Speaking a common language

Thank-you-in-many-languagesMany years ago in London there seemed to be large numbers of immigrants of European extraction who had found their way to our capital because of wars and revolutions. It was said of such people that they were the proud speakers of many languages but in some cases they could not speak any of them well. You can imagine a child learning one language at his mother’s knee and then moving to a new country where it was necessary to learn yet another language to complete an already damaged education. Then there might be further disruption, more languages before finally arriving in Britain. We might envy a knowledge of several languages but on reflection we can see that there are considerable advantages in knowing just one language but knowing it well.

I begin this post with this reflection as I was talking to someone yesterday about the problems of communication on the topic of healing. Many people have picked up some exotic ways of talking about the process of healing. They have an Internet knowledge of medical science alongside other ideas which we might describe as alternative or New Age. They may also have some understanding of Christian ideas, including the importance of prayer and the issue of dealing with guilt. Talking to such people one may find that they easily switch in and out of this variety of cultures with the result that communication becomes quite difficult. You could say that they are trying to speak several languages at once. The person I was speaking to agreed with me when I said that it was very important to use one single language when discussing something with another person. It may be possible to introduce ideas from other cultures but not before there has been established an implicit agreement as to which is the main language in play. It is not unreasonable for a Christian minister to insist that he or she will want to use Christian language as the dominant means of communication.

Over the decades I myself have read many books which introduced me to alternative ways of understanding health issues. Some of these books have deepened my understanding and cultural insight into many aspects of human illness and disease. When faced with the distress in another person, I sometimes will run through in my mind the different models of understanding what I am looking at. But whatever I think about a person and what may be the cause of their problem, I will try to find one model in which to communicate with them. If a word or an idea is introduced from another cultural context, I will attempt to translate it into the language or dominant cultural setting in which I am trying to work. This attempt to control the discourse is not some power game that I am playing with another. It is merely a recognition that in our post-modern age, many people are trying to master an understanding of something while at the same time they are juggling with a wide variety of concepts from different sources. They end up with no clarity: they are like people who speak five languages but all of them badly.

In the previous blog post I was challenged for appearing to criticise the ideas of Jeremy Corbyn. In my response, I hope I made it clear that I was criticising, not his actual ideas, but the language in which these ideas were expressed. When any ideas are developed within a particular and, arguably, a narrow framework of culture, they will end up being articulated using a closed system of discourse. Families likewise often evolve their own words and expressions to denote everyday things. This is a private language and has to be interpreted when other people beyond the family hear it. Every profession develops their system of pet acronyms which are incomprehensible to people outside that charmed world. Sometimes language is used deliberately to create an in group which effectively keeps out outsiders. Whenever language is used to create barriers, we can say that it is not being used in a healthy way.

In speaking to another person, it is not only helpful but also good manners to ensure that we are using language in a way that they can understand. It is also not unreasonable for us to establish at the start that they should try, as far as possible, not to keep switching into other cultural frameworks, unless it is really necessary. As an example, one might be talking to someone about mental distress. If they were suddenly to introduce the idea of kundalini, then the conversation might well stall at that point. Even if I thought I knew what the word meant, I would have to establish that the other person had the same understanding. I would need to know where and how they have picked up this particular Hindu/New Age concept. That would take time to establish.

I seem to have used up a lot of space in explaining how important I feel it is to use words and language in the same way as another person for understanding to take place. Most of the time when Christians speak, they can assume some common knowledge of Scripture on the part of their fellow Christians. But even here there is still tremendous scope for misunderstandings as the ways we have been taught to use the Bible can vary enormously. Quite often in comments posted on this blog, I realise that an individual is saying something important. The problem for me may be that the way the idea is expressed means that I do not have a quick answer. I simply cannot see a way to respond to the issue raised without using lots of words and explanations of what I mean. In short, two Christians are speaking quite different languages. Communication is made very hard in this situation. My previous blog post was an appeal for us to consider how the truth and the reality of the Christian gospel be translated into a form of language which is in everyday currency among the people of our nation and culture. That is a massive task but it is one that is worth struggling and fighting for. One thing that will not help the cause of Christianity is simply to go on repeating words that some earnest Christians believe are essential to the Christian gospel but which, in fact, are obscure and almost meaningless outside the charmed circle of a particular ‘tribe’ of Christian believers.

Forcing people to use jargon expressions which they do not really understand is never going to help the cause of the Christian gospel. What this blog would plead for is not some instant solution to the problem but recognising the importance for all Christians to develop a greater sensitivity to this issue of language and the meaning of words. We need to understand that words are used not only in accordance to the dictionary definitions but as a way of expressing emotional states and cultural attitudes which go beyond mere words. That subtlety of understanding will always be important. It will always be important for us to express our ideas and convictions but also to hear what others are really saying.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

25 thoughts on “Speaking a common language

  1. …. perhaps the most difficult word at the root of all our problems of communicating is “God”? Large sections of the Bible, and especially the New Testament, could be seen as efforts to enable us to gain an appreciation or working relationship with the incomprehensible sufficient that we can use this word without falling into total meaninglessness. After all Philip, with three years’ experience of accompanying the ultimate Teacher, still feels confused enough to ask “show us the Father” – and Jesus’s frustration at that point is palpable. (here we can remember that “the Father” and “God” are in some sense synonyms here – yet with the rise of Trinitarian understanding after the resurrection, another layer of complication arises…)

    Jesus uses every sophisticated method of communication imaginable – notably the indirection of the parables – to open up a space in his hearers for a new understanding and a new relationship with “God”. And that in a society where “God” is agreed by all to refer in some way to the ultimate value. He didn’t have to contend with mocking references to old men with beards, sky pixies, and basically the contention that there is nothing ultimate for the word to refer to.

    I’m not disagreeing with your excellent post. Just musing on the inherent depth of a problem that can’t go away for us. The early church had to thrash out the creeds to try to set some acceptable parameters for the understanding for “God” – and not many Christians have more than a passing awareness of what they are about…. Yet we still need to use the word, and even if it’s often used in a jargon-like way, it’s not “jargon” in the sense of being an in-group word we can replace with something simpler and more everyday, or can always preface with a definition. If a minister tells the Sunday school, “God loves each one of you”, there is no better language to get this message across initially…. We have to use this word that none of us can fully understand. If the child in effect quotes Philip and asks “who is God, show me him”, yes all our resources of spiritual depth and ability to communicate start being called into play….

    Could not this be the real root of the difficulty of using all those “theological” words like sin, grace, faith, atonement etc etc which are off-puttingly thrown around with no subtlety whatsoever? Yet I find it sad that where I am, many good people are so unconfident in the face of all the pitfalls that they’d rather not talk about what the Gospel means to them at all.

    Perhaps one thing I’m suggesting is that the massive task you refer to of struggling to speak a common language is worthwhile, like perfection, for us to aim for, but with an awareness that it is unachievable this side of heaven. Didn’t Jesus know this, when he aimed to open up better questions, rather than insist on easy answers?

    I suppose I’m saying many of these words are very obscure within the Christian tribe, as well as outside it. They are not obscure in the sense that a word say like “tort” may be meaningless to the average public, but has a very precise and well-defined agreed meaning known to everyone involved in the law. I think a lot of the problem you’re pointing to is the way some Christian groups think their language is like “tort”, reject everyone who points to different shades of meaning, and expect everyone to become fluent in their prescribed usage. Apologies if I may have ended up repeating what you’re saying rather than adding to it.

    1. Haiku. The word God is the ultimate in slippery words, I agree. But to say that it is slippery will not mean that we cannot use it. It is just another example how careful we have to be when using such a loaded expression or indeed any language that wants to communicate a religious idea. Establishing a common language with another person will always involve sensitivity, patience and time. Once again I am having a rant at the use of language which is coercive and insensitive to where another person is, both culturally and in terms of their faith. When a religious person feels a need to shout, whether literally or metaphorically, they are breaking this delicate balance of the rules of communication on religious topics. To persuade another person of the truth of the Gospel will involve imaginatively entering their thought world in some way. You cannot do that with a tank or a sledgehammer.

  2. I think part of the problem may be, not the obscurity of a word, but the fact that many outside of Christianity have no reference whatsoever by which to judge the truth of the word. It’s a bit like trying to explain to a man what its like to be pregnant. 🙂 I can explain it in words that you can understand, words that you are familiar with and are clear to you, but you still can only have a partial understanding of what it means because you have never experienced it. It is the same in Christian circles. We can explain….. say forgiveness to someone in words that are clear and they can understand, but until they experience that feeling when you realize that He has forgiven you and washed you clean, they don’t really understand it. Then you have the danger of someone thinking they have experienced something that they really haven’t simply because they have a mental understanding of something, but no heart/spirit knowledge of the same. That creates, dry, intellectual Christianity with no passion and no heart (which I wonder if that could even be called true Christianity as Christ was all about the heart!). This is one thing that makes people susceptible to being drawn into a cult. They are looking for something deeper than head knowledge and they mistakenly believe the cult can provide that because of the show of emotion made by most of them. Simple mental understanding of a word, a concept, or a phrase, while important, is not enough. It has to be made alive by the Spirit.
    In this society of people who so commonly think they know everything it is difficult sometimes to make people understand there is more than they realize to this whole “Christianity thing”. Just my thoughts….

  3. Thanks again, Stephen. It is important to make sure we all mean the same things by words. In fact I had a bizarre experience of this just the other day. Some of you will remember that I had a meeting that might help my current situation. It has in fact made it immeasurably worse. And the reason is partly because we just were not speaking the same language. For instance, I said at one point that I just wanted to be a really useful engine. The other person flared up, and said I had no right to demand to be used! I meant that I just wanted to be useful, they thought I meant that I wanted to dictate terms. It’s happened before. That’s just a very personal example, and not altogether on topic. But it does bring all of you who may have been thinking of me up to date.

  4. “Born again” “Ministry” “The Gospel” “The Lord’s provision”
    “Hell” . All have been used and abused. Some packed tight with absolutism, others over used so as to render them boring.

    Beauty, Wonderment, the vastness of the creator lost to jargon.


  5. Every time certain party gets into power, the number of people claiming benefit has increased exponentially. Therein lies the problem. If you give people incentives to not work over working, most people won’t. The benefit system should exist only for those who genuinely cannot help themselves (eg the disabled, the disadvantaged, those who have fallen into hard times temporarily eg caused by the banking crisis, etc etc), not for those who choose immaculate conceptions as a lifestyle, for example. There are other categories of benefit claimants that I disagree with – those who claim to be ill and those who make themselves ill, those who cheat, etc etc.

    Equally, I disagree with pouring benefit monies into the money bags of those who aspire to have a luxurious pension, etc etc.

    I know very low wage earners who are right wing and very wealthy individuals who are left wing. It’s not about how much money you have. It’s all about policies and transparency. It’s also about educating the public so they graduate from being dumb sheep like some of those in Peniel. Some in Peniel chose to be dumb because it suits their own policies – self-preservation. A lot of it has to do with pride, not a lot to do with God.

  6. Some have said that I have a ‘Hobby Horse’ that I get on when I talk about certain subjects. Again we find that language attempts to transcribe a state of mind or satisfy a person who in the final end is just plain indifferent!

    I know of no subject that has more camouflage in its teeth than that language of our present day society, when talking over in stilted ways the lower working class. I would add to Stephen’s article that Language and accurate information are at times at war?

    Even good language and communication skills are useless unless the governing factor and desire is for truth?

    As the truth about what lower class working people suffer in this country can only be known from the bottom up, language can only help when a genuine desire for truth is at the heart of enquiry.

    The Former Tory Prime Minister John Major felt he had to speak out about “The suffering of working people”, so, this is not some foible or ‘Hobby Horse’ of Chris Pitts.
    What Stephen is saying about speaking a common language is vitally important to the above.


  7. What do you mean by the suffering of the lower working class? Couldn’t you claim working tax credit (or child tax credit, if applicable) to supplement your income so there is enough to live on? Sorry, if this sounds naive. I know people who can claim but never do because they don’t know it is available to them. It is not benefit (DSS) as such, but tax credit. It does not have the same “stigma” attached

    When I started a new job, some years go after being out of work for about a year, I learned about the child tax credit that I did not know about before. I was allowed some of that because I started the new job 2/3rds of the way into the financial year, which meant that my annual income for that year was only 1/3rd of my actual income. I was very surprised by the amount that I could claim, I thought that HMRC had made a mistake. The claim disappeared in the following financial year because I had to declare my full income at the start of the financial year.

  8. You’re right about some people’s not being able to access what is available in theory. This is down to poor education. Which some parents cannot access for the same reason! You can only claim a credit against tax if you’re paying tax. There used to be “supplementary benefit” which did what it says on the tin, but no more. If you’re not eligible for unemployment benefit, there is nothing, you just starve. No automatic entitlement to “dole” at all. Off subject, but perhaps that explains some differences of perspective.

  9. I suspect what you are talking about, by the way, is just that tax is calculated yearly, so if you didn’t have any income for the first part of the year, you don’t pay any tax until you’re over the tax threshold.

  10. What do I mean by the lower working class?
    Anyone who has to ask that question in my opinion is outside of anything to do with the Jesus of history.
    Have I imagined food banks? Have I imagined the disempowerment of care assistants having no advocacy or support, whose employers sack them for speaking out? Have I imagined the suicides that have been reported, people not able to feed their families, who get no sick pay, and when they are sick for more than 3 days are immediately in debt?

    Your comments have all the sensitivity and indifference of someone saying, “ look you have got a cold, but what you really need is a shot of malaria!”

    You appear to have fifty Kilos of headlights stapled to your chest, but don’t worry I see and know you, very well.


  11. Chris

    My motive for asking, “What do you mean by the suffering of the lower working class?” was to encourage you to explain your own personal experiences. Perhaps I did not phrase it well. You must have misunderstood me. Now that you have explained, I see what you mean. I know of others who have their own experiences (although, I don’t know the whole story to be able to carry out a full assessment).

    The reason why I explained that I claimed child tax credit, but could no longer claim is because one or two people were trying to accuse me of tax fiddle – character assassination. I had to explain the reason why I managed to claim at that stage.

  12. …previously one of the many Anons. May I make a gentle request that we leave the politics and class wars and return to the subject, or subjects, that this blog exists to tackle. Just saying…

  13. Another reason for mentioning child tax credit and the fact that I was very surprised by the amount that I could claim was to point out that some policies are just not fair, in fact they are rubbish. If I work full time to support my kids, and another chooses to work part-time and sit on his/her laurels the majority of the time and still ‘earn’ quite a lot – that can’t be right. Surely it disincentifies work. Why should I pay for his/her kids?

  14. Let me give you one example that I watched on TV. This family has 5 kids. The husband works (very) part time earning approx £150 a week, probably a day or two, if that. The government pays him approx £850 a week – that makes £4,333 a month net !!! I do not know for sure, but assume that they get housing benefit on top – Labour government’s policy. If you are a middle income earner, you are paying for that family, you might as well join the club and do the same! Quit working full time.

    I think the Conservative government may have modified the policy. I believe there is now a requirement to work at least 30 hours a week, approx 4 days, so the above scenario can no longer or will soon no longer exist, save for certain exceptional circumstances.

    I am not very familiar with these issues. Correct me if I am wrong.

  15. If that family gets housing benefit on top, say a 5 – 6 bedroom house (for a couple and 5 kids). That’s another say, £2,000 – £2,500 a month (depending on location) in addition to the £4,333 a month. A whopping £6,500 (approx) a month NET. All that for a day or two’s work. Is this making sense to anyone?

    That is why I cannot understand how anyone can say he/she is poor. I must have mistaken or been misinformed. Why do we even need foodbank? Are you claiming your due?

  16. Hare

    Politics and class wars are all part of real life. If we believe that, ‘The truth sets us free” then we must pursue it. The niceties of academic discussion may have their place, but the established church has used, “Blessed are the peace makers” to prop up the class system, “The rich man in his Castle, the poor man at the gate”

    I have been fighting the brain police all my life, sorry, I can’t stop now.



    1. Nor should you stop fighting for justice Chris. The point I want to make is that this blog is largely about issues within the church and not about civil politics. They don’t often overlap.

  17. Hi, Hare. Nice to be able to disentangle one from another. It is difficult when someone comes out with something you regard as silly. Always tempting to reply. This is what comes with more readers. Not necessarily a problem, but it does mean people stray off topic. Good to have more readers, though.

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