Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Ambiguity of Christian language and the science of faith

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?


peasant said...

Clear thinking is not a strength of the postmodern mind. A couple of generations ago children were taught creeds and catechisms. Now relativism has seeped into Christian circles. But I am sure a nimble mind like yours is able to use the Word to cut through the foggy mishmash of half baked philosophies floating around most peoples skulls :)

Jim said...

Oh dear Mr Incognito.....

how did my friend get so bitter?

a couple of thoughts...

-words and concepts/ideas do not have a one to one correlation...it's not the case in the english language and I suspect it's not the case in almost every language that develops naturally...

-Every field of discussion has it's own jargon words... they may be borrowed from other parts of the language... but have different meanings... eg a "try" in rugby doesn't mean you tried but that you succeeded... beyond that , it really means you got a particular ball over a particular line during a particular time period, whilst following particular rules and interacting with a certain number of other people in a particular way...

-to say we " can apply clear language in the sciences, mathematics, law, and countless other professions " is really a load of rubbish... surely you realise this? Each has their own jargon words... that unless you have studied the field you won't know what they mean... and even if you have studied them, you won't always be able to explain them to someone who hasn't in one sentence... and their meanings in these fields can be different from common usage... eg "weight" in physics

-The real world is complicated... and needs lots of so called caveats to attempt to explain it... you talk about the scientific/ engineering approach to christianity... honestly I see those as quite different...
Science seeks to explain things in the most accuarate way, engineering makes approximations of the actual state of things for applications. Both involve the creation of theoretical models of how the real world works.

My studies of science have shown me that on many levels things are hard to explain and don't always follow what we previously thought was the best explanation.. eg the whole light wave/ particle duality...

If the scientific community's best explanation of something that surrounds us and we use every day... the thing that lets you see the words on your screen is that it's sometimes best looked at like a wave, and sometimes best looked at like a particle...
... then why can't we accept a duality of God overlooking the bad we have done, but that we should still try and do good... and depending on the context it is better to emphasize one over the other?

I haven't had time to fully proof this, but hopefully it gets my ideas across..

Naomi said...

I have been thinking alot about how theological knowledge effects our 'faith' as Chrisitians recently, in particular around the reasons why certain things happen in our lives. Why do some people die of cancer? Why do some people have traumatic events in their lives and others seem to be blessed with adundance in many areas? Over my life I have had so many people try and relate Gods will and purposes for me through the events in my life: "God caused those things to happen to you so you can have an awesome testimony and bring others to Him".."God caused those things to happen so you can be able to relate to others more effectively" and a bunch of other rationalisations. None of them really ever rung true, as much as I would like to believe them. After many years of striving to apply theology to this so that I can find some rational explanation, at the end of the day I have found none. I have no idea why God chooses (or if He chooses) to send trials and trauma to us. I can't explain it, and to be honest, I really don't care. I can't find a rational explanation to everything because if I could I would have no need for faith. Some things don't make sense to me, because my understanding is limited, and not through lack of intellect or trying. God is God and I am not, and with that I have to surrender some of my obsessive need for logic and rationale. My faith needs to be seperate from my understanding, because if my faith was based on my understanding I would have none.

incognito said...

Jim: Yes, I wrote this post in a cynical mood. However, I think you've missed my point. While it is true that somethings are hard to understand and describe, I don't think Christianity in its essence needs to be this way. What I ranted about here is that I think Christians don't understand Jesus' message properly because it's become confused under layers of loaded terminology and hard-to-explain ideas. If Jesus' message was simple - to love God and love others, then it seems to me that this has been obscured by complicated theories of Christology, ontology, escatology and soteriology... so much so that people no longer see the heart of Jesus' message. Of course, many Christians do see the heart of it, yet surely for the sake of those who do not we owe this some thought.

Naomi: Thanks for your comment. Your name doesn't seem familiar, so I presume I don't know you. Your comments are interesting. I have heard many people say similar things. I think you captured it with this statement:

"My faith needs to be seperate from my understanding, because if my faith was based on my understanding I would have none."

I have exactly the opposite view. I believe that we must understand our Christian faith, because if we don't understand it then we don't really know what our Christianity is all about, and we might end up following something that is not Jesus and his message. God has given us minds to discern truth, and if we forsake this and blindly believe anything "in faith" we open ourselves to being tremendously mislead.

From my research into the bible I have become convinced that true faith is not about believing and trusting things despite them not seeming reasonable, but instead about being committed, loyal, and faithful to Jesus, his message, his mission, and God. I don't try and force myself to "have faith" in doctrines that don't make sense because I don't think this is what the Bible or Jesus teaches us to do. This understanding of faith has saved my from giving up Christianty entirely, because I found something true, captivating, and amazingly powerful about a gospel that I could understand.

Regarding the problem of evil and pain in the world, I will try to post on this topic in the future as it demands more discussion.

Fraser Dron said...

Honestly, I don't think that Christianity should be a system for explaining the universe. Where am I going with this... um, I have this idea of a separation between the simple Way of Jesus, and hardcore Theology.

I think it should be possible for someone to commit to loving, obeying and following Jesus and living like Jesus did (thus being a 'Christian', at least according to me), while not being lumbered with the jumble of ideas and beliefs that have accumulated over the centuries.

I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with those ideas and beliefs - It's important (and sometimes even practically helpful) to consider the nature of God, the Universe and Everything. But they tend to deal with abstract things - things which simply can't be known, and seemingly opposite truths that have to be held in tension.

I just think that for most of us, it would help if we put less emphasis on answering all the questions, and a lot more emphasis on taking care of other people, loving and trusting God, doing good, learning to control our appetites and self-destructive urges, working to reduce injustice in the world, et cetera et cetera.

I *like * the word 'mystery', when it's used to describe an unfathomable God (rather than being used to cover gaping holes in a poor argument).

incognito said...

Good point Fraser. I totally agree that the theological arguments and theories aren't the point. I think it would do most Christians a lot of good to focus on the heart of the gospel - love - rather than propositional theories and ideas. The problem is that many Christians do focus on the theories and ideas. It seems to me that often the wishy-washiness of how they talk about these ideas hides the fact that they are missing the point. It seems like a viscious cycle of missing the point...

Anonymous said...

Yes! I so agree with those last couple of comments! And I'm not entirely sure if the distinction is "hardcore Theology" or just general Churchianity culture and associated theology/conventions.

There have been quite a few times when I have gotten so fed up and confused with what I thought was Christianity - the theory, phraseology and Churchianity side of things - because I didn't understand it and it was all vague and confusing and foggy, but somehow it was all dreadfully important because it was what following God was all about. It meant I was scared I wasn't doing things properly, but I didn't know what that actually meant.

People who don't get the theory are seen as losing their faith, and I've seen an awful lot do that over the years. It always freaked me out how simple and easy the process seemed to be, of going from having a strong mental belief in a system to totally denigrating it. But now I'm wondering if any of them really were - maybe they were just losing the ability to do Churchianity properly instead.

Tools and structures (mostly what Churchianity's made of) in and of themselves are actually good things, they're aids and guidelines to help us follow Christ more closely.

But when we start focussing all our energies on the structures and the tools themselves rather than the essential thing those tools and structures were put in place to help us do, we've got a bit of a problem.

So yeah... two aspects. Actual Christianity/genuinely following a random, crazy rabbi from the unfashionable end of the universe, and... everything else.

(I may have been somewhat influenced by reading The Velvet Elvis and re-reading Small Gods recently :D)

Fraser Dron said...

"Tools and structures (mostly what Churchianity's made of) in and of themselves are actually good things, they're aids and guidelines to help us follow Christ more closely."

I don't know if I'd give such a generous appraisal of those tools and structures... they have the ability to do a lot of good, and a lot of harm.

JesusCrux said...

so much for "tolerance". you wrote a big ass post basically criticising how some Christians say crap that is bullshit, i did exactly the same thing, but obviously it's one law for what you and your mates are allowed to say about others and another for someone else

incognito said...

Stan, I do not have double-standards on my comments. I deleted your ealier comment because of the one standard I have for this blog - I do not want comments that are personally offensive on my blog. I do not want to permit personal insults, offensive language, or unconstructive or off-topic comments. I believe this standard is reasonable and necessary, although you may think otherwise. If you don't wish to comment in an acceptable manner then don't comment at all.

I wonder at your idea of "tolerance", as I think it differs to my own. We cannot and should not be "tolerant" of everything. Christianity does not teach that. It is right to oppose some things. For example, it is right to oppose child-abuse and not be "tolerant" of it.

All comments will now be moderated.