I’ve noticed recently that many people don’t explain what they mean very clearly. This lack of clarity is rampant in Christianity. Here, analogy and metaphor seem to dominate conversations and doctrine.
For example, I hear people often talk of “God working in us” or doing things “in God’s strength” – but very few people ever actually try to spell out what these actually mean. These “loaded” phrases encapsulate much more than the simple English interpretation (which often doesn’t make sense). Even single words become “loaded” with meaning that is sometimes quite different to the normal English usage. For example, I heard “grace” used to mean things like “favour”, “blessing”, “forgiveness” and “tolerance” – all in one Sunday morning service yesterday. These are only two of the endless examples.
For some reason, Christians don’t use language that is particularly clear. Now it’s fine if the people someone talks to share the same idea of all the words and phrases – but what if they don’t? I think this happens often, and people don’t realised that their using the words and phrases to mean slightly (or significantly) different things. This opens up room for misunderstandings (especially with people unfamiliar with the terms). More commonly, though, I find that when pressed to describe some of the loaded terms clearly, Christians either use other loaded terms or simply say “it’s a mystery.”
It is this last response that troubles me. Most Christians these days have no problem with the idea that they don’t clearly understand their Christian faith and how it “works”. It’s “beyond our ability to understand”. It’s “the unfathomable depth of the gospel”. We “don’t need to understand it, just believe it”.
But if you don’t understand what you believe, then you don’t really know what you believe. If you can’t explain it clearly using normal English language, then you don’t really know what your faith really is. And this is exactly what we see – Christianity is terribly confused by the dozens of different groups who all use loaded terms differently. Many Christians think Christianity obviously doesn’t need to be clearly understood because Christians obviously don’t clearly understand it.
I think Christianity can be understood and explained in clear and non-jargon language. And I think it should be. We can apply clear language in the sciences, mathematics, law, and countless other professions – why not speak clearly about our Christianity?
Yes, why not? Here’s why - because I’ve found that sometimes Christians don’t actually like the clearly stated versions of their beliefs. They find it necessary to be deliberately vague and endlessly caveat their beliefs, lest they actually say something definite. So, for example, when talking about “grace” they may say things like “We are so sinful and yet God graciously overlooks what we do”, but then need to caveat that with “but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to imitate Jesus”. Then they need to caveat that with “but we shouldn’t strive, we should let God work in us to change us into his likeness”. Then caveat that with, “but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.” Then, noting that “trying” is a lot like “striving”, they might add, “but it should be because we love God for saving us, and not to try to please him so he gives us eternal life” and “plus, all our good works count for nothing anyway.” Then, noting that that makes imitating Jesus seem useless, they might say, “It’s lucky God is the one working in us then, isn’t it? We just have to be open to him.” Then, noticing their lack of Christ-like-ness, they cheerfully respond “Isn’t it so good that God is in control, so it’s all working together for good anyway!” and perhaps link back to their first idea about “grace”.
I’ve seen conversations like this many times. I think Christians aren’t clear about their beliefs for two reasons: 1) they don’t understand them clearly 2) if they did they wouldn’t actually agree with half of the ideas they believe. It is this second one that I’ve found by simply trying to restate what other Christians say clearly back to them, to clarify what their saying. They say something, I clarify it, and then they disagree with it. It’s fascinating and sad all at the same time.
I’ve learned that many Christians don’t like my scientific, engineering approach to Christianity. I like to pin ideas down, lay them out clearly, and see and understand how they work. The Christian faith to me is a bit like learning to play the piano, a skill that you learn through practice that ultimately changes how you do things. I like to figure it out. Many Christians don’t share my view, though. Many Christians seem to approach Christianity like a piece of modern art. They look at it and think, “wow”, and that is enough for them. They don’t feel the need to clarify and explain the mechanics of Christianity because they don’t think Christianity works that way – they don’t see it as being a way of life. Instead, they see it as something added to their lives that benefits them. They think that by trying to figure it out and learn the “skill” of Christianity, I’ve missed the point because Christianity isn’t supposed to be “figured out” but simply “accepted” (this is modern “faith”, of course).
So, is Christianity more like a piece of art or something that you don’t need to understand, or more like a skill that is learned and understood and developed? If people view it as the former, there is no problem with vague descriptions of it that are open to interpretation. But if it is like the latter, then unless we are clear about it then people won’t be very skilful at living as followers of Jesus. Is Christianity something you need to understand to live by, or something you can accept “by faith” without understanding? Should Christianity be clear? Should it make sense?