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?
Lilliput and Blefuscu were two neighboring peoples in the book “Gulliver’s Travels.” The book was written by Jonathan Swift (1667-1745). In the story, the two empires share much in common, including a common history, a common vernacular language, a common racial identity (at least in comparison to other peoples of the world), and a common religion. However, over time divisions increased until the time that Lemuel Gulliver visited. The biggest dividing issue was heresy. According to their shared religion, holy writ, and prophet, an egg should be opened at “the convenient end.” But what is the convenient end? There are three obvious choices:
- Small end of the egg (legal constraint)
- Large end of the egg (legal constraint)
- Whatever end a person happens to find convenient (personal freedom)
The prophet of their faith was long dead so he could not be asked. As is typical, those wanting to show their faithful adherence to faith gravitated to the legal constraints rather than to freedom to show that they had more piety than others. This led to growing animosity and violence.
This does make me wonder. Why does animosity tie to disagreement. Why couldn’t the two empires live peacefully with disagreement. Or why did the beliefs lead to separation based on national lines of separation. This does not automatically happen… but it does commonly happen. The why I suppose I have to leave that to the experts. But, in general terms, we are social beings, and culture-forming beings. As such, we develop groups that are identified as US or THEM
We tend to polarize. We form attachments for a number of reasons. For example, we have family members– and with family members we accept sizable disagreements. You might say, for example, “Oh, you know Uncle Will. You know what a narrow-minded bigot he is. But… he is STILL family.” However, in complex societies there are a larger number of voluntary groups that we are part of. And some groups that were at one time considered not to be voluntary (one’s community, one’s nationality, or one’s religion) have become increasingly voluntary. With voluntary groups, there is a tendency to join with people we like or with people we agree with— and we tend to end up liking the people we agree with and agreeing with the people we like. It is a process of polarization.
Polarization is “
There are a lot of reasons for group polarization. For those interested, I would suggest reading “Social Psychology in Christian Perspective” by Angela M. Sabates.
But in much simpler terms. Consider the figure here.
The X-Axis shows degree of cognitive dissonance— ranging from disagreement to agreement. The Y-Axis is an affective scale from dislike to like. People want to simplify their lives into two groups: US (shown in green) and THEM (shown in red). For US, we like to like people we like and agree with. For THEM, we like to dislike people we disagree with.
We struggle in the yellow regions. We are uncomfortable liking people we disagree with, and we are uncomfortable with disliking people we agree with. We feel pressure to shift people into the green or red regions. Sometimes it gets quite silly. Look at social media and look at the horrible things that people will say about people or groups that they disagree with— people they really don’t even know. This is especially strong for groups— based on a principle called the “discontinuity effect” We can hate groups like we can no one person. It was noted in 1930s Germany, that many many Germans hated Jews. But when asked about Jews who lived in their neighborhood, it was more common to get a response like “Oh, they are okay I guess… for Jews.” The removal of a personal connection did not decrease animosity for the group, it actually increased it.
Consider Evangelism for a moment. In evangelism, the assumption is that the potential respondent disagrees with the evangelist. On the “polarization chart” shown in the figure, the two left quadrants apply. In the lower left, where there is animosity/dislike between the two, the two are already in a stable relationship (based on disagreement and dislike). It is unlikely that the evangelist can do much, at least in the short-term to change things. Of course, the Holy Spirit can do what we cannot… but animosity and disagreement is a difficult thing to change.
On the other hand, if there is a positive relationship/attachment between the two, the upper left, the situation is unstable. It can remain long-term, but there is pressure to move out of that quadrant. The respondent will feel a desire to change the relationship to either green (agreeing with the evangelist) or to red (changing the relationship to disaffection).
Consider Mentoring for a moment. In a mentoring relationship, the assumption is that the two, mentor and mentee, are in agreement generally. Therefore, on the polarization chart, the right quadrants apply. If the relationship is positive, with good attachment, this is a stable position, being in the green quadrant. However, if the relationship is more one of dislike, it is in the yellow quadrant– an unstable position. Resolution comes when the relationship is pushed either to green or to red.
Essentially, in ministry, it is important to develop healthy positive relationships both with Christians and non-Christians. Having a positive relationship does not automatically mean one will have a positive influence… but it certainly increases the likelihood of a positive influence on the other.
I was watching a TED Talk of Bob Mankoff, the Cartoon (“Idea Drawings”) Editor at The New Yorker. He was talking about the anatomy of a humor cartoon… and humor in general. It was both fun and informative (You can click on it HERE).
He described effective humor in terms of Tension or Conflict. One brings together two ideas… or even two unrelated areas of life, that don’t fit. In a sense this is what is done with metaphors. So humor and metaphors are related… perhaps even on the same spectrum… but metaphors are more for providing insight, while humor is more to produce a visceral, emotional response. Frankly though, both good humor and a good metaphor should have qualities of the other. Humor also has another tension or conflict as well– it exists in terms of DANGER AND SAFETY… or VIOLATION AND BENIGNITY.
These terms really don’t go together all that well, do they? But consider three examples:
- Rollercoaster. A roller coaster is a device that throws the rider around, has big accelerations, twists, and turns that could potentially kill the participant. However, a rollercoaster has all sorts of safety devices, inspections, and carefully analyzed and tested design elements to ensure safety of the riders. Without the danger, it becomes a kiddee ride (ever try the “turning teacups”). For many of us, that would not be enjoyable. On the other hand, most all of us would not enjoy a rollercoaster that has severe design or maintenance issues that make it truly risky to ride.
- Horror movies. Horror movies try to scare the viewer, while maintaining an impenetrable barrier between the movie world and the viewer world.
- Zoo. Bob Mankoff’s example is going to the zoo to see a tiger. The experience is enjoyable if and only if there is a real, and perhaps menacing, tiger, as well as bars or other barriers to provide safety for the visitor. If a visitor looks into the cage and finds no tiger, the experience is unsatisfying. But it is also unsatisfying (in fact terrifying) if the tiger is between the visitor and the bars, rather than the bars being between the tiger and the visitor.
What relevance does this have on this blog page? Consider spiritual conversations? Such conversations can be:
- Evangelistic in nature perhaps, or
- Ethical in nature (determining right versus wrong), or
- Issues regarding people’s religious or philosophical beliefs, or
- Concerns regarding specific religions.
People can fall into a wide range of responses to this. At one extreme are those who consider such conversations as BORING. Others see them as DANGEROUS… SCARY.
For one extreme the issue is pretty obvious… people think “spiritual conversations” are boring if they are seen as irrelevant to themselves. However, spiritual matters have to do with the big issues of life: How should I live? What is my purpose in life? What does the future hold? These are important and… dangerous… questions and concerns. Perhaps some people were presented with spiritual conversations as a Teacup ride or an empty cage. Spiritual concerns can get watered down to the point that they seems safe, benign, irrelevant. The content, the tiger, cannot be removed… but must be presented in such a way that it can be appreciated and valued… safely.
But let’s consider the other extreme for a moment. Some spiritual conversations are truly scary. I get that. Far too many people (Christians most definitely included) express spiritual conversations much like salesmen– hard-sell salesmen. I have literally heard “street evangelists” SCREAMING in the faces of passersby six inches separating noses (the uncaged tiger). I struggle to imagine who could think that being particularly effective. No one really wants honest doubts and concerns about life to be turned into a polemic sales pitch for a “spiritual product.”
In response to that, many people just avoid spiritual concerns. Many groups will have explicit or tacit rules… NO RELIGION OR POLITICS DISCUSSED HERE. In other cases, spiritual conversations may be discussed but so hobbled or watered down to seem benign, as noted before, moving from the ethical to the aesthetic.
What are needed are safe places to deal with unsafe concerns. Really, the best place for this SHOULD be the church. People should be able to go to any church and express theological, or spiritual, or existential doubts/concerns and find those who are willing to accept them, acknowledge their struggle, and help them work through them… sharing burdens with each other. A SAFE PLACE TO DEAL WITH THAT WHICH IS UNSAFE. But churches typically squash such conversations— choosing to drift to being an unsafe place to be for those with concerns… or avoiding unsafe issues, choosing safe or benign issues only.
There is a price to pay for this. An interest article was written based on research from Case Western University. A summary of it is on a blog post
Consider a quote from this article:
According to the study, struggling with spiritual issues did not lead to mental health issues. The problem was avoidance of challenging topics. Mental health was more likely to decline when people feared engaging with challenging philosophical and spiritual issues.
The study determined avoidance was not an effective strategy for pushing away existential thoughts. Participants faced spiritual questions even when they attempted to suppress them. The study’s authors suggest continually being plagued by existential questions can be psychologically upsetting, particularly to people who find these questions socially unacceptable.
I would argue that this avoidance strategy comes, in part, because of their inability to find safe people and safe places to deal with these unsafe topics.
Church should be like a comic in The New Yorker (or many places where ideas are expressed humorously to challenge how with think and view things). It should be a place that is safe to bring ideas together that are unsafe or challenging. A place to think, with the freedom to disagree… or be profoundly changed.
Nice article from the work of Paul and Sue Hazelden. Rather than regurgitating it here, I am hoping you will take the time to click and read their article HERE.
Of course, it must be noted that the Engel Scale is cognitive… so it does not really include the affective aspect. If you want to look at The Gray Matrix Extended, that combines the Modified Engel Scal with the affective axis, Click on this article HERE.
As both would note, these don’t define a methodology. Rather they provides a perspective to understand spiritual transformation. So the role of social ministry, dialogue, and such are not dealt with in detail.
Additionally, as I have also noted before, In This Other Article, one could add an additional axis, to include the role of behavior. While as Evangelicals, we like to emphasize that salvation is by faith, not by works, it is also true that in many cultures people often start by adjusting their behavior to a faith community, before actually responding in faith. Even in more individualistic cultures, often connecting behaviorally with a loving community of believers (whether church, ngo, bible study, or otherwise), brings one close to a position to respond to the message of Christ. Of course, the opposite is true also, interacting with hypocritical or mean-spirited or cold Christians can lead to negative perceptions affectively, and then to cognitive and behavioral.
The world is full of “love songs” that suggest that the greatest power on earth is LOVE. In the Bible we are told that “God is Love,” not suggesting that the Creator of the Universe is an abstraction— but that the single-most important thing that God wants us to know about Himself is His love and intention to act according to that love, for us.
Maybe it is accurate to say that the most powerful emotion overall is love… but that does not necessarily mean that love wins in all situations. Just as an Olympic shot-putter is likely to do poorly in rhythmic gymnastics, there are situations where love is over-matched.
In a recent article in The Atlantic (Click HERE to read it), the work of The Gottman Institute was referenced that showed the power of contempt to break up marriages. Contempt destroys marriage and overwhelms love. Negative or contemptuous responses destroy marriages more effectively than loving words heal marriages.
Additionally, I remember a few years ago, I went to a training in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where the issue of marriage stability (especially within the context of missionaries) was discussed. It was noted that it takes about 5 loving acts or statements to undo the damage of one act or statement that is viewed as hateful or contemptuous. Even then, it is hard to say that the damage is undone– so, for example, if a marriage has conversations shared that are 60% loving and 40% contemptuous, the marriage is doomed.
So what does that have to do with missions? Looking at social media, I find a lot of Christians who are pretty good at expressing contempt. This includes (listing a few among many):
- Contempt for LGBTQ individuals and community
- Contempt for drug addicts
- Contempt for illegal aliens
- Contempt for those from countries that are politically antagonistic to our own.
- Contempt for those of competing religions
- Contempt for those who vote for other political candidates
In conflict with this, these same Christians will commonly state that they love all people (in line with the Great Commandment of Jesus) and that they wish to share their faith in line with that love.
So suppose a Christian is sharing his faith to a person who is part of a group that that Christian (or others that that Christian associates or identifies with) expresses contempt for. So the hearer of the gospel recognizes a loving statement (hopefully) from the Christian of God’s grace, and equally senses contempt from that same person.
Which do you think wins? Love or Contempt?
A nice blog post on similar concerns with contempt is HERE.