What is a word? At the most fundamental level, it is a collection of sounds or letters that have been put together into a string. We then take that collection of sounds or letters and assign it to a certain meaning. It may be used to describe an object, an idea, a sound, a taste or really anything else. However, that collection of sounds or letters has become not quite synonymous with, but at least indicative of something in our minds.
The problem with words is that sometimes they have multiple different meanings, and they can occasionally mean different things to different people. What if I say the word volume? What comes to mind immediately? For some of you, you might assume that I talking about one particular book in a series. For some of you, you might assume that I talking about how loud or quiet the television is. Still others might be more scientifically minded and think that I am speaking about the three-dimensional space within an object.
Context matters. If I ask you to turn down the volume, you will know which sense of the word I am going for because you know that the other two don’t make sense. If I ask you to hand me volume seven off of the shelf, you will hand me a book that probably has that number on the spine. We understand what words mean not only by their own meanings but also the meanings of the words that surround them.
Context is not always enough though. I can tell you that I am a Christian. The word Christian has so many meanings, and it is often times used in such similar contexts that it can be hard to tell very much about me from just that one word. I can tell you that I go to a Christian church. That is a true statement. The people from Westboro Baptist Church will also tell you that they attend a Christian church. I would strongly contend that they are not representing the love of Christ to the world, and I am very confident that my assessment is accurate. However, my point is that they would say they are a Christian church even if I do not believe they are.
Therefore, it can be a little hard to tell what one means with a term like Christian. To dip a little bit into politics (I’m trying to keep the politics off of this site since a friend and I recently started a political website that I think of a better home for those types of conversations), it can be a little bit hard to tell what it means to be a liberal or conservative. Liberal is actually a really interesting word because America was built on political liberalism, but it is far from synonymous with liberal in our modern parlance. I know people who would say that they believe in liberalism, taking the classical meaning, and are also conservatives in our modern sense. However, there are plenty of liberals today who would say that they believe in liberalism, and they are not conservative. They believe in liberalism in the modern sense. However, it is the same word, and it could be used in the same context. You can have modern liberals and modern conservatives saying that they believe in liberalism but meaning quite different things. You can have people say they are Christians but mean very different things.
What are we to do then? Language is a funny thing. There is a ton of potential for misunderstanding. I guess we could get really specific when we start to describe things. Instead of simply telling you that I am a Christian, I could tell you a type of statement of faith complete with my perspective on creation, the fall, the nature of the Trinity and so many other things. That would definitely be helpful, but we don’t do that every time we use a word that has a potentially ambiguous meaning. If you really want to know my perspective on things and the time and place is right, obviously that is probably the best way to go about making sure we communicate clearly and don’t fall into verbal ambiguity.
Short of that type of opportunity to go into a great amount of specific detail to actually pin down these words that are used in a variety of ways, I would like to suggest that there are few concepts that we can employ to try to make our conversation more productive. After all, that’s what we want, I think. We want to be able to say what we mean, and we want people to understand what we mean. We don’t want people to misunderstand our words because they take a different interpretation of a word than we do.
First, I think one thing we need to remember is that there is always a greater context. I suggested that you might not always have time to sit down and hear someone’s entire statement of faith. You might not know exactly what that person means when he or she espouses Christianity. Even if you don’t have time to get all of the details, make sure you understand that there is a larger context. There is more to discover. Maybe you will never get the opportunity to discover all of that, but I would suggest that it is important to remember that just because someone says that he or she is a Christian, I would probably not take him or her as the automatic representation of every Christian for all time in every place.
If you do get the opportunity to hear little bit more about that person’s faith, then you might realize that they are actually a pretty good representation of let’s say Presbyterian theology. From there, you realize that maybe you can get some idea of what a Presbyterian believes by this person’s example. Generalization is always dangerous from small sample sizes, no matter how much you know about that one case. However, if you are going to generalize, at least make sure that you are generalizing from a like thing to another like thing. If you want to generalize about Presbyterians from that one Presbyterian you know, at least make sure that the one that you know is a good representation of the beliefs of that denomination. There is always a greater context, so in those situations when you can’t learn everything, don’t generalize on the little that you know. That’s asking for conflict.
Second, we need to remember that if something doesn’t necessarily make sense, it is not automatically wrong. It might be wrong. People hold contradictory beliefs all the time. I think that is kind of like Christians to simultaneously affirm that all religions are valid pathways to God. Christians claim to believe God’s word, and Jesus explicitly says that He is the Way. It is a singular term indicating that He is the only Way. Therefore, it is contradictory to say that all religions are paths climbing up the same mountain to God, but many people believe that. Some things very well might be wrong.
That being said, not everything will be automatically wrong just because we can’t understand it. If I hear someone talk about something I don’t get, it is possible for me to have a little bit of humility and think that I may have it wrong or simply don’t have enough knowledge in some area. I’m not saying that we give everyone a free pass by any means. Errors must be corrected, but if we don’t know whether or not they are actually errors, then we shouldn’t automatically jump to that assumption. If the conversation allows for it, we can ask clarifying questions, or we may have to file it away for something to figure out later. We don’t excuse error, but I think that we are tempted sometimes to automatically dismiss something we don’t understand simply on the virtue of the fact that we don’t understand it. I just don’t think that should be our default setting.
Finally, it is pretty important when we think about language and properly understanding what people are saying that we practice charity. A lot of times there are a few different ways to interpret what someone is saying. One may be pretty bad, and the other could be not so bad. At least my temptation is to assume the worst for some reason. It is not always justifiable, but if there are two possible ways to read a situation, I feel like we often times take the worst road.
Maybe we should stop doing that. If we assume the best out of people, we are going to be disappointed sometimes without a doubt. Sometimes we will get burned when we think that people have good intentions and they really don’t. I don’t want to get burned any more than anyone else. I don’t want to experience that hurt. However, how much more hurt am I either creating or amplifying by not assuming good intentions? While we can’t always trust everyone, and while we might learn that certain people do not ever or hardly ever have good intentions, by and large, I feel like if we assume good intentions given no reasonable evidence to the contrary, then I think it will help us with these linguistic ambiguities. We interpret as charitably as we can. Again, we do not blindly accept, and we don’t affirm everything. However, in short conversation, I think charity is an important virtue.
Overall then, we have to remember that there is a greater context, even if we don’t know it. We have to accept that things that we do not understand are not automatically wrong. Then we have to approach these issues with as much charity as we can absent of prior evidence. If we do these three things, I think that we can deal with language in a much better way and relate to each other much better as a result.