Are You Talking to Me?! The Art of Misunderstanding and Theological Double-Talk
Talking is a dangerous business. For those who have ever been in an argument, misunderstanding is usually the wellspring of conflict. Whether in body language or verbal communication, disagreements lead to friendships being split apart, marriages collapsing, and the church fracturing.
Conflict as it arrises from communication is the result of the inability, and dare I say unwillingness, of people listening to one another. Not a courteous, hearing-what-one-is-saying—but actually, intently, desiring-to-understand-where-they-are-coming-from listening. The truth is, most people don’t listen, but wait for their turn to talk. To wait for their chance to prove the other person wrong. And while the other person is speaking, instead of listening, they plot and plan on what they are going to say next.
When discussing some theological or philosophical issue, this sort of inability to communicate becomes detrimental. In fact, recently I was surprised to find that while in a discussion with an older friend about creation, he blurted out, “Anything other than a literal 24 hour day creation is simply unbiblical.” And with that, the conversation was over. There was no room for discussion. There was no chance to ask why he believed or what brought him to that conclusion. In short, I was to believe his interpretation on the simple basis that he said so. We never had a conversation, since that requires two parties involvement. It was a monologue. A speech in which I was simply to listen and absorb. I shrugged it off, but came to be reminded of this sort of inability to communicate in the most unlikely of places.
I was working at an elementary school last year and had taught a group of first graders for a couple of days. I hadn’t returned to the school for several months but to my surprise, when I did make it back to this particular school, the students remembered me. One particular young girl was extremely excited. Though the student butchered my name, calling out Mr. Keeeek rather frantically, I approached the lunch line in which she was standing to say hello. As I approached the line, standing near one of the supervising teachers, I greeted this particular student.
I said hello, though I forgot her name so no doubt my greeting was rather ambiguously addressed. “Wow, you have gotten so big,” I said. The teacher that stood next to me gave a ghastly look of disgust and confusion. With a puzzled tone and horribly twisted expression she asked, “Are you talking to me!??” I realized what she had thought, that I was talking to her and not the student. No doubt, she was already insecure about her weight and I had just added insult to injury.
She missed the point. She didn’t understand who I was talking to. She misunderstood.
And I wasn’t very clear.
Situations, though not as humorous as this, play out every day. And in no other place does this become more detrimental than in the church—among those who ought to be brothers and sisters in Christ.
When talking about theology, the Bible, or any other such technical term laden topic, it becomes ever more important to listen to one another.
For me, I learned to listen when I spent the better part of a year at a LDS church. I attended their bible studies and met with their missionaries and bishops—all of whom wanted to save me and show me the truth through the scriptures. I was curious being on the receiving end of this interaction, having grown up in the evangelical church and was once a “righteous warrior” of bible thumping conversion.
We spent months talking back and forth, not getting any where. They didn’t understand why I would ever say I was saved. How could that be possible? They wouldn’t claim such a thing themselves!
It finally came to light that we had very different ideas of what the word “salvation” meant. To them, salvation was yet future. That we will be saved one day, when Christ comes in triumphant glory. And you know, they were right. Some scriptures do speak of salvation as something we WILL have, not something we have now.
Once I explained that I believed it was a promise that can and ought to be claimed now—that we were saved, are being saved, and will be saved—things became so much more clear. We understood that we had conflict over a single word. And in fact agreed at the conceptual level, but were using different words to describe them.
Such theological double-talk and misunderstandings are by no means limited to those between different religious expressions but between denominations, local churches, and friends each having their own unique cocktail of theological views.
To understand each other, we need to define what we mean and the very terms that we use.
But above all, we need a desire to understand where people are coming from and not if we can prove them wrong. We need to be more willing to understand and less interested in just converting people to our own theological inclinations.
With conversations such as these, we must seek clarity of each other’s positions before we ever attempt to find agreement.
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