The Art of Undefined Language

bill mush god smallAt first some readers will this is another political diatribe but really the examples I will be using are for illustration of a communication problem which is growing in our nation and culture in not only the political but religious arena. It is the problem of undefined words and concepts. Many claims to be spiritual but not religious. What does that mean exactly? Does God or some sort of deity come into play in the spiritual but not religious life and if so what sort of God? If it remains undefined we might simply call it the Fuzz God. Wispy with comforting colors which help to relax but makes no demands. It is the sort of God that fuzzy undefined language would allow.

Barack Obama is one of the most well-known practitioners of this type of communication. He has made a veritable art form of speaking in undefined language. He makes rousing speeches to his adoring hordes about how the rich need to “pay just a little bit more” and we would retire the debt. What constitutes “rich”? How much is “a little but more?” We don’t know. The words are undefined and left to the imagination of the listener. He claims quite forcefully, that the “rich” need to “pay their fair share.” What percentage of their income is “their fair share?” The definition is elusive and if questioned the charge is made that the questioner is trying to punish the poor. We are authoritatively told that “everyone deserves a fair shot” but what does that mean? If he means by “fair shot” that every citizen should be free to pursue their dream or career of their choice without interference of the Federal Government or others around them but are only limited by their abilities or imagination, I think I agree. On the other hand, if he means that we need to handicap the more qualified or lower the standards in order to allow less qualified or those with little talent or ability to take their place, other than the Chicago Cubs or the Federal Government, I can’t think of anyone that would do this on purpose. Language is the coin of exchange in civil discourse (and sometimes in uncivil discourse). Few seem to realize though that without definitions no real communication has occurred. No real debate can actually take place when no clearly articulated and defined statements have been made.

We had a real study in contrast last week at the National Prayer Breakfast. Barak Obama had spoken and shortly thereafter Dr. Benjamin S. Carson the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, gave the keynote address. Dr. Carson is one for whom “fair shot” meant not having the interference of government or others. His mother married at 13 and later divorced when she discovered her husband was a bigamist. She was a domestic that often worked 2 or 3 jobs to support her children. He grew up in poverty but his mother never allowed him to think of himself as a victim. His “fair shot” originated with how his mother taught him to think about himself and life. His speech is really worth the 30 or so minutes it take to watch. He spoke with kindness and clarity. He defined his terms and there was no question what he meant with each statement. He didn’t promote or demonize the Democrat or Republican Party but spoke from a logical perspective about the issues of the day. He spoke to charity (he and his wife operate a foundation which gives education grants in 50 states). Being the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins he is very qualified to speak to the issue of healthcare and he did. His proposal is that each person should be given a Health savings account which they control until they pass away and then it is passed on to their heirs. He clearly articulated his views on taxes (everyone should give a percentage of their increase). Now, you may agree or disagree with Dr. Carson but at least you know what you are agreeing or disagreeing with.

Claims like “everyone has a right to marry” are true but is not really the same as saying everyone has the right to marry whoever or whatever they want to marry. Saying a “woman has rights over her own body” is true but has limitations. She has the right to extend her hand out in front of her with her fist clenched but her right ends at the beginning of your nose. Her rights end where they infringe on the rights of another human. At that point human rights kick in which trump individual rights. That directly impacts the question of abortion. Does the fact that another human is living within the boundaries of her body mean that the other human, which has different DNA, a different blood type and about 50% of the time a different gender, mean that it is her property to dispose of as she wills or should it have human rights solely based on being human? If so, wouldn’t those right trump her right to have it dismembered? Defining the language changes the discussion considerably. Mary Elizabeth Williams has no problem in saying So What if Abortion Ends Life?. Now the debate should revolve around human rights which trump other rights.

This lack of definition in discussion permeates all of culture and impedes discussion not only of temporal issues like health care and taxes but also those with eternal consequences. What does the term “Christian” mean? It has been twisted, contorted and stretched to the point that it is virtually undefined. For some being a Christian is someone who is trying to keep the 10 Commandments (an impossibility). For others it is going door-to-door with publications from the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (Jehovah’s Witnesses). Others claim to be Christians because they performed certain rituals prescribed by their religious leadership (Roman Catholics, Mormons and others). Or perhaps you are a Christian by virtue of being born in the United States. The recent article, With a Super Bowl Ad, Scientology Gets a Crowd in the New York Times by Tanzina Vega and Michael Cieply pick up on how some groups rely on vagueness to recruit followers:

“It’s what marginal religions are doing more than evangelizing,” Mr.
Sharlet [assistant professor of English at Dartmouth College]said. “They
are trying to say ‘You can trust us.’ ” Calling the ad “sort of mushy and
vague,” he compared it to a sentimental commercial from the Chrysler Group
extolling the virtues of farmers that also ran during the Super Bowl.

Even Charisma Magazine is beginning to see the problem in their article Sex Symbols Who Speak in Tongues? when it comes to what the gospel means:

Yes, this is the “gospel” of the 21st century, “Spirit-filled” church of America, where the cross is bypassed, denial of the flesh is scorned, purity is called legalism, and anything goes if it feels good.

It is the “gospel” of self, in which Jesus dies to make you into a bigger and better you, a “gospel” in which God is here to serve you and help you fulfill your dreams, and where the measure of all things is not how God feels about it but how you feel about it (or how it makes you feel).

The issue of clearly defined terms is so important that when I am being interviewed by various media it is not uncommon for me to stop them when they ask question and request that they clarify what they are asking. The vagueness of the question can let me go in any direction and also allow the questioner to apply a different meaning afterward which would make it look like I was saying something I wasn’t. The result is that I have rarely been misquoted. This doesn’t eliminate the possibility but greatly reduces it. Language and terms can be co-opted in at least 2 ways. For most, it is the result of sloppy, lazy or uniformed thinking. In some cases it is the result of a deceiver using good terms in a false way and the lack of definitional clarity becomes their weapon of choice.

The problem is not new but does seem to be more prevalent today than I recall in my past. In the distant past the Church developed a series of Creeds to outline the core beliefs of Christianity. The first, The Apostle’s Creed, was fairly short and easily memorized. The problem was that false teachers used the same language but redefined the terms. Over the next couple of centuries more Creeds were developed in response to the fuzzing up of the statements by false teachers in an attempt to make themselves appear to be Christians while actually denying the fundamentals of the faith. That eventuated in the The Athanasian Creed which became much longer because in it they stated the belief and then in order to prevent the language from being misused by false teachers, defined what was meant (The term “catholic faith” in its historical grammatical context simply meant universal). A short example may be helpful:

Furthermore it is necessary to everlasting salvation; that he also believe faithfully the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the right Faith is, that we believe and confess; that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man; God, of the Essence of the Father; begotten before the worlds; and Man, of the Essence of his Mother, born in the world. Perfect God; and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead; and inferior to the Father as touching his Manhood. Who although he is God and Man; yet he is not two, but one Christ. One; not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh; but by assumption of the Manhood by God. One altogether; not by confusion of Essence; but by unity of Person. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man; so God and Man is one Christ

We might do well to define the terms we are using in our discussions in order to eliminate confusion. Others may still disagree but at least they will know with certainty what they are disagreeing with


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