Talking and Listening in the Anglican Communion
Kojo Okyere, Department of Religion and Human Values University of Cape Coast reads Proverbs 18:13 in Ghanaian Life and Thought and offers reflections for the Anglican Communion.
The Ghanaian society, like many other African societies, is blessed with precious sayings which constitute nuggets of wisdom. Proverbs and other similar traditions are used by Ghanaians to communicate a message deemed to have some kind of mystical truth because of their appeal to the ancestors or elders. No Ghanaian hears a proverb and treats it like any ordinary saying. Since proverbs are for practical life, there exist wise sayings on every thinkable aspect of the human life. In this respect, proverbs on communication and human relations feature prominently. This is due to the premium Africans place on the values of unity and solidarity within their societies. There is a saying, for instance, among Ghanaians that, because God wanted humans to listen more and talk less, he gave them two ears and one mouth. This demonstrates the importance of talking and listening in the communication process and how it should be carried out. An effective communication is to a large extent dependent on how the parties listen to each other. The act of listening, viewed from this perspective, ceases to be a passive role that one assumes in a conversation: it is, instead, an active engagement of one in a purposeful encounter. In this respect, Ghanaians believe that listening provides the platform for positive interaction between parties. It gives the parties the opportunity to appreciate their respective points of view. Again, they come to terms with the reality of varied opinions and how each opinion competes for prominence. The above maxim is used, therefore, in the Ghanaian society to promote positive interactions within the society. It is used to encourage individuals to tolerate people with different views and not to be quick in judging or condemning others.
The current conflict in the Anglican Communion is an opportunity for the various parties to understand each other. It is a chance to suspend concerns and to enter into dialogue with one another. This is a positive development for the parties because they gain added knowledge and appreciate the richness of diversity. Conflicts then, can be positive if approached in the right manner. It is one of these approaches in addressing conflicts that is the act of talking and listening, which is conveyed in the Ghanaian maxim above. The recognition and prominence of the acts of talking and listening as key ingredients in dealing with conflicts, and ultimately improving human relations, is a tenet the Bible equally, upholds. This paper seeks to, first, explore how the word of God (Prov. 18:13) directs us in the quest of dealing with our differences. Second, the paper contextualizes the message within the Ghanaian society by illustrating the Ghanaian biblical experience of the text for the Indaba process.
READING PROVERBS 18:13
The book of Proverbs as God’s Message
The book of Proverbs is a rich repository of ancient Israelite wisdom. Wisdom refers to a way of thinking or a body of knowledge which directs one in how to live life. Wisdom is practical in essence. It is meant to be applied in one’s daily life. Many scholars are of the opinion that it is in the wisdom traditions that one realizes the secular aspect of the Israelite society.
This claim is mainly made to point out the religious nature of the other two main traditions of ancient Israel – Law and Prophets. Though this assertion has a level of validity, as B. S. Childs rightly observes, wisdom traditions are “independent witness to God’s revelation which functions like the Law and the Prophets as sacred scripture for the people of God.”
Thus, Israel’s wisdom traditions emerge as an equally viable revelation of God; an avenue to discern the will of God for our lives.
Exegesis of Prov. 18:13
If one gives answer before hearing, it is folly and shame. (NRS translation)
Wise sayings come in brief and compact manner purposefully to ignite the imagination of the hearer and to cause him/her to respond. Various styles are employed in this quest. For our text, the style used is that of comparison. There is, however, the overt avoidance of the use of ‘like’ or ‘as’ to strike the comparison; instead the sage prefers a direct comparison. This choice, when considered closely, reveals the ingenuity of the sage in this saying. The proverb appears in two constituent parts. The first part details the subject matter – answering before hearing – and the second is a value statement which refers to the subject matter.
In the first section of the proverb, two actions are brought into relation with each other: the act of answering (meshiv davar) and that of hearing or listening (yishma’). The issue of concern is the order in which these two acts should follow. Should one answer, or “return a word”, before one hears the colleague speak? The answer to this question seems obvious enough. One cannot answer if one has not been addressed, spoken to or engaged in a conversation. In other words, one cannot answer if one has not heard. But the saying claims that one could give an answer before one hears what is spoken of. There is a difficulty which arises and this revolves around the word shama.
The Hebrew word shama, mostly translated “hear”, plays a central role in the first part of the proverb. This word has a wide usage in the Old Testament and its meaning is nuanced, mostly, within the context it appears. Two meanings can be deduced from its usage in the proverb. First, shama as used could refer to the act of hearing an audible sound. For instance, in Gen. 3:10, when Adam heard the voice of God, he hid himself because he was afraid. The word shama in this context refers to the auditory application of the senses.
The act of hearing as carried out by Adam is the use of the auditory organs to perceive a sound. This meaning of shama is implied in Amos 8:11, when the prophet gives an oracle on the scarcity of the word of God in the land. In these examples, the act of hearing is basic in nature.
Second, shama could refer to the ability to comprehend or discern what is heard. This nuanced meaning of shama is illustrated in Am. 4:1. Amos’ command to the women of Samaria to listen or hear goes beyond the mere application of the auditory senses.
The prophet does not intend the women to just hear the word, but to pay attention to it and discern its message. The type of hearing in this context is a progressive one. The listener is more involved and alert to what is communicated. He/She has an interest in what is being said and attention is demanded in such circumstances. This meaning of shama is, again, implied in Isaiah’s oracle where the Lord demands the people pay attention to his speech (Is. 28:23). The act of hearing emerges as an integral aspect of the Israelite society and as Crenshaw points out, “the hearing heart” in ancient Israel is so crucial that it assumes the same status as a sage in ancient Egypt.
Leaving the word shama for a moment, we will turn our attention to the second part of the proverb. The importance of this section of the maxim is the concluding role it plays. Two words form the fulcrum of this section; ‘iwweleth—rendered as ‘folly’, and kelimmah—as ‘shame’. These words portray the level of abhorrence associated with the act of retorting from the position of ignorance. ‘Iwweleth and kelimmah function as a contrast to a wise act: in a cumulative manner they reveal the disgrace one entangles oneself with in the action proscribed. One who returns a word without hearing brings folly and shame upon himself. The process of retorting and the state of shame and folly are juxtaposed to each other to show the relationship between them. To do the former (retorting from an ignorant position) is to be engaged in the latter.
What meaning can we assign to this proverb after the analysis above? Once again we fall on the word shama to guide us to the message of the proverb. Shama is understood as the basic act of hearing; one which is limited to the mere application of the auditory sense. The word also means the process of actively discerning the meaning behind a spoken word. In this sense, the meaning is a progression of the first stage because the one who hears needs to pay attention as well as think through what is heard. These two meanings are applicable to the saying. If the first meaning is taken, for instance, the proverb then cautions against the haste with which one talks, especially when one is in a conversation with the other. One who talks in haste, in many cases, talks from ignorance, since one fails to hear what the colleague says. Such an individual embarrasses him/herself by the shame he/she invites on him/herself.
If the second meaning is taken up, on the other hand, the meaning then is not restricted to only hastiness in talking, but failure to appreciate and comprehend a message before a reply is given. In effect, being engaged in a conversation is not about talking back, neither is it about who talks most. It is about understanding before a contribution is made. The proverb, it can be pushed, advocates for dialogue. The exchange of information should not be an arbitrary one. One needs to listen and pay attention to what is said. Not only that, there is the need for one to also discern the import and significance of what is communicated by the colleague. Discernment is a virtue central to this enterprise. It facilitates comprehension and appreciation of the “other”. In this sense, the process of talking and listening to each other, in order to discern and understand each other, exudes positive aura between the parties. All this is important because a response should reflect an appreciation of what has come earlier. Failure to do this is unwise and has the potential to hinder the progress of the dialogue.
The multiple meanings the proverb projects is one of the characteristics of proverbs. In a predominantly oral community such as ancient Israel, proverbs were uttered within a context and the context guided the meaning. The Old Testament proverbs, though oral in origin, are now literary. There is a difficulty, therefore, in identifying the context of the individual sayings. This opens the way for multiple meanings guided by the textual makeup of the saying.
One important issue about proverbs which needs to be considered before the implication of the meaning of our text is tackled, is the validity of proverbs. How truthful is the claim in the sayings? As J. L. Crenshaw opines, empirical reasons underline the claims made in the proverbs.
Michael V. Fox, on the other hand, believes there is more to it than just empiricism and proposes what he calls the “coherence theory” as the basis for the validity in the claims of the proverbs.
This theory posits that the society has a number of values that it cherishes. These values form an inter-connected value of truth which serves as foundation for choices of moral and social significance in the society. For instance, where the society cherishes diligence as a good way of living, there are a number of proverbs which promote the act of diligence. In like manner, this proverb fits into the general goal of the good communicative skills which contributes to a harmonious society. A collection of sayings testifies to this. For instance, Prov. 18:21 cautions against careless speech since death and life lies in the tongue. There is a similar message in Prov. 21:23 where one is warned to keep one’s mouth and tongue out of trouble. The right way to communicate is thus held to be a societal truth which has to be upheld.
Contextualization and Implication of Prov. 18:13 for the Continuing Indaba Process
Every society needs members talking to each other and the Anglican Communion is no exception. Talking serves as a lubricant for the society by providing the platform for human interaction through the flow of information. Talking or communication has to be carried out in the right manner to achieve its goal. Good communicative skills emerge as an important ingredient for every society. The Old Testament, specifically the book of Proverbs, acknowledges this fact through several passages which prompt readers on the right way to speak and listen (cf. Prov. 11:12, Prov. 15:1). In continuing the Indaba process we stand to gain immensely if we listen to what God is telling us on how to carry out communicating with each other in the Communion; and God tells us a lot in his scriptures. We are enjoined to listen because of the threat of misunderstanding and division which loom as a dark cloud over the Communion. In this time of uncertainty, talking to each other in an effective manner promises a better future for the Communion.
As wisdom, Prov. 18:13 resonates with several wisdom sayings within the Ghanaian society. An Akan
proverb, for instance, says that, The wound inflicted by the tongue is more painful than the wound inflicted by a knife. This proverb warns against indiscriminate talk, one that is mischievous in intent. Talking is so important that it needs not be carried out in a thoughtless manner. Prov. 18:13, in a similar vein, warns against imprudent talking. It cautions against rush or hastiness in talking. This is particularly important because with the differences in the Communion we might be tempted to be loud with our views. Patience then emerges as a virtue we need in our interactive process. God has himself demonstrated such patience in his continuous relationship with humans. We, also, need to give each other the opportunity to talk, and we should have the patience to listen to what is said. Hastiness does not only lead to misunderstanding, but demonstrates the unwillingness to engage in any constructive conversation. That is why the Akan proverb, When the mouth slips, it is worse than when the foot slips, is true wisdom here. In our haste to make our points we slip with our mouths in ways that create more gulfs between us.
Second, the text exhorts us to listen more than talk. One can only listen when one breaks in talking. This is not to say that talking is baseless and should be avoided. If everyone stops talking, there will be no listening. The Akan proverb, A person finishes eating but does not finish talking, illustrates the importance of discussion and consultation. Talking is a very vital aspect of human interaction. However, it has to be done in a purposeful manner. This involves the process of listening in an integral manner. Listening is giving others the opportunity to carry out talking. It again means temporarily suspending one’s beliefs so that one could appreciate the position which one’s colleague comes from. In a community where diverse and different opinions exist, talking and listening to each other is the only way to maintain the sense of community and unity. Listening is not necessarily about finding solutions; it is rather about the respect and commitment people accord to each other in a community, and that in itself is a solution. The Anglican Communion, as a diverse yet unified community gains immensely when the various groups engage in a conversation where listening dominates instead of talking.
Third, and closely related to the above point, is the need to give a response only when what was said has been heard and understood. There are certain elements within every community who, for one reason or the other, want to demonstrate either their knowledge or power by being dominant in speech. Some elements are also consumed by their perceptions or beliefs so much that they always, in an eager mood, want to put their message across when they have not heard others speak. A number of reasons underline these attitudes. One reason could be the display of power, where speech is used to subdue certain elements within the society. A second reason could be an enthusiastic quest for a solution. People with such hopes use speech to display their eagerness to solve conflicts, and in such cases fail to listen to all sides but jump into conclusions. Unfortunate as this is, there are traces of such unwise behavior within the Anglican Communion. People go about passing sentences on issues they have not heard all sides present their cases on. They have no idea whatsoever of the subject matter, except what has been rumored. The proverb makes it explicit that shame and folly characterize people of such attitude. But probably such individual damage is not as significant as what the Communion as a body suffers. Though the text is not explicit on the effect of such an attitude on society, there is the implicit message, especially from the perspective of coherence theory, that a stable society characterized with good communication skills is threatened by the actions of the few who fail to hear, listen and pay attention to what others say.
The acts of talking and listening are paramount in every society. They are part of the mechanisms which ensure a thorough-going and harmonious society. The saying indicated in the introduction concerning the two ears but one mouth of humans is used to promote the act of listening within the Ghanaian society. Likewise, Prov. 18:13 is God’s way of drawing our attention to the importance of listening and talking, and how they should be carried out within the society. There is so much one, as well as a society, gains when talking and listening to each other is carried out in a purposeful way. It shows the respect people have for each other. It also reveals the commitment to harmonious society. Conflicts are inevitable in every society including the Anglican Communion. Notwithstanding this, the Anglican Communion can make conflict a positive development when the culture of listening is promoted. Everyone should have the opportunity to speak and to be heard. Looking for a solution to the conflict should not characterize such a process for now. Talking and listening should only be done in an open way. The Indaba process is thus a step in the right direction. In carrying out this process, however, let the tenet of Prov. 18:13 and the wisdom of the various Akan proverbs, reverberate in our talking and listening process.
1 Kathleen A. Farmer, “The Wisdom Books: Jobs, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes” in The Hebrew Bible Today: An introduction to Critical Issues (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 130.
2 B. S. Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), 557.
3 Francis Brown, S. Driver, and C. Briggs, The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon with an Appendix Containing the Biblical Aramaic. (Oxford: Clarendon Press), p. 1088.
4 Brown, Driver and Briggs, BDB Hebrew and English Lexicon, p. 1088.
5 J. L. Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom: An Introduction, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981), 33.
6 Multiple meanings is not a problem in today’s post-modern world. The search for one uncontestable meaning has been given up. Meaning is now produced by either the text and its makeup or the reader. The approach chosen here is the text and how it guides one to its meaning.
7 Crenshaw, Old Testament Wisdom, 68-69.
8 Michael V. Fox, “The Epistemology of the Book of Proverbs” JBL 126 (2007), 675.
† Editor’s Note: The Akan people are an ethnic group of West Africa predominantly in Ghana, and the Ivory Coast. Ethnic Akans are the largest group in both countries and have a population of roughly 25 million people.
Brown, Francis, S. Driver and C. Briggs, The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon with an Appendix Containing the Biblical Aramaic. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Childs, B. S. Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979.
Crenshaw, J. L. Old Testament Wisdom: An Introduction. Atlanta: John Knox, 1981.
Farmer, Kathleen A. “The Wisdom Books: Jobs, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes” in The Hebrew Bible Today: An introduction to Critical Issues, Eds. Steven L. McKenzie and M. Partrick Graham. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998.
Fox, M. V. “The Epistemology of the Book of Proverbs.” Journal of Biblical Literature 126 (2007), 669-684.