Earlier this evening (October 2, 2012), I was teaching a class for Taiwanese business people, focusing on writing business-related e-mail in English. One of the sample e-mails in the textbook contained something along these lines: “Can I get back to you? I need to consult my supervisor before giving you a final answer.”
I explained the meaning and usage of the English word consult and, as is my habit, illustrated its semantic range by giving a wide variety of examples — explaining that you could consult your doctor before trying a new drug, consult a dictionary for the meaning of a word, consult your parents or spouse before making a major life decision, etc.
One of the students — I’ll call her Estelle — raised her hand. “What about God?” she wanted to know. “Can you ‘consult God’ before making a decision?”
“Yes, absolutely. Consult God, consult the I-Ching, consult a fortune-teller — almost anyone or anything, really. In some cases you might consult a–”
“And do you?”
“Do I what?”
The question caught me off guard, and I’m afraid I came out with something pretty dishonest and lame: “Well, yeah, I suppose I do from time to time — but, you know, he never really answers me.”
(The truth: I’m an atheist, and although I do occasionally make a few prayers in the spirit of agnosticism, I never actually consult God in the strict sense of asking for information or advice. And back in the days when I did consult God, I never had cause to complain about not being answered.)
I don’t know what made Estelle focus on the question of consulting God. Idle curiosity, I suppose. I know her pretty well, and she’s not at all religious.
After the class was over, I went home to have dinner with my wife. She had a few things to do before we could eat, so I picked up one of the books I was reading, The Varieties of Temperament by William H. Sheldon, and opened it up. I was in the middle of a case study of “Gabriel,” a preacher. To understand the passage I am about to quote, you should know that Sheldon sees temperament as consisting of a combination of three primary tendencies: viscerotonia, somatotonia, and cerebrotonia (associated with physical endomorphy, mesomorphy, and ectomorphy, respectively). When troubled, viscerotonic personalities tend to turn to other people for help; somatotonic people, in contrast, have a need to take physical action when troubled; and cerebrotonics prefer to withdraw and contemplate their problems in solitude. Here’s how Sheldon describes Gabriel’s response to trouble. (The emphasis is of course my own.)
The predominant reaction [to trouble] is somatotonic, with a viscerotonic secondary tendency. His verbal response to the direct query is simply that he always consults God. This might imply a cerebrotonic reaction, and the point well illustrates the necessity of looking deeper than the verbal response. In this instance, Gabriel “consults God” by doing something actively, or through the minds of other people, not through solitary communion.
I read this passage less than an hour after my exchange with Estelle regarding “consulting God.” Not only does Sheldon use the same phrase (not a phrase which I see, hear, or use very often), but he draws attention to it as a phrase. He also talks about “looking deeper than the verbal response” — just as Estelle began by asking me a purely verbal question about the correct usage of an English word but then wanted to “look deeper” by asking about my religious behavior.