Words with friends…. how do we use language?

This blog post is probably one of the more theologically oriented posts that will intersperse this blog, when I get a chance to think and write, and in this case it comes while im sitting on a plane between Melbourne and Singapore. It stems from a twitter discussion that I had with Jason Harris (@tojasonharris) during the Oxygen11 conference, on the topic, and has been fleshed out by a couple of shorter discussions with Arthur Davis (@arthurgdavis and blog) and others around college.

I’m sure that everyone reading this would be familiar with the saying that a picture can convey a thousand words, although the linguistic corollary that a word may have a thousand meanings may be slightly more hazy to some out there. Yet despite it being somewhat less common, I think that intrinsically we all know it to be true. The wide range of meanings imbued within a word are readily apparent to even a young child in primary school being called a ‘nerd’ for the first time: What does it mean… i don’t even like Star Trek… i like books though; and the connotations rapidly progress onwards, like an avalanche tumbling down a mountain.

However, it appears that the general populace is commonly less aware of the various methods that the nuances of language may be used to influence and even generate the opinions and populace of a wider community. While I was studying Psychology at the University of Adelaide, I came across the work of Dr Martha Augoustinos, including her paper on the different uses of discourse regarding people seeking refuge in Australia via non-standard seafaring methods. In a rough summary, some papers would refer to such people as the term ‘refugees’, which has a relatively positive meaning, while others would choose ‘boat people’, a relatively neutral descriptor, and yet other media would opt for negativistic language such as ‘illegal immigrants’. Unsurprisingly the discourse features that were chosen by each media outlet harmonised nicely with their own intended audience, and polemic. Each term describes the selected people, although all portray them in wildly differing lights.

Ok, ok, I hear you cry, what relevance does this have to me? Fair question, and indeed one which I think needs addressing. For, I think, that even in the Church we have a tendency to place labels completely infused with meaning upon people, whether or not they completely endorse or embody all aspects of that label. Furthermore, as social psychology has tended to indicate, these labels are excellent tools for our psyche to orient our sense of in-group identification, and in correlation our out-group tendencies. Lets go for a quick hypothetical example:

Bob is living in Sydney, he is a strong Christian, and has been studying the bible for most of his life, he works in the city and all around him he finds that there are strong women who are in various positions of leadership. Through his experience he sees women capable of exercising leadership, and through cross pollination surmises that given equal training and equal capabilities, there should be little to nothing wrong with a woman being in a position of leadership in the Church; excited by his new theological thought process he enthusiastically announces at bible study that he believes in womens’ ordination. His bible study leader John is perturbed, and after a bit of quick Googling he discovers that the strain of theology that espouses this is commonly labelled as Egalitarian, and reading on he quickly prepares a bible study for the next week dealing with the subordination of the Trinity. Bob on the other hand still believes in an orthodox exposition of the subordination of the Trinity.

Now this example is admittedly a bit far fetched, but the use of labels to classify and segregate in- and out-groups is common, even within the Church, and can have disastrous consequences; and its not just the quick Complementarian and Egalitarian descriptors which are bandied around. Reformed, Evangelical, Arian, Modalism, and thousands more are slapped on people regularly, even if they may not hold all of those beliefs; and whether we intend it or not  these labels are quick to cause division within the Church.

So what should we be doing about it? Before we consider that perhaps its worth considering two existing outcomes of it. Firstly one area that I have lived in has, either consciously or unconsciously, decided to prioritise the unity of the Church over individual differences, and therefore very few people have opportunities to talk about controversial issues, which are inevitably the issues that end up gaining a label, and dividing the Church. As much as that may appear healthy, the suppression of discourse commonly leads towards dissension and fracture anyway, and so it is likely to be counterproductive in the longer term.
The other end of the spectrum in my experience is an area where these sort of issues are on the table at all times, discourse and even support of a label or position is even encouraged. Unfortunately while fleeing from suppression and fostering discourse the opposing situation has become as fractured as a vase brutally discarded, and subsequently labels are thrown around with little to no pastoral regard for their consequences.

What then is the solution? I, for one, don’t know for certain; I do know however, as with many solutions, lies somewhere between the two opposites which I have experienced, and for each individual the ideal is likely to be different. Perhaps the better question is how we can foster an environment which is non-judgemental and divisive within our churches?
Anyone have any ideas or feedback?

Chris

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