Prof. Rev. Dr. Samuel Meshack
The advent of instantaneous global communications, promoted by the convergence of computer, telecommunications and broadcasting, has created an information flood that is changing the political, economic, cultural and social structures of the world. The information and communication technology enable instant, inexpensive, and clear communication almost anywhere in the world, making borders and distances increasingly irrelevant. William Melody (1995) analysing the power of the Communication and Information Technology says that, the functioning of any society depends upon information and it has become the world’s most valuable commodity and it is the power which could shower blessings of knowledge, social and economic progress, or it could be manipulated to enslave people. Information knows no boundary nor morality. Unfortunately the means of communication has been mistaken to the communication per see. In other words the means of communication is given a prominent place rather than the content of our Communication. In this presentation, I would like to try to make this distinction clear by giving the meaning and functions of communication, the basic theological position comprising of the principles of Christian communication and its characteristics for the mission of God that could enable us to see the significance of communication in our efforts towards building a communication policy that could foster and strengthen ‘communion’ among member churches for a meaningful witness as ‘salt’ and ‘light’ of the world.
Meaning and function of Communication
Derek Weber (1992) defines communication as both ‘conveying messages’ and ‘creating community.’ The key component of communication is sharing information, meaning, and feelings of people and arriving at a mutual or common understanding through the exchange of verbal and non-verbal communication, in order that human relationships are created and maintained. Looking into the functions of communication, Peter Elvy says that, communication is the study of “Everything” (Elvy, 1990). We develop as unique persons; we relate to others; and we cooperate with others through communication. All these points to relationships, fellowship and commonality, which is the meaning of the Latin word communis. It is thus impossible to separate the word communication from its implications of sharing, creating relationship and development of common understanding among people.
Functionally, communication is refered to as a “glue” that holds the communities together. At the same time, it is a “lubrication” that enables the society or community to move smoothly without any friction. It creates and maintains relationships to function effectively. Hence communicationally, people are defined by relationships within the human community. Bernard. J. F. Lonergan, a Roman Catholic theologian, very aptly puts it as: ‘through communication, a community is constituted, in other words, community constitutes and perfects itself through communication.’ (Bernard J. F. Lonergan, 1972:363). Without constantly engaging in acts of communication with other people, none of us could build or develop our mental processes that develop our social nature which distinguishes us from other creatures. As Roger Mehl (1987) says, communication achieves its real intention when it becomes an ‘encounter with the other, a meeting from eye to eye and from heart to heart’.
Communication — A mandate of Christ to the Church
Proclamation or communication of the good news is the mandate given by Christ to his disciples before his ascension, as he commanded them saying, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation” (Mk.16:15). The mission of the church is to be the bearer of God’s message of love and healing. As Avery Dulles observes, “Communication is at the heart of what the Church is all about. The Church exists to bring men (and women) into communion with each other” (Avery Dulles, 1991). Hendrik Kraemer points out that, communication of the message is the crowning category of which all activities of the church in evangelising, preaching, teaching, and witnessing to all fields of life are a part. (Kraemer, H., 1957). Hence, communication is an unending task that must constantly be restarted. This uninterrupted communication of the Christian message is what we presently call the missionary or apostolic obligation or mission of the Church. Hence communication of the Gospel is not a reason for glorification, but a divine command placed upon the Church. The church is created in order to communicate. Therefore, the church has no choice whether she will or not communicate. It is a mandate given to the church and every Christian is commissioned to go out and preach the good news that will enable people to be fully human, as God intended them to be.
Gathering and sending-forth are the two-fold mission mandate of the church. Firstly, the Church is a gathering of persons into community membership. Most often within a congregational context, the church preaches and teaches the Word, celebrates the sacraments, and assists the needy. Secondly, the Church sends-forth its message to the unevangelised, to the poor, and to all who seek the enduring truth and meaning in their lives. Communication is pivotal in both these aspects of mission.
The Church has the duty to communicate the core message of Christianity, “the life, death, and the resurrection of Jesus” to the world. Evangelization, an act of mission is communicating the word of God. It is not an abstract exercise. “To communicate the Christian message, is to lead another to share in one’s cognitive, constitutive, effective meaning”, says Bernard Lonergan (1972). In the words of Newbegin, evangelism is “one beggar showing to another beggar where food is available.” In the letter to the Romans, Paul says that, “Faith comes from hearing” (Rom.10: 17). The communication of the faith takes several forms: the witness of an authentic Christian life, preaching, catechetics, the sacraments, and the utilization of the mass media. We need to seek more suitable ways to communicate the faith to our contemporaries. To make the faith more credible, captivating, and believable, we need to develop meaningful and convincing language, symbols and images. The encyclical, Lumen Gentium rightly points out that, the Church of Christ is “a sign and instrument of communion with God and of the unity of all humankind” (Lumen Gentium 1)
A Theology of Communion is the theological basis for Christian Communication
The word “communication” derives its meaning from the Latin word “communis” which means “making things common”. This also means ‘fellowship’, and ‘sharing’, which ultimately mean ‘having communion’. St. Thomas Aquinas used the word, ‘communicatio’ for ‘communio’ and ‘communitas’. He considered that communion or community is not possible without communication, since, to some extent, communion is the result of communication. James Carey points out that, communication could best be described as a transmission, as a ritual because,
“… it is a process through which a shared culture is created, modified and transformed” A ritual view of communication is not directed toward the extension of messages in space, but the maintenance of society in time; not the act of imparting information or influence, but the creation, representation, and celebration of shared beliefs. If a transmission view of communication centers on the extension of messages across geography for purposes of control, a ritual view centers on the sacred ceremony which draws persons together in fellowship and community (James W. Carey, 1977).
Hence, communication, as a transmission and as a ritual, is central to Christianity in fulfilling the mission mandate of creating communities or communion. Karl Rahner and Herbert Vorgrimler point out that, “Communication designates that active exchange, based on personal ability to hear and on free openness, creates a community between the transmitter (sender) and the recipient (hearer) which is best called communion (Karl Rahner and Herbert Vorgrimler, 1965:89). Hence the object of our Christian communication is the help build a community of love, peace and justice, and preserve truth which are the prime values of the Kingdom of God and the focus of our commonality or communion.
A Few Basic Principles of Christian Communication for building a Christian Communion.
While discussing a theological basis for communication for Christian communion, the basic principle that underlie in this process need to be discussed here. Although the Christian principles enunciated by the World Association for Christian Communication is very important for our discussion, I am limiting it to only a few here to best suit our purpose to stirr up our thinking to build according to our context with the view, ‘Think Golbally, Act locally.”
i) The Principle of Immanance
The God of the Bible is a God who speaks. The ‘Word’ is the ‘symbol’ par excellance that stands in human intercourse for communication. The Word (“Dabar”) that was in the beginning is an all inclusive power of God that not only created the universe, but also wants to have personal relationship with people and invites to have this relationship. The close personal nature of God’s communication with people is expressed in Deut.6:4-5; Lev.19:18. One of the well-known remarkable characteristic of the Bible is the great recurrence of the expression: the word of God coming to people: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.” (Heb.1:1-3) The true and profound sense of this divine urge towards humanity pervaded the Biblical record of God’s exceptional character finds expression in the name ‘Immanuel’ – God with us.
The immanance, in other words, the communication of God with people, is the foundation of the true life. The adequate expression of full communication and communion could be seen in this love towards his people. ‘The Word’ became flesh and dwelt among us (Jn. 1:14) is the key to bring the transcendent God, immanant through Jesus Christ who is the Word of God, sharing God’s love and his personal relationship with people. Jesus’ divine command; “love God and love your neighbour”, is the basis and source of life in fulness, creating personal relationship and being with people. As Karl Jasper (1957), one of the outstanding existentialist theologian says that, Love is that state of mutual transparancy, dispossessability, and responsiveness in which true communication come to full fruition. This points to the foundational principle of Christian communication — God’s immenance with people and calling people to be with people in love, creating a greater communion with God and among his people.
Immanance is a form of “witness”, which means the presence of a person or a community that lives the message of the gospel profoundly and through this life communicates the good news to others. It is a matter of communication through life. Furthermore, there is particular emphasis on the ecclesial community as the area in which these values grow, even though individuals manifest them. Both aspects, the individual one of personal integrity and the community one as the area where these values develop and grow strong, are important for ecclesial communication, which is no mere school of exemplary persons but a living community established around a totality of relationships.
ii) The Principle of Community Building
Communication of the Christian message, by its very nature, aims at the deepest communication, that is. ‘togetherness’ in communion with Christ. Martin Buber (1965), another well known existentialist theologian, analysing the problem of communication, joins Jasper and suggests that the use of communication is ‘to commune’ and not ‘to command’. Communication implicitely confesses a given solidarity, taking one’s stand in the world and as part of the world of the other, not over against that world. Moreover, our special concern is the communication of the Christian message in a world that seems to be separated by a deep gulf from the deepest thought, language, and true ethos of the Church. What are the possibilities of brige-building?
The Biblical concept of the covenant, presents the idea of ‘koinonia’ of the people and the church as the fellowship of the believers with Christ and with others. God wants a people whose hearts are bound together in him. The community of Israel is not founded on its biological, cultural, or even sacral unity, although the sacral unity is an expression of the community established by God.
Christ in his high priestly prayer, prayed for a Church in which the members are one in the Father and in Him (Jn.14). The “I” and the “Thou” of what Martin Buber says, are both founded in God’s will and life-giving power. Therefore, both are responsible to God and to each other. This fact is very clearly seen in the Lord’s prayer, where Jesus was asked by his disciples to teach them that outstanding and solemn act of personal relationship which is prayer. He taught them to say: Our Father, Give us, Lead us not … which indicates that God is not a God of isolated religious individuals, but of a people of commuion. The people of His Kingdom will have perfect communication, the lost relationship built again. Christ came in order that the world may be reconciled to God again, regaining the lost fellowship and relationship. Randy Naylor once said that: It is not enough to see the story of my neighbour’s life. Communication demands that my neighbour and I enter into one another’s stories and thereby discover community. Further, community must not be seen as the local community alone. A community of peoples and nations, as well as a community of different churches, cultures and religions, has to emerge if humankind is to survive. Therefore, one of the aims of our work (as communicators) is the breaking down of all kinds of barriers which prevents the development of ocmmunities, states the WACC document of Manila Declaration.
In the Good Samaritan story, Jesus tells the lawyer, ‘Don’t ask who is my neighbour. Know that you are always a neighbour to the other.’ The self-contradictory state in which the human passion for communication manifests itself has its roots in the self-contradictory state in which people live with God.
We need to remind ourselves that the Bible is the record of God’s history of salvation with people and the world. Only the reconciliation and the restoration of the right relationship with God could be the basis of the recreation of true unfrustrated communication with each other. This is one of the enlivening of true communication, because its function is to be the true communion founded through Christ in God, the embodiment of renewed humanity.
The Principle of being Prophetic
Being Christian in this part of our age denotes, among other things is to be prophetic. What does it mean to be prophetic? It is to analyse how modern communication principles and the whole enterprise of communications today might be used prophetically. Walter Bruggemann cautions us to free ourselves from the conventional approach of looking at prophets as foretellers and social protesters but to hold them as concerned with elemental changes in human society, possessing deep understanding of how changes are brought about. He observes that,
The prophets understood the strange incongruence between public conviction and personal yearning. Most of all, they understood the distinctive power of language, the capacity to speak in ways that evoke newness ‘fresh from the world’… The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish and evoke a consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us (Bruggemann, W. 1992)
It is very crucial and radical to set alternative consciousness to function to criticise the dominant culture of the day and energising persons and communities to move in the direction of contemporary reality – injustice, exploitation and denial of human rights and dignity caused due to misinformation and disinformation to preserve the status quo of the people and the institutions. A prophetic critical consciousness will question such distortions. The prophetic communication never seeks for neutrality. It is very misleading and dangerous to find people holding neutrality, while people are being exploited and oppressed or when false is termed as truth. Kirton calls such people as ‘dangerous breed’. They have either misunderstood what is meant by being ‘peace makers’ or they shut their eyes to the justice and peace. To appeal for neutrality usually is upholding the ‘status quo’ which is often on the side of the majority or the powerful, eliminating the poor and the powerless, in dehumanising them. An authentic prophetic communication will not hesitate to challenge the structures or status quo that dehumanises. Valueless neutrality is distortion to prophetic communication and against Christian Values and virtues.
The prophet Isaiah’s confession (Isaiah 6:5) is a suitable point of departure to reflect on our condition as communicators. The lips of the dominant are often unclean because the power of their communication does not lie in the truth (faithfulness) of their word but in their capability of imposing it on others. In such circumstances communicators are called to raise prophetic voice. They are expected to be watch-dogs of the society and the church to say the inconcruence that are going on in them. We are called to excercise our social as well as religious responsibilities to correct our societies and churches. Paul exhorts the Christians in Rome that they should ‘be transformed by the renewing of the mind’.
Bernard Haring believes that the Church can be a prophetic voice if she is willing to listen and to share in the joys and hopes, the anguish and fears of all people (Bernard Haring, 1972). He reminds us that communication in the Church and through the Church is for the sake of community, for the unity among humankind. Those who want to be active communicators of the gospel must be good listeners. If a church is not a teaching, learning, and listening Church, it is not on the wavelength of divine communication. Communio et progressio, (1971) points out that, our communication must not only go out from our proclamation efforts but must flow back in such a way that we, the commuicators, also learn and are transformed. Before we wanted to be transformers we must ourselves be transformed. The prophetic communication must prevail to nourish a new soceity rooted in justice, peace, truth and love and to protect the human dignity and human rights.
Christian communication will have no credibility unless our words, like ‘the Word’, become flesh and live among all God’s people – the stangers in our streets and the people living in lands beyond our shores. Christian communion, will contribute to the sterngthening of our relationship and our witness.
Prospects and Problems of Christian Witness in the Modern Communications Age
The Manila Declaration of the World Association of Christian Communication pointed out that communication is a crucial issue for the 1990s and for the future of humankind. It can lead to reconcilation or destruction. It can bring knowledge, truth and inspiration, or withhold knowledge and spread disinformation and lies (Traber, 1992).
The world is experiencing a transition toward a new way of getting information, of communicating with one another, and consequently of being and existing as human persons. Joshua Mevrowitz (1985) observed that, communication now is not simply a vehicle for the transmission of a culture that already exists, but it is becoming one of the elements that control a new culture. The church has sought to ‘inculturate’ the Gospel, to transmit it and to embody it in the culture. Now that the church feels itself to be truly universal, it is also encouraging a universal culture, one that is controlled by the communication media. In contrast to the former processes of inculturation, the new challenges do not come from geographical frontiers or define cultural traditions. The new challenge is that of a culture which is universal, unified and strongly moulded by the modern communication media. The inculturation of the Gospel in this new cultural process that is influenced by the media demands a deep awareness of the implications both of the instruments or means and of the ways in which the message is communicated. All this means significant changes in the very life of the Church.
The norms and values of a society is given by the media of communication, pervading human culture, structuring human experience, expressing social power, shaping expectations and redefining what news and information is all about. Media is a primary shaper of modern culture and has become the world’s story-teller. It is the media that help to define and redefine what it means to be human in today’s society. For good and for bad, the media, for many people have become the mediator of meaning. In a way, the media challenge us to regain the fundamental importance of witness as Christian communication. This challenge can awaken a better understanding of mission itself. It is not a matter of a mere strategic accommodation or of a pastoral use of certain instruments; it is a matter of rethinking theologically the paths of a communication of the Kingdom values. Christian witness is not just an appropriate response on the level of the challenge of the media, but also a recovery of the importance of witness in communicating the Gospel in this new age.
It is a fact that communication is the crowning category that pervades into every sphere of the Church’s life of witness. It is an apostolic obligations or a mandate which the Church cannot ignore. Communication should be the central focus of activity in the life of the Church, in other words, it is an integrating force in all our activitity of witness.
Communication is to strengthen the communion of churches – coming together as “one communion”, the appropriate instrument is communication to break the barriers and to build bridges towards this greater communion. Hence we need to explore further into “a theology of communion from a communication perspective” to enable the churches to be a witness to the high priestly prayer of Jesus Christ, ‘that they may all be one.’
While looking into the theology of commuion, the basic principles one need to remember are: (i) being with people – the theology of incarnation or immanance. The Word become flesh and dwelt among us. The transcendant God, being immanant in His love to dwelt among people. As Paul said: He (Christ) emptied himself to be with people. The Church must empty herself to be with people to be nearer to the neglected, marginalised and oppressed – people without hope. It is a communication of witness through life. (Ref. Zech.8:22-23)
A theology of commuion could also build upon the principle of community building. The Biblical concept of Covenant and Koinonia and even the idea of Adam and Eve as not individuals but representation of “people”, calls for an understanding of community. God called a “community”, Israel to be His chosen people. Jesus’examples of his High Priestly prayer and the emphasis of “us” in teaching his disciples to pray, sets the agenda of community in love and fellowship, regaining the lost relationship through reconciliation.
A Theology of communion need to look into the principle of communication to be prophetic. It calls for challenging the inconcruence in the Church and Society, not accepting to be neutral, which is the norm of false prophets. Communicators should stand firm against false peace (shallow peace) and injustices and oppressions that is violative of human dignity and human rights which is a distortion of true communion. Keeping in mind the social responsibility theory of the press, that stresses the communicators being ‘watchdogs’, and need to be alert to the challenges and be critical to correct the wrongs in the Church and Society.
Finally, if we truely consider communication is the heart of the Church’s life, then the communicator must enter in a decisive way into the new age. Being faithful to the gospel, to face the challenge of this new culture before us. We are called to explore new ways for opening up dialogue with the people of the other culture, language, religion, or faith, presenting the message to them as honestly and authentically as we can, allowing them the absolute right to reject or to accept it. If they accept it, they must be free to understand it and express it in the midst of their culture. And as evangelizers we must be sensitive enough to hear what they play back to us, to see if it does not give us an even clearer vision and more refined view of that ‘uncovered Gospel’.
All authentic Christian communication has to take the form of witness. Witness is the primary form of Christian communication. Witness must be the foundation and model of all our other forms and mediations for communicating Christian faith. Whoever communicates the Christian message directly and explicitly, by whatever means, has to do it as a witness, however imperfect that witnessing may be. Witness must be central to the communication within the Church, among Christians of different traditions and in the style of dialogue with people of other faiths. The modern communication media help the church reveal herself to the modern world; they nurture dialogue within the church; and provide contemporary opinions and attitudes to the Church. Pope Paul IV uses a powerful statement in Evangeli Nuntiandi, addressing the mass media that, ‘the Church would feel guilty before the Lord if she did not use these powerful means that human skill is daily rendering more perfect.’ Hence whatever media we use, whether it is interpersonal, group, mass, or the new forms of communication, it should be used to witness to the Gospel in building communion. This should be the central focus of Christian communication.
Avery Dulles, ‘The Church is communications,’ IDOC International (North American Edition), (27) June 12, 1991.
Bernard J.F. Lonergan, Method in Theology (New York: Herder and Herder), 1972.
Christian Principles of Communication, World Association for Christian Communication, Toronto, Canada.2013.
Karl Rahner and Herbert Vorgrimler, Theological Dictionary (New York: Herder and Herder), 1965.
Joshua Mevrowitz, No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behaviour (New York: Oxford University Press) 1985.
Jon Sobrino, Christology at the Crossroads (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books), 1978.
William Kuhns, The Electronic Gospel: Religion and Media, (New York: Herder and Herder,) 1969
Bernard Haring, ‘Theologie der Kommunikation und theologishe Meinungsbildung,’ in F.J. Eilers, et al., Kirche und Publizistik. Dreizehn Kommentare zur Pastoralinstruktion communio et progressio (Munich: F. Schoningh), 1972
James W. Carey, ‘Mass Communication Research and Cultural Studies: the American View,’ in J. Curran, M. Gurevitch & J. Woollacott, eds., Mass Communication and Society (London: Edward Arnold in Association with Open University Press, 1977) pp. 409-425
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