercy, I stand here unashamed.” The lead singer was not only singing, but embodying those words, charged with emotion and the love of her Father. She made herself vulnerable, proclaiming her own broken trust in God.
And then came “In Christ Alone.” For anyone unfamiliar with this modern hymn, it is pure Gospel, a declaration of confidence that Christ, in His Resurrection, has crushed the head of death for all who will follow Him. The group concluded their rendition with the following refrain, borrowed from a different hymn:
On Christ the solid rock I stand,
All other ground is sinking sand,
All other ground is sinking sand.
Finally, the song faded, and the voices stilled, along with all movement on stage. The room, too, was silent.
From the balcony, I saw classmates, administrators, passing acquaintances, friends. I saw a throng of scaly-eyed seculars drunk on the opiate of irreligion, mingled with self-conscious ex-Christian apostates, mixed with shamelessly vocal advocates for beliefs and practices which the Christian faith denounces as not only wicked, but vile. They had all just been condemned from the stage, their lives declared to be built upon sand. One dear friend, raised in the church but no longer a Christian, had been watching from an adjacent balcony with a guarded expression, one that I could neither read nor place.
My heart still thrilled from the shared experience of worship, I wondered: How would these people react to what they had just heard? To the declaration that, unless they repented and turned to Christ, they would be lost forever in the darkness of hell?
As you might have guessed—they loved it.
In response to the proclamation of Christ’s fearsome claim over their lives, abruptly, the whole chapel filled to the brim with applause. Neither was this a guarded applause, a mere, scattered, cautious courtesy. It was the applause of a crowd that had converted the entire performance into a merely aesthetic bauble to be appreciated, cooed over, and then thrown away.
In that crowd, there was no recognition of what they had just been told, nor of the seriousness with which the Christians had told it. If the doctrines of the Gospel had been comprehended at all, it was only as an aesthetic curiosity: a memory of a backward and thankfully long-trampled age, in which the chapel in which they sat would have been filled with warnings of the wrath of an angry God. It was the trappings of religion without its comprehended heart, lending the performance, still merely aesthetic, the much-sought-after quality of “authenticity”.
“What pretty music!”
It would be difficult to describe how sick that applause made me feel.
Today, I would like to suggest that what happened in that chapel was a case of illocutionary silencing. Because of the context in which the Gospel was presented, the audience was unable to see it for what it was. And why not? The chapel itself, once the haunt of Calvinist missionaries, had been turned into a collection of office spaces. The sanctuary had become a generic gathering space, used for everything from convocation ceremonies to the festivities of Pride Month. It was not a chapel, even though those who built it had intended it as such. And T.I.’s performance, to this crowd, was not a hymn sung to Christ, nor a warning of the wrath to come. It was just another song—wedged, if memory serves, somewhere between Billy Joel’s “The Longest Time” and a sultry rendition of “Paint it Black”.
I have often pondered the following passage from Søren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or:
A fire broke out backstage in a theatre. The clown came out to warn the public; they thought it was a joke and applauded. He repeated it; the acclaim was even greater. I think that’s just how the world will come to an end: to general applause from wits who believe it’s a joke.
Over the course of about a year following this experience, I came to believe that the phenomenon of illocutionary silencing applies to academia at large. Virtue is a habit; in many ways, so also is piety—a habit of the mind. Secular academia lends itself to detached analysis, and to the affectation in writing and speech, and even in structured thought, of aloofness from all of the ideas at hand. Academics, particularly in the realms of religion and philosophy, compare and contrast, weigh and measure and inspect with a fine-toothed comb, but never commit themselves to a purchase; they hem and haw and hmm and hedge everything with a thousand scholarly qualifications, and treat religious convictions, even their own, as merely human phenomena. They approach dogmas and sacred texts that ought to inspire holy fear with the deliberative mindset of a secondary school teacher grading and annotating his students’ essays with a red pen. All of this trains complacency and disregard for the pressing claims, and personal demands, of faith.
Christian ministries that work in academic settings need to recognize this nullifying function of their environment. By and large, because of where they are, they are not taken seriously. This is not because the modern university actively and consciously hates them, nor because it harbors some salient positive conviction that Christianity is false. Rather, it is because the radical claims that Christians make have no place, and very few ears to hear, in a setting dedicated to deconstruction, agnosticism, and insouciance. And, too often, it is because those radical claims clash with the countervailing witnesses of Christians who embody the same familiar academic detachment—and the same pursuit of credentials, money, prestige, success, and so on—as everyone else.
If Christians in and near the academy desire to be effective evangelists—or even to attract some reaction, any reaction, besides condescension and indifference—they will need to address all of this head-on.
For my part, I used to desire a career in professional philosophy. For reasons probably planted in that moment in Johnson Chapel, I’ve now abandoned that particular aspiration. I can do little good as a witness for Christ while speaking in a self-imposed language in which everything that has ever happened, every word and deed great and small, every idea from the glory of God to the misery of Hell that presses existentially upon the human soul, is a proposition to be dissected as a detached, disembodied scholar through the lens of a panopticon pointed at the cells of imprisoned ideologies abstracted from the metaphysical realities at which they grasp. I need to live in a world that breathes.