Augustine’s conversion “voice”

Augustine’s conversion illustrates well how religious people take everyday features of language and then change them according to assumptions they make – for example, they assume that a voice they “hear” comes from God, and that God can speak in this way. In this very short extract, Webb Keane uses Augustine’s experience to illustrate how this usage subtly changes.

“That the peculiarity of certain speech situations can support religious interpretation is famously evident in Augustine’s conversion to Christianity (Augustine 1961, pp. viii, 610). Upon hearing the words take and read, take and read (tolle lege, tolle lege) spoken in a sing-song voice by an unseen child from the other side of a wall, Augustine understood them to be a command from God. Opening the Bible, he took the words he encountered to be another moment of communication.
“Two features of the speech situation permitted this. First, the invisibility of the speaker allowed Augustine to wonder about the true source of the words. Second, the fact that words written in one context can be taken up and read in another allowed him to see himself as the person addressed.
“This episode illustrates the importance both of participant roles and of the tension between text and context in understanding the efficacy of religious language. Moreover, the repetitiveness and assonance that drew Augustines attention to the child’s utterance hint at the power of linguistic form as well.”

(Source: Webb Keane)

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