A theological paradigm for understanding nonverbal communication
This is an abridged version of Stephen Bedard‘s original article. You can read the original full version in the Spring 2022 issue of the Canadian Journal of Theology, Mental Health, and Disability.
Much of our social interaction is based on verbal communication. Even if we are aware of the importance of body language, we still often rely on the passing of information through spoken language. That may result in those who do not use spoken language as their primary means of communication to be pushed to the margins.
This dilemma is just as common in faith communities. Speaking from my own Christian tradition, the focus of worship services is on the words spoken through hymns, prayers, and sermons. This is followed by a fellowship time where people interact by having conversations over a cup of coffee. What role do those who primarily use nonverbal communication have in such a faith community? This article will examine the Christian concept of the incarnation, especially as described in the Gospel of John, as a theological paradigm for understanding nonverbal communication.
The Word Made Flesh
The prologue of John is modelled after the opening chapters of Genesis, with both starting “In the beginning.” The figure described as the pre-incarnate Jesus is called “the Word.” In Genesis 1, each act of creation begins with “God said,” thus creation comes by God’s Word. In an attempt to strengthen the parallel, John 1:3 specifies that this Word was responsible for all that is created.
It would seem to be sufficient that the Word would remain with God, being involved in such divine acts as creation. However, a major shift takes place in the experience of the Word: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” (John 1:14) That which was already perfect as the Word, became something embodied and became an improvement in the divine plan.
According to John, the embodied Word was Jesus of Nazareth. While Jesus did use spoken language, he is described as physically interacting with people. As if to emphasise this embodiment, John makes a point that even in the resurrection state, the Word was still flesh. Jesus invites Thomas to touch his wounds (John 20:27) and cooks breakfast for his friends (John 21:12-13). John presents a Jesus who was not content to be the Word but desired to be physically present and to communicate both verbally and nonverbally.
Our son began developing typically and was meeting his milestones when it came to verbal skills. Around the age of two, his verbal skills began to decrease until he was left with no verbal language. It was at that time that he was diagnosed with autism. Around that time, our daughter, who had never developed verbal language, was evaluated and soon was diagnosed with autism as well.
One of the most difficult things for myself as a parent was watching other parents interact with their children, responding to the things their children were saying. It occurred to me that I might never hear my children say to me: “I love you.” Since I had assumed verbal communication was the foundation for close relationships, there seemed little hope for us to have the parent-child relationship that I longed for.
However, I experienced a paradigm shift as I observed that my children were communicating in their own way. My daughter had always been very close to me. I noticed that when I would be away on an extended trip, that she would express her displeasure at my absence when I returned. She would deliberately sit on the opposite side of the room from me to let me know that going away was not appreciated. Throughout the day, she would slowly shift her seating until she was eventually sitting beside me and even resting her head on my shoulder. Without any words, she was able to communicate both her anger and her forgiveness.
Over the years, I have been able to interpret their nonverbal communication and we have been able to develop a very close relationship. When I received my own autism diagnosis, I told my children. My son uncharacteristically reached out and shook my hand as if welcoming me to the club. This was very meaningfully to me as many neurotypical people questioned my diagnosis based on autism stereotypes.
My daughter can communicate when she is happy, not just by smiles and laughter. She has developed her own version of sign language that expresses emotion rather than rational thought. She is able to share when she is sad, taking my fingers and tracing out on her face where tears might fall.
One of the most powerful experiences was when our son joined us for church. He lives in a group home in another city and cannot often worship with us. Our son has never been able to express his spirituality with verbal language. One Sunday he was with us at our Baptist church and we were about to celebrate communion, which our son had never participated in. He often is humming and seemingly distracted in church but when the communion portion of the service began, he was fully engaged. I was leading the service and saw him present in a way I rarely have. My wife noticed that he seemed to be on the verge of tears, not from sensory overload but because he understood the sacredness of the moment. It was an example of the Word made flesh in that instead of speaking the words of liturgy with the rest of the congregation, he responded to the sacrament with his bodily posture and facial expression.
In our post-enlightenment world, relationships are judged based on the passing back and forth of rational thought through verbal communication. Nonverbal communication is seen as a poor substitute for the spoken word. This leaves those who do not communicate primarily with words on the margin, both outside and inside the church.
The prologue of the Gospel of John provides a theological paradigm that has the potential to overturn that bias. In the beginning was the Word. That Word was powerful enough to bring about all of creation. However, being the Word was not enough. The Word was made flesh and became Jesus of Nazareth, a man who ate and drank, who embraced children and overturned tables. Jesus modelled the importance of embodied relationship that can include but is not limited to verbal communication.
While the incarnation is a unique event in Christian theology, the experience of embodiment is not. I have found the image of the Word made flesh to be a powerful paradigm for seeing the experience of my minimally verbal children, both in their relationships with me and their expression of faith. This paradigm can go beyond my own experience into an understanding of relationships within a faith community.
The incarnation calls Christians to embody their relationships with all people, something that has the potential to enrich relationships with those who are nonverbal. The embodiment of relationships creates the opportunity to discover the power of nonverbal communication. The Word made flesh is an invitation to entered into more embodied relationships with those on the margins. Having physical bodies, in all of their diversity, is what unites us as human beings. A more wholistic approach that is not limited to verbal communication can help move people from the margins of the community to the centre.