It is Getting Harder to Talk To One Another

This article from NYT:

More than 70 percent of Americans identify as Christian, but you wouldn’t know it from listening to them. An overwhelming majority of people say that they don’t feel comfortable speaking about faith, most of the time.

Whenever I used religious terms I considered common — like “gospel” and “saved” — my conversation partner often stopped me mid-thought to ask for a definition, please. I’d try to rephrase those words in ordinary vernacular, but I couldn’t seem to articulate their meanings. Some words, like “sin,” now felt so negative that they lodged in my throat. Others, like “grace,” I’d spoken so often that I no longer knew what they meant.

In New York — as in much of America, increasingly — religious fluency is not assumed. Work often takes precedence over worship, social lives are prioritized over spiritual disciplines and most people save their Sunday-best clothing for Monday through Friday. In pluralistic contexts, our neighbors don’t read from the same script or draw from a common spiritual vocabulary.

This is what I am finding remarkable about Peaceful Science. It is a place where we are finding a way to talk about these things in a secular context, without presuming we all agree or are religious. There is a way forward, and it seems to be A Secular-Confessional Society.



Having read the NYTimes article in full and lived in similar circles (rural South to Conservative Seminary to pastorates in New England and DC), I see what the author is driving at, and appreciate the idea of A Secular Confessional society as advanced here, though I do have some thoughts.

First, for the Christian engaged in an essentially cross-cultural dialogue the challenge to their God-talk is healthy. It means they are in circles who think differently, and it requires a greater degree of thought than the casual conversations that can tend to vacuosity due to the self-reinforcing nature of Christian jargon. In some ways Christians so engaged are not transmitting ideas as much as in-group acceptance. There’s nothing wrong with the latter other than it can masquerade as the former.

Second, not to go full-Wittgensteinian, but I strongly question how language-based the referenced survey was. In my experience there are spiritual conversations happening all the time even in the cold Northeast. Now, these conversations may not look like the ones I would have had at an Oklahoma Pentecostal Covered Dish Supper, but they are every bit as spiritual, until they turn overtly Christian. I wonder how many deeply spiritual atheists or agnostics there may be (I suspect there are many), but I know the casual American is deeply spiritual.

Third, with these thoughts in mind, a Secular Confessional Society could provide intentional conversations that force the Christian into considered speech, and allow the spiritual person to consider facets of Christian experience as it relates to spirituality lived in he person of a Christian interlocutor. Of course, the Christian will have the same opportunity to experience other points of view as well.

I find it sad if the Christian world has become so insular that it need rely on a spiritual speak-easy to communicate with the larger culture. Even so, if that is one part that a Secular Confessional Society might play—a wrong it might right—then that is well, though it will be even better should it grow individual who can transplant that culture into their workaday life. Let’s hear it for the Society which serves as a preparation for joining with the common person where he or she lives as opposed to escaping from them.


This is a good point. Some similar ideas come up in this Veritas Forum discussion:

It’s a long video, but I think it’s a worthwhile watch/listen if you’re interested in cross-cultural dialogue. There’s even an introduction from a rhetorician with an expert perspective on dialogue.


I will now go full Wittgensteinian.

I must admit that this comic matches very closely some of my experience with anti-evolutionist arguments, especially of the information variety. Perhaps it is a character flaw but I’m very engaged by the lion. I want to know how and why he thinks the way he does, and perhaps help him speak our language as I learn to speak his.

In Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein famously said that “if a lion could speak, we could not understand him”. This seems contradictory, because of course if he is speaking, it seems like we would understand him. But for Wittgenstein, the words themselves don’t so much convey meaning, but express intent that is confined within a particular situation that takes place within our shared culture and experience. So, for example, if a surgeon is performing surgery and said “nurse, scalpel”, it isn’t simple the two words together that convey the meaning of the surgeon wanting the nurse to hand him a scalpel, it is their shared knowledge of what a surgery is, and what is expected under those circumstances. If, for example, the nurse and surgeon are later at a company dinner, and the surgeon says “nurse, salt”, in the same cadence, this will be understood to be a joke, parodying the former circumstance. Nothing about the words themselves really conveys this, but only the shared world that both the nurse and surgeon occupy. This shared world is necessary for any language to function, and learning a language is not only learning the words, but the world in which we are expected to use the worlds.

On the hand, if a lion could suddenly speak English, it wouldn’t matter much, because the world that the lion exists in is so divorced from ours, that his expressions, desires, and intents could still never be communicated. The lion doesn’t know what a surgery is, or a dinner party, or a joke for that matter. Likewise, we don’t know what sort world the lion occupies, so words would be useless. This phenomenon isn’t as outlandish as it might sound at first, and even occurs frequently among humans. For example, I had two coworkers who played World of Warcraft constantly, and would talk about it at lunch. They could speak to each other for ten minutes, in English, and I wouldn’t be able to decipher a single sentence. It isn’t because I didn’t understand the meaning of the worlds, but because I had no ability to relate the words to a situation or world that I knew, so the meaning was lost on me. If I can’t understand a conversation about a video game I haven’t played, even when I’ve played similar games, how can I be expected to understand a conversation between lions?
Wittgenstein's Lion - Existential Comics


The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Darmok” dramatizes this very well. Normally, language differences in Star Trek are glossed over by the “Universal Translator” but in this episode, Picard discovers that understanding the words isn’t enough without a shared context. Even better, the story illustrates how Picard and Dathon build shared experience and thus an ability to communicate.


I had a missions professor who would play the following game: as a white man in Asia he would take a cab and in broken speech (he was learning the language) explain that he was not a man but a great white ape who was seeking to learn about the cabbie’s culture. It was a brilliant way to create a silly environment where the cabby became both a cultural and language instructor for the duration of the trip. It’s risky to be an ape in a cab, but we can’t learn a language or a culture effectively through secondary or tertiary sources. The best learning comes from direct contact with nationals.


Right up until the tranquilizer dart hits you in the neck, and you get hauled off to the zoo! :wink:


Too funny. But to hear my professor tell it, some of the guys he rode with really bought the whole shtick. I suppose one must always have their wits about them…

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It never hurts to let people know you are willing to laugh at yourself.

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I can either do it up front or get mad when they laugh anyway. :wink:

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