Sunday, June 8, 2014

Revising Our Semantics

One of the quickest things we pick up as Christians, although quite unconsciously, is a religious vocabulary. Consequently, part of our revising is to identify how we speak and how we hear others speak when discussing spiritual and theological ideas. The subject of conversational styles is not new. Linguists and sociologists use the term conversational style to describe the specific set of assumptions and goals that people employ when they communicate. All social groups construct such styles to communicate their thoughts. Conversational styles are part of the reason why cross-cultural communication is so difficult. They explain why a French speaker can insist that the meaning of something in French can never be completely rendered in English or German. It is my observation that much of the misunderstandings and disagreements over spiritual matters arise not out of genuine substantive differences but from differences in communication style. Oftentimes, a person will use a certain expression to make a theological point (no doubt picked up from his or her denominational background), while his or her discussion partner is made to feel uncomfortable or even offended. The problem of cross talking arises, and the conversation drifts from actual substance to one that gets bogged down in the gears of a diverging style of communication. Interestingly, the people involved in such discussions are not aware of what’s happening. They are only aware of the fact (at least in their own minds) that the conversation has been hijacked because the other person is “hard-hearted,” “closed-minded,” “biblically ignorant,” or “deceived.” If we can get a handle on the different spiritual conversational styles, we will better understand what people actually believe rather than focusing on how they communicate those beliefs (which can often drive one crazy!). In a nutshell, understanding the reality of spiritual conversational styles (SCSs from henceforth) can move us far ahead in the game of spiritual conversation. Talking about our SCSs is quite risky. Spiritual beliefs (theology in the broad sense) are very dangerous, for they strike at the heart of what we Christians hold dearest. We construct SCSs to arrange the ground rules upon which spiritual discussions can take place in a way that we find safe and comfortable.
Our SCSs help to insulate our conversations about spiritual things from those ideas that conflict with our own. In this way, SCSs enable us to tread upon the dangerous and terrifying ground of theological debate. Granted, my discussion of SCSs is subject to abuse. At worst, some may take this chapter and convert it into ammunition by which to stereotype and pigeonhole their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. At best, it will cause us to look at how we communicate about spiritual matters and encourage us to be better listeners. I believe the notion of conversational styles is useful because it helps explain why people can routinely misunderstand each other when they appear to share so much in common. It also provides a helpful window into understanding some of the common complexities we face when seeking to cross the line of theological distinctions. The world of psychotherapy has become such a successful industry in the West because most of us know very little about ourselves—particularly how we think, feel, and react, not to mention how we speak. Understanding SCSs can help us to make progress in how we hear and understand one another.
Keep in mind that identifying a particular SCS in yourself (or in another) is only half the solution to a theological disagreement. The other half is to transcend it and cross-communicate with those who hold to a different SCS than yourself. This is quite difficult, though it’s not impossible. Let me introduce you to what I believe are three of the most common SCSs. As you read through each one, try to populate it with people you have tried to converse with in the past. Hopefully, this chapter will help to spare you the agony of talking past other Christians when discussing spiritual things.

From Revise Us Again by Frank Viola, author

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