Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Language problems in Christianity

[Note: This was cross-posted as a comment on a post on badchristian.com about Christian politics.]

I read TS Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions recently, so cribbing from that, you might see Christians with different approaches to politics as members of different language communities, and dialogue between them as a translation problem. The reason conservatives and progressives have trouble talking to one another is not just that they disagree about appropriate means to a common end. Like scientists of different paradigms, they disagree about the appropriate problems to be solving in culture. Also, some of the concepts just don't translate well.

This happened to Newton when the Principia came out. Pre-Newton physicists rejected it at first because it did not explain the origin of innate forces like gravity. That explanation was thought to be an essential component of any proper theory of dynamics. Then they used F = ma because it worked so well and explained so much. The mystery of the origin of innate forces was moot for a while (until general relativity). Similarly, if progressive Christians were running things, "the abortion problem" might take a back seat to "the wealth gap problem". It's not that abortion's not important, it's that progressives live in another world from conservatives.

I don't mean that progressives go to California and conservatives go to Texas, I mean that they look at the world with different eyes. Reminds me of when Sam Seder went on CNN a month ago and started talking about the War on Christmas in terms of the war in Iraq:

"Listen, as far as the war on Christmas goes, I feel like we should be waging a war on Christmas. I mean, I believe that Christmas, it’s almost proven that Christmas has nuclear weapons, can be an imminent threat to this country, that they have operative ties with terrorists and I believe that we should sacrifice thousands of American lives in pursuit of this war on Christmas. And hundreds of billions of dollars of taxpayer money."

To me, that spoke volumes about the relative importance of the two wars, and how pointless it was to talk about destroyed Nativity scenes when soldiers were getting blown apart in a forgotten conflict. To the anchor and the conservative guy in the same segment, it sounded like nonsense, or more accurately, foreign language. ("I don't think that exists. Bob? Help me out here.") The conservative guy went on talking like he hadn't understood a word Sam said, which was, of course, the case.

So it is for us progressives and conservatives. I don't just disagree with conservatives about the most efficacious way to decrease abortions to the glory of God. I locate abortion in a different constellation of political issues than a conservative. Same dots, different lines, different sky.

The hard quest before us is not just to listen to each other (though it would be a good start!), because we're sure to hear barbarisms, or what we want to hear. Jesus encountered this kind of hearing a lot. We have to get inside our fellow Christians's heads, stop translating what they say into our own language and learn theirs. It all looks very different from the inside. The same goes for non-Christians's heads as well.

It can be scary to get inside someone's point of view like this. I think what I have been afraid of most lately is some radical reconstructive surgery on my religion. I am content with my Christianity, and it's taken me a while to get to that point, so taking the risk of understanding is pretty traumatic.

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