I watched a TED talk, as well as the 2016 movie “Arrival” recently. Both of them had a somewhat similar theme… that the way we think is guided strongly by the language and labels we use.
TED talk, Keith Chen’s “Could Your Language Affect the Way You Save Money,” noted a strange correlation between health and saving practices of people who are first language speakers in “tenseless” languages, versus those in “tense” languages. That is, looking at those in which verbs change based on past, present, and future (tense) and those in which verbs do not change (tenseless). The theory seems a bit far-fetched but there is a fairly strong correlation. For example, English has tenses for time:
I went to the store
I go to the store
I will go to the store
Some other languages, like in fact most other Germanic languages, are tenseless. Time is still addressed but not in the verb:
I go to the store yesterday
I go to the store now.
I go to the store next week.
Tenseless languages tend to have users that save better and have practices that lead to better health later in life. This correlation has a tantalizing theory as far as causation. Could it be that for tenseless languages, action is seen in more of a timeless way? Therefore, subconsciously there is a slightly lesser tendency to disconnect our activity today from the future. In other words, perhaps those from tenseless languages don’t feel that the sowing of today is as disconnected from the reaping of tomorrow.
Of course, this can be overdone. Benjamin Whorf suggested a time relativism of language where a culture that has a “timeless” worldview may have a timeless language. He used the example of the Hopi language. However, the example appears to be misguided a bit since the Hopi language can still distinguish between past, present, and future. Rather, language and thought connection tends to be more subtle..
The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis suggests that how we structure and use language will guide or influence how we think and how we behave. A classic example comes from fire investigations. A man is in a room that is suddenly engulfed in flames. Luckily he survived and when the investigator talks to him, he discovers that the survivor was smoking when the fire started. The investigator asks him if the lit cigarette could have caused the fire, the man replies, “I don’t see how, there was nothing in that room but a bunch of empty cans.” But what does it really mean “empty cans?” Is anything truly empty? In fact, those cans were full of highly flammable fumes. That and the lit cigarette came together to cause the fire. The man labelled the cans as empty, and in common usage he used the term “empty” correctly. However, the term in his mind was connected with “harmless” or “safe” and that led to behavior that was foolhardy.
Again though, one must avoid taking this too far. Some OT scholars had in the past suggested that the ancient Hebrews only thought in concrete terms… did not think abstractly… because the Hebrew language is built on concrete, rather than abstract, terms. That’s flawed. Every language, as far as we know, still deals with issues of time because we as humans need to separate activities of planning/preparation, from action, from recall/remembrance. Likewise all humans need to deal with abstract concepts whether we know it or not. Languages that do not have abstract terms have no problem with abstract concepts— that’s what metaphors do. Read Psalm 1 or Psalm 23 to see how concrete terms can be used to address highly abstract thoughts. In the movie Arrival, aliens give a timeless language to humans that is supposed to open one’s mind to timeless thought. One can think and recall timelessly (including “remember the future”) because the language “reprograms” the mind (if done early enough) to think timelessly.That also seems to take things too far (as far as we can tell) even though time in some ways is a mental construct. Language nudges our behavior and thought… and our behavior and thought nudges our language, but the causation is not normally dramatic.
What about us in ministry? I teach at a Protestant seminary in the Philippines, a predominantly Catholic nation. I said in my class, “Interreligious Dialogue with Asian Religions”:
“Please, I ask you, stop saying things like this to other people– ‘I used to be Catholic, but now I am Christian.’ Just stop saying that. People of other faiths around the world think that Christians are a strange disconnected, fighting lot. Why reinforce that? If you want to say ‘I used to be a Catholic Christian, but now I am a _________ Christian,” that is fine. Choose your words carefully.
I know people that like the fact that the People’s Republic of China recognizes several religions, and two of those recognized are ‘Catholics’ and ‘Christians.’ Why feel good that a nation has legislated division of our faith? And why feel good that we came to China with such animosity that Chinese non-Christians figured that we are two distinct faiths? If we think that keeping a line of demarcation in China is good, wouldn’t it be better at least to support new labels such as “Catholic Christians” and “Protestant Christians”?
Here in the Philippines the term ‘Born Again’ gets thrown around a bit loosely. There is nothing wrong with the term I guess. It is a metaphor for the rebirth (another metaphor) associated with following Christ. The problem is that the term has drifted over time so that often “born again” now means, “individuals or denominational groups that associate being a Christian with saying the Sinner’s Prayer.” There is no Biblical correlation with saying a specific prayer and being recognized by God as His child. I am not against the Sinner’s Prayer… it encapsulates the declaration of repentance and allegiance to Christ. However, because of the reinterpretation of “Born Again,” it is often assumed that those that don’t use that term, or those that don’t associate following Christ to the Sinner’s Prayer, are not saved… are not Christians. And likewise, those who have said the Sinner’s Prayer, regardless of their age, understanding, motivation, or interpretation, are often believed to be regenerated, regardless of evidence to the contrary. The term “Born Again” is not bad, but it’s careless usage has led to incorrect thoughts and behavior.
More humorously, people sometimes ask, “Is your denomination ‘Spirit-filled?'” I am tempted to say, “No my denomination is Spirit-empty,” or perhaps “Spirit-filling” or “Spirit-sharing.” After all, the concept of the Holy Spirit indwelling, to say nothing of ‘filling,’ an institution is so far away from sound theology that it doesn’t really deserve a serious response. What they mean by the question, really however, is “Does your church promote upbeat and ecstatic worship, and theologize such behavior suggesting that it directly correlates to one’s relationship with God?” In that case I could simply say, No and No. But the sloppiness of the language results in such a corresponding sloppiness of thought that there is no way to answer it both truthfully, and in such a way that the questioner would understand. Language can both clarify and obfuscate.
Consider a different case. What about language we use for non-Christians. Are there undesirable ramifications for the language we use… often unwittingly? Consider a few… some are commonly used, and some far less. But what pictures come into your mind when you read these. And if those labels are used for THEM, do those labels affect how we picture US?
- The Unsaved
- The Lost
- The Unregenerate
- The non-Elect
- The Unreached
- Those Jesus Misses Most
- The Mission Field
- The World
- Children of Darkness
Some of terms are quite pejorative. If I was speaking in church and said,
“We are surrounded by Sinners, children of darkness,” versus
“We are surrounded by our mission field of the unreached, those Jesus misses most,”
does the imagery in our head, the attitude in our heart, or the motivation toward action change?