Ever had the entertaining phenomenon that happens when you are eavesdropping on a conversation – innocently of course – and two people are using the same word but, because they have different understandings of the word they are using, cannot come into agreement? [While it can be provide amusement, it’s not the best way to build friendships.]
I personally find it useful to think about language sort of like this: some words are like categories, and some categories can contain a variety of content yet still be united under the roof of one category. Sometimes I imagine large categories as “roomy.” For example, I think that the classification “jazz” could be roomy. Two people can love jazz and yet one might love Miles Davis and not like Pat Metheny (who is rockin’ awesome, by the way). Yet both Davis and Metheny are jazzy. Two people can love dogs dearly, yet one can really detest Shih Tzu’s (I call them toilet scrubbers). Yet the toile … sorry, Shih Tzu, is a dog. No doubt loved by many, just not me. Although some topics are strict in their terminology and have less room for variation, it seems to me that God, as a concept or word or category, could be roomy maybe. What do you think? (That’s an honest question by the way.)
Now speaking of building friendships, I hope I don’t offend someone when I bring up the name Rob Bell. It might not be as polarized as bringing up the name of, say, Trump, but still. With as much theological discussion as he has been associated with, we most likely have certain feelings connected with his name. For me, his latest book, What we talk about when we talk about God, had some really good stuff!
In the opening chapter he makes a very astute comment about a problem that we have in our culture. It’s not just a problem the secular folks have with the more spiritual types; it’s also a problem that the spiritual types (including Christians) have with each other. Bell puts it this way:
The truth is we have a problem with God. It’s not just a problem of definition – what is it we’re talking about when we talk about God? – and it’s not just the increasing likelihood that two people discussing God are in fact talking about two extraordinarily different realities while using the exact same word.
After I finished reading the book I was momentarily stunned. “By Jove, this Bell heretic is onto something,” I half whispered to myself. You might find that after you read a bit of his stuff that he is surprisingly – dangerously maybe, even? – easy to agree with. I am not saying I agree with it all, but hey. I mean we all think Gandhi had some pretty clever stuff despite that he wasn’t, like, well, of exactly the same religious persuasion as us. If we had total conformity in everything, life would suck. I mean, for boys there would be no girl! A terrible thing to contemplate.
Back to the God problem though. When we are participating in the act of communication we have to use words. Actually we can only use words. And the trouble with those is that they have different meanings for different people. Further, when we think of a concept like “God” there are quite a few notions to cover! Bell puts it this way:
When we talk about God we’re using language, language that employs a vast array of words and phrases and forms to describe reality that is fundamentally beyond phrases and forms.
And so you can see where he is going in his title: we all inarguably have different, whether inconsequential or immense, perspectives of what and who God is. And it will depend on the extent of our perceived differences as to how much we will disagree about God.
So then, what are we to do? Probably try to avoid the angsty perspectives that are going to get us into trouble. Bell says, “to elevate abstract doctrines and dogmas over living, breathing, embodied experiences of God’s love and grace, then is going the wrong direction.” For Bell, the Gospel isn’t that complex a thing. And, actually I can’t see too many people being able to disagree over what he thinks the Gospel contains:
Gospel is grace, and grace is a gift. You don’t earn a gift; you simply receive it. You don’t make it happen; you wake up to what has already happened. Gospel isn’t doing enough good to be worthy; it’s your eyes being opened to your unworthiness and to Jesus’s insistence that that was never the way it worked in the first place.
While there is more to the gospel than just that – and I am not saying that we even should always agree since variety is the spice of life, and possibly theology as well – I think everyone can agree with the above. And, if we were to show solidarity on that it might even go a long ways to better the less-than-lovely state of Christianity’s’ PR.
As a bit of a diversion here, if you have been to a place of higher education you might have heard the name Roland Barthes. One of the theories he expounded upon was Semiotics. This means variety of things to people, but the following example works. If you are a basically satisfied American citizen, and I show you a picture of the flag, immediately you will have certain positive feelings and thoughts associated with it. You can’t help it. (And if you are not happy with the good ol’ US of A, the opposite will be true.) The same goes with a variety of other symbols, whether they be connected commercially, culturally, OR, important for us here, religiously. So, just as you or I might feel something when we see a crucifix (a good feeling, hopefully), we must realise that another person might not. Think of this as baggage that follows the crucifix. It’s similar for words also, of course. This is Bell’s point about words. We each can have different meanings attached to “God” when we think of Him (like for example, some people don’t like the masculine prefix), thus making conversation sometimes bumpy.
Thus back to Bell and his point about it being imperative to agree on at least some of the primary tenets of Christianity if we are to be able to engage in effective (happy too?) conversation. If we do this when sharing with each other, perhaps we can build better bridges of agreement, and wouldn’t that be a good thing?
There are, of course, tricky topics that will always need to be ironed out, yet when the word “God” comes up, surely we can agree on more things than we disagree on.