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?

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