While driving across a desert in Western Australia, my wife and I came across two Japanese bikers who obviously had a problem. Neither of them spoke English and we didn’t speak Japanese but we soon worked out that one had fallen and damaged his ankle. We convinced them to leave one motorbike hidden behind a bush while we transported the injured rider to a roadhouse, where the Flying Doctor Service could be contacted. The second rider could then bring someone back to retrieve the bike. All this was achieved without understanding one word of each other’s language. How can people communicate all that without words?
According to communication theory, words convey only 7% of a communication. Vocals such as pitch, tone and volume account for 38% and the other 55% is made up of non-verbals, such as gestures, facial expressions, posture and so on. When reading, we have to use imagination because none of the vocals are there to help us understand what is written. Sometimes we get it right and sometimes our imagination is way off target. Combining a speaker’s words and vocals gives verbals 45%, which means there is only a 10% difference between verbals and non-verbals and yet we take much more notice of non-verbals than we do of verbals. Why?
Lucy is the name given to Ethiopia's world-acclaimed archaeological find. Lucy’s almost complete hominid skeleton was dug up in 1974, and was estimated to be at least 3.2 million years old. Hominids are the family of primates from which humans supposedly emerged about 200,000 years ago. The ability to use language defines what is known as ‘modern humans’, but language, as we know it, has only been around for about 35,000 years This means that for 165,000 years people communicated with each other non-verbally, with gestures, expressions, and movements, as well as the pitch, tone and volume of grunts. So, for the vast majority of human history our ancestors relied on reading the signs of human behaviour, and the signs in nature, to understand the world they lived in. The human race has had far more experience communicating in, and learning from, non-verbals than from words. It’s no wonder we place more importance on non-verbals and trust them when someone’s words and actions don’t match up. As the saying goes, ‘actions speak louder than words’.
Archaeologists claim that religion has been part of human existence for at least 70,000 years, which means that for 35,000 years before language fully developed, people believed in life after death and buried things with people to help them in that life. It doesn’t seem logical that God would only start communicating with people after they invented language; less than 25% of human history. Wasn’t God capable of communicating before human language developed? Were humans smart enough to try to communicate with God, but God had no way to communicate with humans? The communication theory mentioned above suggests that God could use non-verbals to communicate very effectively with people, and did so for all of the time before language was invented. The medium for that communication was the natural environment.
People felt they were part of the land and of nature in general. They were as one in spirit with the plants and animals and could ‘read’ the signs carried on the wind, buried in the soil, transformed by fire, floating on or immersed in water. Nature was their provider and teacher and was present with them and in them every moment of every day. There was an intensity and intimacy involved that we sometimes fleetingly experience in sport, when the perfect shot seems effortless and almost automatic.
Non-verbal communication, like the burning of incense or lighting of candles, still plays a big part in religious ceremonies and rituals, but the three main religions are ‘religions of the book’, which means they are driven by the word of God contained in their respective holy book; the Torah, Bible and Koran. Although these books were written by people, each religion claims their book was dictated by God and therefore contains ‘the word of God’.
I’m not concerned here with comparing religions or holding one book higher than the others. I’m not even concerned with whether those books really do contain the word of God. The point I make is that the words contained in the books, important as they are, are just a small part of the overall communication package and I wonder whether it would really matter if we no longer had access to them, and God was again experienced as speechless. We would still have the great majority of God’s communication to guide us, and it would be the communication that is specifically aimed at us personally, since it is what we experience. We could study that communication without the sense of already knowing the truth. Much of the violence in the world occurs as a result of people being certain they already know the truth, and anything else has to be rejected and destroyed.
The Torah, the Bible and the Koran are valuable inspirational books that contain the spiritual experiences of many of our ancestors, expressed in the words available to them and guided by their knowledge of the make-up of the universe. We certainly need the accumulated knowledge of past generations about our relationship to each other and to God. But unfortunately those words are now being interpreted by people who have not had the same experiences. We are no smarter than our distant ancestors, but our knowledge and experience is different and so our interpretation is different. However, God doesn’t change as our knowledge or understanding changes. God’s communication is still through the world around us and in us and is available to refer to whenever there is doubt about ‘the truth’ of what our ancestors recorded. The disaster is that so many people are intent on changing or destroying the environment God communicates through and we are left with less and less to study in its natural state. We would be better off working to understand it and cooperate with it instead of seeing it as something to conquer and change.
Disregarding the non-verbals makes communication as accurate as trying to picture what someone looks like from listening to their voice. People who disregard the environment as part of God’s communication not only miss out on the majority of God’s actual communication, but also miss out on using the main way we have of expressing our beliefs and values to God.
My dream is for all people to look at ‘the word’ in the context of the non-verbals formed by the whole of creation. Ideally, that would result in us seeing the environment as the interface between ourselves and God and therefore alter the way we treat that interface.
Imaginings, dreams and ‘what ifs’ are usually about impossible or highly unlikely events, like winning Tattslotto, but they are also little rays of hope for the future, and my ray of hope is that the religions will one day discover that the Torah, Bible and Koran all contain part of the truth that will emerge if we continue to verify it against the non-verbal communication from a God choosing to remain silent.
Photo: Butterfly garden, Malaysia.