Posted by: Dan | October 13, 2006

Volf and the Language of the Church

Well, over the last two days I have had the privilege of attending a series of lectures presented by Miroslav Volf. The lecture series, offered as the 2006 Laing Lectures at my school, was called “A Voice of One's Own: Public Faith in a Pluralistic World.” The first lecture was entitled, “The Malfunctions of Faith: Idleness and Coerciveness,” the second lecture was called, “A Faith that Makes a Difference” and the final lecture was called “A Peaceable Faith.” Part of what made the lectures so interesting was the fact that a few profs from my school were able to respond to Volf's lectures and then engage in a panel discussion with him.

There was one exchange between Volf and my professor Hans Boersma that I find particularly interesting. Volf had concluded his first lecture by emphasizing that the Church must exist as a counter-culture for the common good. Boersma challenged the term “counter-culture” and argued that the Church should be understood as a complete and unique “culture.” Volf then expressed some discomfort with the notion of the Church as a culture and the example that he provided was intriguing. “For example,” he said, “I do not think that the Church speaks her own language.”

This caught my attention, given the fact that “postliberal” theologians, in light of Wittgenstein's notion of “language-games” and Lyotard's notion of “petit recits [small stories],” have been emphasizing the uniqueness of the language of the Church.

Consequently, at the end of the third lecture when I had an opportunity to speak with Volf I pressed him on this point. If the Church does not speak her own unique language, what language does she speak? Indeed, could it not be argued that a further “malfunction” of the contemporary Church in the West is precisely the fact that she has lost her own unique language and capitulated to other language-games, allowing her world to be shaped by words and meanings that are foreign to her?

Unfortunately, Volf did not have time to respond in full. He began by expressing his discomfort with any approach that understands language as strictly functional and then went on to affirm the argument that the Church is, inevitably, caught speaking the language of those around her — how can she not?

I then attempted to take the question from another angle and asked, taking Barth as a guide, whether or not the Word of God could be described as the truly unique Language of the Church; indeed, is it because the Church is ever only a witness to the Word, that the language of her proclamation is not unique?

Volf began by expressing his discomfort with Barth's approach to language (analogy in particular) and, alas, this is about as far as we got. He noted that this topic is one that is particularly important today, but also noted that such things were difficult to discuss briefly and the night was late and others were coming and going, getting books autographed and expressing their thanks.

So I am left hanging. Anybody want to pick up on these questions?

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