The Church of England has been engaging in the process of what it calls ‘facilitated conversations’ on the topic of the gay issue. Groups of Christians who take opposing views on the subject have been brought together in a hotel to hear what others have to say about their stance. Because there are professional facilitators present, the conversations have not been allowed to degenerate into a slanging match or any kind of confrontation with those who take a different view from their own. The emphasis is on listening in a spirit of generosity. We have been reminded once again, as we emerge from the exhausting process of a General Election, that positions on any topic can be held passionately but these are also often immovable and fixed. It is not my intention to say anything further about the rights and wrongs of the gay issue; my purpose is rather to reflect on the general matter of communication, particularly where two sides have trenchantly opposed positions.
There are many problems that occur when we meet an individual who takes a point of view about anything which is both passionate and convinced. Before I suggest what can be done to try and engage with this depth of conviction, I want to mention one particular reason why two people may find themselves in a place of passionate disagreement. This reason may be that they have grown up speaking different languages. I am not of course suggesting that this is an explanation in the current debates within the church but I am thinking of any kind of language miscommunication that may take place in a debate. I want to illustrate my point by referring a literal linguistic confusion that left a terrible rent in the church in the 11th century. This was the formal separation of the Orthodox and Catholic churches which took place in 1054 AD. It is generally accepted that a major cause of this split was because of the fact that the two sides had become ignorant of each other’s language. Few theologians on either side had any knowledge or fluency in the language of the other. As part of a study I once made on the issue of the influence of Greek ideas in the West in the early mediaeval period, I learnt that the work of one single translator, Amalarius of Metz in 725 AD, spread a number of influential Greek theological ideas into the West during his life-time. For the next hundred years or more there was no one else qualified to continue this task of translating Greek into Latin. The result of this was that the vast resources of Greek theology remained obscure and virtually unknown in the West at the time of the great schism in the 11th century. There was an additional problem. Even if an adequate knowledge of the language of the other was available to theologians, there were, and still are, many problems of translating Greek technical theological terms into Latin and vice-versa. A good knowledge of Greek requires a student, not only to understand how words should be translated, but also the exact nuances in the way the words are used in the original. It will be recognised that translation is always an approximation of what was written in the original context. Theological education for the clergy today will, if possible, include some knowledge of Greek and Hebrew precisely for this reason. The ancient languages yield their deeper meanings only after imaginative penetration of their cultures.
Today when we talk about failures of communication, we are probably not normally talking about people using different languages. But we are talking about the way that the words we use can be distorted in their meanings by the way that words acquire particular meanings from the education and culture of the speakers. All of us can think of occasions when we have come unstuck in talking to someone, because an English word is being used by another person to mean something different from our use. What do we do? Do we insist on using only our meaning or do we rapidly try and adapt ourselves to what we think they mean? The possibilities for misunderstanding what other people are really saying in conversation are endless. In this blog I have the luxury of being able to define my meanings so that the reader has a good chance of knowing what I am talking about All too often in actual conversations words will be used in such a way that two people will be at cross-purposes even though they are using the same words. We may use theologically profound words, like ‘truth’, ‘salvation’ and even ‘God’ but each be meaning something subtly different when we use them.
Good communication between two or more people on profound topics will probably happen most easily when the people concerned have had a similar type of education. They thus instinctively know, reasonably accurately, how the words of the other person are being used. This sounds like an elitist comment but I believe we need to be more open about the problem of communication when people share ideas, while using language in subtly different ways. One of the advantages of having received a relatively good education is that I would claim, not to know many things, but to be able to recognise how seldom I can be sure of knowing anything securely. For every educated person, I believe, knowledge is seen to have the element of being provisional; it is capable of being changed when new information comes along. This would apply to the scientist as well as the person who, like me, has had some theological training. The readiness to articulate ideas with a degree of tentativeness is a great aid to true communication. The person whose educational background has taught them only to deal in solid ‘facts’ is unlikely to respond positively to this kind of insight. They will not understand ‘knowledge’ as a work in progress. Knowledge of the facts of our faith is believed to be contained in the words of the Book, the Bible. For others of us, the words provide a beginning of the process of understanding, not the conclusion.
Christianity has in many places across the world been taught in a dogmatic way which denies the possibility of sharing in the way I have indicated above. In other words it possesses none of the humility, the sense of permanent growing into knowledge and the incompleteness that I would want to claim for it. This task of holding ‘facilitated conversations’ in a Christian context may be about teaching people the art of humble listening and learning to recognise that the other person may be speaking a different ‘language’. Learning that language, recognising how our background may have predisposed us to understand ‘truth’ in quite different ways from the person we are speaking to, will always be salutary. Although I am a believer in the provisionality of theological statements, I have to learn and communicate with people who reject the idea of ambiguity in the language we use to describe God. No doubt the other person feels safe in having the ‘word of God’ between their fingers in the form of a Bible. I would want them to understand that way of believing better. But also I would ask them to listen and know that the language I speak is a language that embraces mystery, beauty and unknowability. For myself, the language to talk about God and Christ is explored far better, not in the edgy dogmatic discourse of Paul, but in the visual symbolic language of St John’s Gospel. Both ‘languages’ are valid Scripture, and a Christian needs, not to choose between them, but to become fluent in both.