Learning to communicate

communicationThe 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.


  1. EnglishAthena

    Some good thoughts here, Stephen. Even if you both speak English, there’s plenty of room for misunderstanding. Just a trivial example, I know two senior churchmen in similar roles. One understands what I say every time, and I understand him. Plainly, we use language similarly. The other quite often either picks me up wrong, or doesn’t actually get it at all. There’ve been a few blank looks, and I suspect, irritation on both sides. And that’s not talking about theology at all! Worth bearing in mind when we are talking about serious matters.

  2. haikusinenomine

    I feel I have an idea what you mean about the edgy dogmatic discourse of Paul, but I feel inclined to defend him a bit. Look at whole chunks of Ephesians! I mean, we’re told that maybe “Paul” didn’t write it, but then maybe he didn’t write most of the worst things that Paul wrote either…

    Another thing I find is that, not only is it impossible to be sure exactly what people mean a lot of the time, but very often you get the feeling that they mean a lot of different things at the same time as well.

  3. Stephen Parsons

    My position is, on the basis of an essay I wrote in 1966, that I do not think Paul is the author of Ephesians. The nature of the blog does not allow me to rehearse all the arguments but the scholarly consensus on this issue is still on my side. That point will not alter what many believe about Paul but not having to put the ideas of Ephesians into the Pauline corpus does avoid countless problems. I would distinguish, as I have done, the lyrical poetic Paul from the argumentative dogmatic side of his personality. Ephesians would fit the lyrical side but it is not, with the best will in the world, a good fit. In the very early day of stylistic analysis with the help of computers (in the 70s) an article was published showing the coherence of Romans, Cornithians Philippians, Galatians Thesalonians and Colossians as belonging to one author but excluding Ephesians and the Pastorals(I & 2 Tim etc). Ephesians,stylistically and theologically does not appear to be the work of Paul, even though it shows awareness of some of the themes of Colossians. There is according to this research a single author for the main Pauline corpus and most people follow this. That is important for studying these writings as coming from one very crucial creative mind for the history of early Christianity. The fact that it has elements which we want to dispute makes it a human document. The problems come when we treat Paul as speaking the direct words of God which have to be obeyed at every point. That again creates many problems for faith. Quoting purple passages from to suit particular theologies is what theologians tend to do rather the greater task of trying to see a coherent mind and theology in all the writings of Paul. That is rather more difficult. Few attempt it, sadly.

  4. haikusinenomine

    Here we are talking about communication – so it would help to be clear when you talk about “Paul” that you mean the most accepted central letters and not the disputed ones. But even so, what about 1 Corinthians 13 though? I suppose my point was that Paul does have these varied aspects, including what you call the “lyrical” or mystical side, and it’s a bit of a shame to reject him completely in one fell swoop the way you sometimes seem to do, but perhaps don’t mean to be understood that way completely 🙂

  5. Stephen Parsons

    I don’t think I am rejecting Paul by any stretch of the imagination. Rather I feel we must try and understand him with a bit more subtlty than using particular verses to quote at people we don’t agree with. When I spoke about the lyrical and the dogmatic,this was to show that there are at least two sides to him. He also shows obstinacy and anger. This makes him a reco gnisable human being and we understand him so much better when we take this unto account.. There is the fact ,as I pointed out, that he sometimes changes in his insights over time. To ‘get’ Paul we have see all the facets of what he has to say. His closeness to the time of Jesus means that we refer to his writings as Scripture. Ephesians is Scripture even if Paul did not actually write it. God can communicate through this book even if the author is anonymous. Everything that is written in Scripture has to be taken seriously but we still use our critical faculties and our realisation that Paul was a human being,with some blind spots alongside brilliance and insight. I will for one never take his comments on women as a guide to church order today!

  6. haikusinenomine

    Thanks Stephen. Perhaps I have to apologise for being a bit of a contrarian, and often finding it easier to quibble about minor issues rather than really try to grapple with the main point. Your main post is really helpful overall.

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