Tower of Babel

For a long time now, I’ve been quite interested in language and am often concerned with how our language influences our thought patterns, theology, and even our interactions with others. I’ve written on this blog several times about the word “power” and how I think genuinely altering our understanding of this word would significantly change our perceptions about how God works and who God is. I’ve also written about love and how we unknowingly contradict our understanding of God by dividing love into categories. One of my favorite Wendell Berry essays, Life is a Miracle, spends a good deal of time parsing out the impact of mechanical language on our understanding of creation when we use such terms to describe life. He says that we easily reduce that which is being described merely to the terms with which we use to describe it; thus, the human body described as a machine quickly moves from a metaphor to a conceptual reality: are we really no more than machines?

It is unavoidable, I believe, that the words we use to talk about anything form a major piece of our understanding, whether it’s another person, idea, place, or God. While our words are a reflection of our thoughts, we either consciously or unconsciously choose which words to articulate those thoughts with. These words form the other end of the loop; our thoughts fuel our words which stoke the fires of our thoughts. Somewhere in this continuous loop, we need to stop and refine the content that is getting circulated.

I am concerned with this issue theologically, of course, but I also just find it absolutely fascinating. It doesn’t take too much imagination to realize that two people can be using all the same words and mean completely different things. In some way, each individual has a language completely unique unto themselves. Thus, the task of communicating in life is a matter of compromise, adjustment, and learning to speak and understand the language of others.

Similar to the science of linguistics, our individual languages are part of larger language families: our own families. The people who raised us and who were raised with us come the closest to speaking our identical language. When I go home to my parents, I slip into a comfort I don’t have elsewhere, in part because of relational familiarity, but I think equally because my parents share nearly the same storehouse of metaphors, expressions, references, experiences, and rationale for the way they articulate their lives. Even though as I’ve grown older I’ve added new language and new images to my vocabulary, I still share that major chunk of my language, much of which was passed to them through their family, and so I feel similarly comfortable with grandparents, etc, though not quite so much as with my parents. This is not to say that we always get along (obviously) with such people, but rather we speak the same language.

Why is this significant? The more I think about it, the more strongly I feel that our divisions in life and in the church are intensified and worsened by this problem of language. As we move away from our familial upbringing, our language is affected by the books we read, the colleges we go to, the experiences we have. All of a sudden, we feel more alienated from those who we disagree with, especially because when we try to talk to “the other side” they’re just so argumentative, they refuse to see our side, they just can’t see how blind they are, etc. This feeling of alienation increases and after years we only associate with people with whom we agree, again furthering the language divide.

What do I mean by language divide? To use an example from biblical issues, take the word “atonement.” Imagine a person grows up with a typical “penal substitutionary” understanding, theologically pretty conservative. This person continues to read authors with this perspective, they attend a college fellowship that endorses this same understanding, they lead Bible studies and evangelize their friends valuing this understanding as essential to the Gospel. Then they go to seminary and become a pastor, teaching and preaching this exact same understanding. Then they sit down for a cup of tea with a stranger who comes from a different perspective, and somehow the word “Atonement” is used in passing conversation. All those years of contrasting experiences and books now flood the mind of each person to the point where they are functionally imagining completely different words (like Jelly in American and British English: in the states, jelly goes on toast, in Britain, jelly is wobbly and jiggly, what Americans call Jello).

Atonement is one hot button issue in Christianity, but there are millions of other similar words, some more significant than others, and certainly not restricted to Christianity. Liberals and conservatives in the public sphere operate the same way; take the word “healthcare” as an example. My assertion here is that if we could learn to speak more of the same language, we might have better conversations and actually begin to understand each other. We might not agree still, but at the very least perhaps, the vicious and just plain mean spirits that are part of the discussions could be lessened.

I think marriages are a great example of how we can learn to speak and understand another person’s language. When two people first start to date, they still largely speak their individual language. Over the years, their languages meld together as they listen, get confused, get hurt, argue, and finally understand. The key, I’m realizing as I reflect on an experience I had this past weekend with some friends from high school I haven’t seen in years, is that we cannot learn another’s language without listening. It takes a lot of listening for two people to come to the point where they can speak on the same plain, especially two very different people. And perhaps part of what we find attractive in another person is this feeling of a greater shared language.

Part of the reason why my year in North Carolina at the Rutba House was so refreshing to me is because, to my delightful surprise, the folks I lived with spoke the same dialect, so to speak. Much of my college experience with other Christians was often the feeling of being unable to use the vocabulary of Christianity I’d grown up with, of nonviolence and peace, of care for the poor.

In short, if Christians of various denominations, political perspectives, and theological perspectives are to ever be able to have compassionate discussion, we must do the self-sacrificial thing and learn the language of the other.

I will admit that all this may sound vague and abstract, but the more I think about it each day, the more I see vivid examples. This is the first I’ve written on it, so it may be a bit jumbled still. In the church, the big words like justification and atonement and evangelism will probably always create disagreement, so why don’t we begin to reflect on other words whose definitions don’t seem so crucial to our specific faith and find common ground meanings that are particular and illuminating. Perhaps these sorts of things will, like grains of mustard seed, spread and rise up in the cracks where our Church has been rent in two.



  1. Ric Booth · February 3, 2011

    I love this post. I know, “love” is a bit overused and vague. You are on point with this discussion. I have an example of this I will be writing about in the near future. I’ll probably put a trackback/pingback link to here.

    The marriage example is quite good. Over the 30 years, Patti and I have learned a great deal of each other’s language. Including all the non-verbal cues. We know what the other is saying before anyone else in the room. The “completing the other’s sentences” syndrome. And if we complete them nonverbally, everyone else is completely lost.

  2. thegentlelight · February 3, 2011

    i really loved this post brian. i remember your words about power at the retreat and they really stuck with me.

    i studied english in college and i think language is so important in our discussions, let alone our own lives and way of understanding and perceiving reality. i’m always frustrated when people just claim “semantics!” and disregard the finer nuances of language and how they affect us.

    so much of it really does come down to how well we listen. really listen. so often we are too busy filtering what others are saying through our own understanding and responding in our minds even before they’ve finished talking. we assume what they are saying and categorize the statement according to previous “understandings.” this is a largely unseen problem to overcome. and i think it has something to do with pride and humility.

    anyway, thanks for your thoughts. they weren’t jumbled, at least to me–and i look forward to further reflection on these ideas.

  3. Pingback: Jesus saves, not me « ric booth

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