"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Saturday, April 28, 2007


I've been wanting to come back to the topic of the Beatitudes. As I've said before, the Beatitudes can be understood as reversing our view; they are are about reversing our expectations, our understanding, our knowledge of what is good. But to get to that point, I want to start with what Boreas said here:

Robert is, of course, using The Complete Gospels, Annotated Scholars Version, Revised and Expanded Edition, Robert J. Miller, editor; (HarperSanFrancisco, 1994) Miller is also responsible for this translation, as well as an Introduction to Luke and notes to the Gospel.

Miller's note regarding this passage reads as follows:

Congratulations (makarios) traditionally translated "blessed." "Congratulations" better expresses the performative language of the Beatitudes, which grant the recipient recognition of good fortune.

Later, in an explanatory note regarding the usage of "Congratulations" and "Damn you" in these passages, he says,

The traditional translation "blessed" lives on primarily in its connection with the Bible, apart from sayings like "bless you" when someone sneezes....In colloquial English, bless does not mean a declaration of God's favor.

The language of the beatitudes is performative: performative means that the words accomplish what they say...."Blessed" is archaic language and now nearly empty of meaning. To translate "happy" or "fortunate" is to introduce connotations that are not present: the poor and the hungry are not "happy" or "fortunate." Further, "happy" or "fortunate" misses the performative character of the language.

Damn: The traditional translation of the Greek interjection ouai is "woe."....Like the term "congratulations!," "Damn" is performative language: it is like pronouncing sentence on a convicted criminal.

Other opinions may (and probably do!) differ, but I find that these translations bring life to Luke 6:20-26 in a way I have never perceived it before.
The question of performative language raises the question of translation and interpretation, two conditions which often appear alike (as the poet said).

"Performative language" is not a grammatical term, but one taken from speech act theory, specifically from the work of J.L. Austin. Already we are wading into waters I haven't really entered since graduate school almost 30 years ago, so what I can say about speech act theory is limited, at best. These two sources, however, give us enough of a window onto the theory to be helpful. Let's start with the first one:

As John Searle puts it, "All linguistic communication involves linguistic acts. The unit of linguistic communication is not, as has generally been supposed, the symbol, word, or sentence, or even the token of the symbol, word, or sentence, but rather the production or issuance of the symbol or word or sentence in the performance of a speech act." Meaning, then, should be regarded as a species within the genus intending-to-communicate, since language itself is highly complex, rule-governed intentional behavior. A theory of language is part of a theory of action. The basic emphasis of speech act theory is on what an utterer (U) means by his utterance (x) rather than what x means in a language (L). As H.P. Grice notes, "meaning is a kind of intending," and the hearer's or reader's recognition that the speaker or writer means something by x is part of the meaning of x. In contrast to the assumptions of structuralism (a theory that privileges langue, the system, over parole, the speech act), speech act theory holds that the investigation of structure always presupposes something about meanings, language use, and extralinguistic functions.
Clear as mud yet? Perhaps a bit of detail will help:

Austin divides the linguistic act into three components. First, there is the locutionary act, "the act of 'saying' something." Second, there is the illocutionary act, "the performance of an act in saying something as opposed to the performance of an act of saying something." Third, there is the perlocutionary act, for "saying something will often, or even normally, produce certain consequential effects upon the feelings, thoughts, or actions of the audience, of the speaker, or of other persons." In other words, a locutionary act has meaning; it produces an understandable utterance. An illocutionary act has force; it is informed with a certain tone, attitude, feeling, motive, or intention. A perlocutionary act has consequence; it has an effect upon the addressee. By describing an imminently dangerous situation (locutionary component) in a tone that is designed to have the force of a warning (illocutionary component), the addresser may actually frighten the addressee into moving (perlocutionary component). These three components, then, are not altogether separable, for as Austin points out, "we must consider the total situation in which the utterance is issued -- the total speech act -- if we are to see the parallel between statements and performative utterances, and how each can go wrong. Perhaps indeed there is no great distinction between statements and performative utterances." In contradistinction to structuralism, then, speech act theory privileges parole over langue, arguing that external context -- the context of situation -- is more important in the order of explanation than internal context -- the interrelationships among terms within the system of signs.
These ideas arise from the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein. To put it in the context of Western philosophy, David Hume left us apparently unable to speak about anything of importance. Analytical statements, Hume concluded, gave us facts, but those were largely self-evident to his empirical mind. Synthetic statements asserted opinions, principles, conclusions, arising from those facts, but as they were unprovable empirically, they were useless and discussion of them fruitless. Wittgenstein took up that point and argued that all problems of philosophy were the result of misunderstanding the nature of "language games" (which is, you understand, to over-simplify Wittgenstein grotesquely, but this isn't a philosophy seminar now, is it?). This example may seem gnomic or even gnostic, but I think it sums up Wittgenstein fairly well, at least for our purposes here:

It is true that we can compare a picture that is firmly rooted in us to a superstition; but it is equally true that we always eventually have to reach some firm ground, either a picture or something else, so that a picture which is at the root of all our thinking is to be respected and not treated as a superstition.

I think of that as Wittgenstein moving from Hume to Kant in a fairly compact way. Perhaps this will illustrate a bit better Wittgenstein's primary concerns:

God's essence is supposed to guarantee his existence--what this really means is that what is here at issue is not the existence of something.

Couldn't one actually say equally well that the essence of colour guarantees its existence? As opposed, say, to white elephants. Because all that really means is: I cannot explain what 'colour' is, what the word "colour" means, except with the help of a colour sample. So in this case there is no such thing as explaining 'what it would be like if colours were to exist.'

And now we might say: There can be a description of what it would be like if there were gods on Olympus--but not: 'what it would be like if there were such a thing as God.' And to say this is to determine the concept 'God' more precisely.

How are we taught the word "God" (its use, that is)? I cannot give a full grammatical description of it. But I can, as it were, make some contributions to a description; I can say a good deal about it and perhaps in time assemble a sort of collection of examples.

Remember in this connection that though we might perhaps like to give such descriptions of the use of words in a dictionary, all we in fact do is give a few examples and explanations. But remember too that more than this is necessary. What use could we make of an enormously long description?
Alright; enough, I hope, that you get the idea, or at least the larger context. Here is perhaps a clearer statement then, of Austin's concerns:

In his famous work, "How to do Things with Words," J. L. Austin outlined his theory of speech acts and the concept of performative language, in which to say something is to do something. To make the statement “I promise that p” (in which p is the propositional content of the utterance) is to perform the act of promising as opposed to making a statement that may be judged true or false. Performatives cannot be true or false, only felicitous or infelicitous. Austin creates a clear distinction between performatives and constantives, statements that attempt to describe reality and can be judged true or false, but he eventually comes to the conclusion that most utterances, at their base, are performative in nature. That is, the speaker is nearly always doing something by saying something.

For Austin, what the speaker is doing is creating social realities within certain social contexts. For example, using an explicit performative, to say “I now pronounce you man and wife” in the context of a wedding, in which one is marrying two people, is to create a social reality, i.e. in this case a married couple.
That last example is particularly felicitous, because speech act theory, as indicated by Miller's comments on the Beatitudes, has become a favorite topic in theological and scriptural studies circles; in no small part because it allows theologians and biblical scholars to talk about things they formerly literally had no concepts for.

When God comes on the scene in Genesis 1 and says "Let there be light," it is the ultimate performative act. John later picked up on this, making logos both the creative force of the cosmos, and the creative function. We are accustomed to hearing that famous phrase of the beginning of creation as a command, a directive. But to whom would God address such a command? Creation itself? Isn't that what God is doing? How do you address and command something which does not yet exist? But if you think of it as performative language, as an "illocutionary act," it becomes clear that God's speech is, indeed, action. (This is why the singer Alanis Morissette is a speechless deity in the movie "Dogma." God's speech is the ultimate performative act. God does not command; God does. You can see, our language can't quite contain the concept we are trying to express here; which is another philosophical problem).

Again, when Ezekiel prophesies to the valley of dry bones, it is performative language: his speech, through God, causes the bones to be alive again, flesh to be knit on them, breath to enter them (although that breath comes from God). There is a marvelous and powerful intimacy here, as pneuma (Gr.) and ruach (Hebrew) both mean, equally, breath; wind; and spirit. Without all three, there is no life. If you have one, you have all of them. And what are words, except breath? And yet certain words, Christains profess, also have the Spirit in them.

Well, you can see where that goes. Returning to the Beatitudes, why should be consider them "performative language," since there is no way to determine that from the grammatical case used by Matthew or Luke or Q? (Jesus would have spoken Aramaic; already we have a translation/interpretation problem, as the Gospels are written in Greek.) Clearly an airtight case cannot be made (grammer trumps all?), but a fairly strong one can be built simply by considering who Jesus was speaking to. Was he speaking to them? Or to us?

It's a simple but fundamental shift in thinking which the analysis of "performative language" underscores. If Jesus is speaking to the crowd, but is merely describing a condition which should exist, or which someday will exist, it is nothing more than an empty promise and a statement of conditions in an indeterminate future. A uselessly cruel statement, in other words, especially as it is addressed to the ptokoi; not, as Dom Crossan notes, the poor, but the absolutely destitute. Crossan points to the play Plutus, by Aristophanes, where Poverty, or Penia, distinguishes itself from beggars, the ptochou. The address here is to Poverty, who responds:

What have you got to bestow but a lot
of burns from the bathing-room station
And a hollow-cheeked rabble of destitute hags,
and brats on the verge of starvation?...
For a robe but a rage, for a bed but a bag
of rushes which harbor a nation
Of bugs whose envenomed and tireless attacks
would the soundest of sleepers awaken.
And then for a carpet a sodden old mat,
which is falling to bits, must be taken.
And a jolly hard stone for a pillow, you'll own;
and for griddle-cakes barley and wheaten,
Must leaves dry and lean of the radish or e'en
sour stalks of the mallow be eaten....
Are the blessings which Poverty brings in her train
on the children of men to bestow!

The life you define with such skill is not mine;
'tis the life of a beggar [ptochon], I trow....
These are the people Jesus pronounced "blessed." Odd enough to make such an announcement; but to announce it in a way that would be understood as coming at some eschatological future still too far away to be even imagined, would make his words not stirring and memorable to those who first heard them, but utter madness and quickly forgotten. If we hear them as addressed to us, who don't even grasp what ptochoi means, if we hear them, in other words, in an eschatological context, they make sense to us. However, there is no way they would make sense to the original audience, or even to Matthew or Luke's audiences. If we hear them as performative language, however, as language with the same import as "Let there be light" or "I now pronounce you man and wife," we can understand why they would have been remembered, and why they would endure. And if we hear them as performative language, we hear them as something very different from the declaration that God loves us all just as we are, and will take care of the poor and the hungry on the day of the eschaton; or even that God's blessings are what we would have them to be.

So what does it mean to understand the Beatitudes as performative, rather than descriptive, language? What does it mean to hear God pronouncing blessing on the destitute, rather than promising blessing in the sweet bye and bye? It gets at the truly subversive nature of the blessings pronounced in Matthew and Luke. We first have to hear them as being pronounced, not announced. If they are pronounced, they are declared active upon the recipients, they are made real by the very act of stating them. If they are merely announced, they are said for the benefit of us, 2000 years later, who need to know what the situation is, or more properly, what the situation will one day be. If the blessings are merely an eschatological statement, they still have no meaning aside from "this, too, will come true. Someday. Eventually." But if they are not, then they upend our understanding, and declare to us that everything we know is wrong; that in spite of appearances, a blessing is made, given, poured out, on the destitute; on the hungry; on the mourners.

I heard a man today tell the friends and family of David Beverly that they had not lost a father, a husband, a friend, because they knew he was now "with the Lord." That isn't a theology I kick at, or mean to kick at, but it's also never been a sentiment I've ever expressed at a funeral. Many find comfort in it; I've always been troubled by denying the reality of death. But in the face of death, it's a powerful comfort for many to say the dead are not gone. However, in the face of mourning, especially to those who have yet to hear of, to experience, to begin to struggle to understand the resurrection, how much more powerful is it to pronounce a blessing on their sorrow? How much stranger is it? Who among us even today would stand up at a funeral and say: "Congratulations to you mourners, because you will have your comfort!"? But that is precisely what Jesus says.

You see in that example the difference between performative and what I'm calling descriptive, language. One says you will be blessed later for your suffering now; the other says you are blessed, now, in your suffering; in your destitution, your hungry, your devastation. Not because of it, but in it. The essence of the blessing, if there is one, does not guarantee its existence. It is the pronouncement of the blessing which matters. It is performing the act, as opposed to making a statement which may be judged true or false. Are the destitute, the hungry, the sorrow-filled, truly blessed? That's not the issue! This isn't a statement about them; it is an action to them! In that distinction lies a world of interpretive difference; it is the gap between eschatological and present, between to come and now. If I tell the mourners at the funeral "Congratulations to you who are crying! You will laugh!", they would not be comforted (and yes, social context greatly affects the performative nature of language). The second phrase would mean nothing to them; the first would get caught in their throats. But if I say "Blessed are you who mourn," I would undoubtedly be on safer ground, and what they would hear would be a comforting eschatological promise that their mourning would eventually be ended. But is that a memorably dynamic so powerful it echoes in 3 gospels (Matthew, Luke, and Thomas)? Or is it a statement about inevitability so bland it is practically meaningless? By the same token, if I tell the hungry beggars under the freeway overpasses that they will have a feast, am I blessing them? Or just being cruel?

The problem with saying the familiar Beatitudes are actually unfamiliar "performative language" is that it means we don't know what to do with them. The problem with saying they are not performative language, but simply address the question of meaning within language, is that we do know what to do with them: smile politely and take our comfort from their familiarity, and move on.

What would it mean to live as if such blessings were enacted rather than described?


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