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Finding Common Ground Means Using a Common Language

Finding Common Ground Means Using a Common Language February 24, 2016

It's all Greek to me.

I’ve written before about how some stuff sticks with you unconsciously, but sometimes the thoughts that go through my head surprise even me.

I have two boys, and while they both have fairly strong personalities and a doubly-inherited stubbornness, they actually get along with each other quite well. Our elder son, Ian,¹ is in some ways a protective older brother for our younger son, Henry,² and often takes a sort of mentoring stance with him.

The other night, for some reason, Ian was telling Henry what a good job he was doing at something. This is a reasonably frequent occurrence; he’ll often come in when my wife and I are cooking dinner and tell her things like “Mom, you’re a good cooker!” Last night, it was “Dad, you’re a great painter!” while I was buttering bread. It’s really quite endearing, and I confess that I take a little pride in the fact that he will do that often on his own.

I don’t know where it came from, but my mind brought forth from its dark recesses this weird thought: If I were still a Christian, I’d probably say that he has the spiritual gift of exhortation.

Now, I clearly don’t believe in spiritual gifts anymore, so it’s silly that the thought would even occur to me. But as I thought about it more, I realized that the problem was that my mind had appealed to a term with unnecessary metaphysical baggage to explain a concept that could be described in a perfectly acceptable, secular way: as a temperament or inclination.

Even In Language, Religious Privilege

Beyond that pervasive thinking from my religious days, the issue of language is one that affects our ability to engage in real dialogue. At the end of my last post on Pope Francis and bridge-building, I made a statement about how he framed his remarks:

To be honest, it’s a shame that Francis decided to couch his comment in this explicitly Christian way. Even as he extolled the virtues of bridge-building, he walled off all of us non-Christians with his answer.

And one of my biggest complaints about David Dark’s new book was how it took explicitly religious words — religion, catechism, worship — and, through redefinition, forced them into secular contexts where they were ill-suited. It wasn’t that I disagreed with the underlying points, just that I thought the religious framing was misguided. Even in the language that was used, religious language was privileged over more neutral — and thus more accessible — language.

This is a big problem for efforts to achieve common ground because common ground requires common language. If that language is going to be religious in nature, then that common ground is undermined.

A Simple Concession

The reason that religious language so often becomes the sort of informal lingua franca of these conversations is that it has currency: Even non-religious people, whether formerly religious or not, will understand the meaning or be able to translate it to something roughly equivalent.

But this shouldn’t be yet another burden that secular people take on. There has to be a concession made here.

So let’s start with this: Let’s talk together using language that presupposes only the shared world we inhabit. Obviously, if you’re someone who doesn’t think that the universe ends there but continues into a realm of spirits, angels, and deities, then that will mean that you will have to make an effort to limit your language a bit. There are virtually always ways of talking about shared values or realities without framing them in explicitly religious or spiritual terms.

Again, this isn’t really a weird thing for those of us who have already tried to have these conversations and have made the concessions out of necessity. On more than one occasion, I’ve adopted the language of my religious friends in order to help them discuss issues with religious groups or theology or whatever.

Why do I do this? Because it’s a way I show that I care.

And it is also a way of saying, “I don’t have to center myself in this conversation for us to share a common ground.”

I recognize that this might not always be easy for some religious people, who learn to see the world wholly through the lens of their religion. Maybe it’ll take a bit of mental re-training to pull off. But there’s no common ground on an uneven playing field.

If we can’t even do it in our language, what hope is there for the bigger issues?


Image by Galen Broaddus (background from Pixabay)

¹,² Not their actual names.

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