Let’s Have a Conversation about The God Problem

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Let’s Have a Conversation about The God Problem

Mark Ward Sr., Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Communication
University of Houston-Victoria

Fifteen years ago, Quentin Schultze spoke to the annual awards banquet of the Religious Communication Association. His address on “The ‘God-Problem’ in Communication Studies” was subsequently published in the Journal of Communication and Religion. The essay put the problem succinctly:

If God exists, and if God communicates with human beings, how can we study human communication comprehensively without taking into account the agency of God? At the same time, however, how can a scholar identify and interpret transcendent speech?[1]

Since the God Problem first drew my attention, I have been surprised at how little it has been discussed. Most communication scholars seemingly do not see the problem as relevant to their research programs. Meanwhile, those who do have perhaps taken Schultze’s position—to embrace “theistic communication studies” as a means to counter the naturalistic hubris which holds that human communication is a closed system and the postmodern agnosticism which denies that God is knowable—as the “correct” approach.

Yet for all the value of Schultze’s essay, I submit that his analysis is more useful to the communication discipline—and more in line with Schultze’s original purpose—not as the final word on the God Problem but as an introduction to stimulate further conversation.

My own wrestling with the God Problem started as a doctoral student whose dissertation examined the Final Solution through the lens of organizational discourse and culture.[2] Along the way, I agreed with Yehuda Bauer[3] who argued that if the Holocaust is framed as an “eruption of demonism into history”[4] then research into the causes of the genocide is moot. Later, as my research agenda shifted to the ethnography of religious communication, I drew four conclusions.

First, to somehow “include” God in my research design would be hubris. Second, were such an attempt even possible, God would totalize and thus moot my research; God by definition is always the total answer. Third, the attempt would trivialize God. (Think, for example, of the Southern Baptists who opposed school prayer in the 1960s. Any acceptable prayer, they argued, must be watered down to the point of being meaningless.) Fourth, I took Schultze’s[5] advice and, as a matter of personal faith, leave open the possibility that God at times will accommodate himself to use communication processes that humans can understand and that I research.

In recent years, I have for purposes of qualitative research into religious communication further broken down the God Problem into four related problems:

Should the analyst admit the possibility of divine-human communication (DHC)? As noted earlier, Schultze advocated “theistic communication studies” that embrace the possibility of DHC. Marc Howard Rich[6] proposed adding a Spiritual Tradition to Craig’s[7] metamodel of communication theory. Yet I have argued that, for purposes of research, DHC be bracketed off.[8] Instead, I proposed a schema for analyzing the communicative impacts of interlocutors’ belief that God participates in speaking situations.[9]

What is the analyst’s standing in relation to the religious community under study? “Outsiders” have fresh eyes to see communal practices as productive units of analysis. But “insiders” must seek “movements of de-familiarization”[10] in which communal practices shed their “natural” appearance. As a scholar whose core self-concept is rooted in my religious community, such movements inherently present a challenge.

What is the analyst’s standing in relation to the religious community’s beliefs? James Bielo described four postures, either methodological atheism (religious claims are non-empirical and thus irrelevant), agnosticism (religious claims are unknowable), ludism (religious claims are engaged “as if” true to better understand religious experience), or theism (religious worlds are affirmed as ontological realities and not merely epiphenomena).[11] For myself, intellectual honesty precludes methodological atheism and agnosticism and demands a balancing act, challenging to maintain, between ludism and theism.

What is the analyst’s standing in relation to the academy? George Marsden argued that scholars who are also Christians must, to participate in the academy, practice “methodological secularization” and research phenomena accessible to all scholars.[12] Otherwise, to research phenomena accessible only to like-minded scholars is, for me, to miss diverse insights that have enriched my scholarship and, due to the problem of incommensurability, forego participation in the larger conversation.

And what about conversation on the God Problem? In April 2019, a panel on the God Problem drew a roomful of more than 30 scholars at the Southern States Communication Association annual convention. This November, the Religious Communication Association is sponsoring another panel during the National Communication Association annual convention—appropriately, on the fifteenth anniversary of Schultze’s original banquet address. When I called for presenters, more than a dozen scholars—including Professor Schultze—responded. Their position statements are wonderfully diverse and helpful. Now an edited volume is in prospect.

To join the conversation, attend the RCA panel in November. And to propose a chapter for the edited volume, contact me for author guidelines. The vitality of religious communication as a field of communication studies, distinct from religious or theological studies (or religious advocacy), requires scholars to think through the God Problem and, whatever their conclusions, articulate defensible methods for their religious communication research.


[1] Quentin J. Schultze, “The ‘God-Problem’ in Communication Studies,” Journal of Communication and Religion 28, no. 1 (2005), 1.

[2] Later published as Mark Ward Sr., Deadly Documents: Technical Communication, Organizational Discourse, and the Holocaust—Lessons from the Rhetorical Work of Everyday Texts (New York: Routledge, 2014).

[3] See especially Yehuda Bauer, “Is the Holocaust Explicable?” Holocaust and Genocide Studies 5, no. 2. (1990): 145-155.

[4] Emil Fackenheim, quoted in Ron Rosenbaum, Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil (New York: Random House, 1998), xvi.

[5] Shultze, “The ‘God-Problem,’” 14.

[6] Marc Howard Rich, “Spiritual Debate in Communication Theory: Craig’s Metamodel Applied,” Journal of Communication and Religion 38, no. 2 (2015): 134-153.

[7] Robert T. Craig, “Communication Theory as a Field,” Communication Theory 9, no. 2 (1999): 119-161.

[8] Mark Ward Sr., “The ‘God Problem’ in Interfaith Dialogue: Situating Divine Speech in the Seven Traditions of Communication Theory,” in A Communication Perspective on Interfaith Dialogue: Living within the Abrahamic Traditions, ed. Daniel S. Brown Jr. (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2013): 195-213.

[9] Mark Ward Sr., “Organization and Religion: Ontological, Epistemological, and Axiological Foundations for an Emerging Field,” Journal of Communication and Religion 38, no. 3 (2015): 5-29.

[10] Tamar Katriel, Communal Webs: Communication and Culture in Contemporary Israel (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991), 2.

[11] James S. Bielo, Anthropology of Religion: The Basics (New York: Routledge, 2015), 33-44.

[12] George M. Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 91.

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