Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Babel’s Antidote

Monsù Desiderio, The Tower of Babel
I’m thinking about human relationships, specifically the way we communicate.

I used to take great delight in my facility with language, a skill developed largely because my father read to us incessantly as children: Lewis, Tolkien and other writers consistently above our grade level. As a result, we paid little attention to grammar lessons in school; they were largely redundant. We didn’t need to know a word was a gerund or an adjective to use it aptly in a sentence or to spell it correctly. Such things were innate.

You know the old saw: “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. I figured language was the key to pretty much everything. If one were only logical enough, if one could only make a convincing argument, then everything was potentially within one’s grasp. You could manipulate, coax, coerce or persuade anyone to do just about anything you wanted.

The Power of Persuasion

My formidable persuasive skills worked on my brothers — occasionally. They worked on a few of my more impressionable friends. But try to imagine my disappointment when I began attempting to relate to girls. There are, quite literally, no words to describe the magnitude of my failure in that arena as a teenager (largely because I’m too embarrassed to think them, let alone write about them).

Another language was evidently required, and I didn’t speak it. I came to understand eventually that employing words, however ably, is very different than communicating.

The older I get, the less stock I put in language. Oh, it can be a supremely effective communication tool. It might be the best tool we have. But it has limitations.

The Limitations of Language

·         People must agree on the definitions of words or we talk right past each other.

·         In order for an intellectual argument to be effective its hearers must be taught or intuit basic principles of logic.

·         To certain listeners, tone and manner are more important than content. The wrong tone or attitude can be so off-putting that the speaker’s argument remains unheard; conversely, a more appealing manner can successfully soft sell utter rubbish.

·         Unless we constantly question our own assumptions about meaning, and unless we listen more than we talk, those assumptions can deafen us to what others are actually saying and make what we say next to impossible for others to follow.

·         Education makes some people entirely incomprehensible to anyone but their peers (or perhaps just plain incomprehensible).

·        People don’t always say what they mean. In a sense, Dr. House on the TV series was right: Everybody lies. Of course we don’t all actively seek to deceive at all times, but considerations like social graces, political correctness, polity or fear of disapproval often cause us to say things we don’t mean and to fail to say what we do. This is especially true even in the most intimate relationships. The higher the stakes, the more difficult it is to risk telling the exact truth.

Given the potential stumbling blocks, how humans communicate at all, even in the limited way we do, is genuinely astonishing.

The Confirming Force

Where am I going with this? Paul makes this statement about the Lord Jesus:
 “And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
(Colossians 1:17)
The words “hold together” here are most frequently translated “commend”, or literally “stand with”, and are used of a confirming testimony; that which supports or substantiates something that might otherwise be less solid or demonstrable. The KJV says, “in him all things consist”, which is fine, so long as it doesn’t conjure an image of the Lord Jesus as some vast being with everything else inside him, because that is not what the apostle is emphasizing here. Rather, he affirms what is said in Hebrews about the Son; that he “upholds all things by the word of his power”.

He is the “confirming force” of the universe; that which makes everything else cohere. Not being a scientist, I’ll stop there, though I’m quite sure scientifically trained Christians (as opposed to Christian Scientists) might have much to say on how that works out practically.

Christ and Relationships

“All things hold together” may even include relationships when both parties know the Lord Jesus. Sadly, this is not always true of our relationships with those who do not. He himself said, “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”

It is understandable that it would be this way: Outside of Christ, there is no real way to communicate effectively beyond that which is simply natural. We may for a time feel like we’re connecting. Sometimes Christians and unbelievers get lucky and actually find common ground for a few moments. But when scripture comes up we realize we’re talking to a person with, well, something missing; an inability to grasp that which is basic and intuitive to us as followers of Christ. We are told, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned”.

The things that mean the most to me get no traction in the hearts of my unsaved friends — apart, that is, from the working of the Spirit of God.

Undoing Shinar’s Curse

Millennia ago on the Plains of Shinar the Lord took a united people with a single tongue, confused their language and dispersed them to the four corners of the earth. Multiculturalism notwithstanding, to this day all the translators and common interests in the world cannot make its peoples see eye to eye. But in the hearts of believers, by his Holy Spirit, the Lord has placed a common language: “He will guide you into all the truth”, the Lord told his disciples. In Christ there is a means by which two or more believers may speak to one another intelligibly, with genuine shared understanding.

The Spirit of Christ is the antidote to the Tower of Babel. In him all things become coherent.

That doesn’t mean Christians always communicate perfectly. Sometimes, sadly, sin, culture, self or stupidity intrude and we miscommunicate horribly. But in Christ the potential for true understanding is always there just waiting to be allowed to illuminate our minds, hearts and emotions. As we each walk with the Lord toward a common destination, our paths must inevitably converge and our conversations cannot help becoming increasingly meaningful, clear and profitable.

I had dinner with a handful of Christians last night and we sat and talked at the table for almost five hours. I can’t think of another place on earth I would rather have been. I left with my heart singing.  

Because we were talking Christ, in whom “all things hold together”.

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