I correct people. A lot. In fairness to me, being a teacher requires that I sometimes correct people; in fact, I even get paid to do so. Furthermore, my training in the physical sciences taught me that accuracy and precision in both measurement and communication are really important. However, during the few weeks of my slower paced summers, I have a difficult time turning off teacher mode, and thus my wife and other friends and family sometimes get the pure joy of having me correct them. I don’t do it to be rude; it’s a habit that I have to work to tame for use in appropriate situations. I am a man of many faults, to be sure, but this particular one has to be near the top of the list of irritating things that I do.
I mention this because my insistence upon the correct usage of terms and such can be annoying, but such an approach can serve a crucial role in many of our conversations and in our personal thinking. In fact, many of the conversations that are taking place in our culture regarding controversial issues often suffer because people do not take the time to correctly use words. This is more important than it might initially seem. The fact is that words convey ideas, and ideas have consequences. If we incorrectly understand and incorrectly use words, then the ideas that those words convey will also be skewed, and the consequences of acting upon skewed ideas can be problematic, to say the least.
For example, when folks use the word evolution, antennae get raised and those involved in the conversation often get very uneasy. However, much of that discomfort could be avoided by simply defining what is meant when the word evolution is used. The fact is that there are numerous meanings of the word. At one level, it can simply mean “change.” Such a definition is hardly controversial. Similarly uncontroversial is the biological definition of evolution as “adaptation.” For instance, my dog sheds more fur in the summer than in the winter, and I have no trouble imagining that such a thing is something that dogs adapted to do in climates with drastic seasonal changes. Similarly, bacteria can develop resistance to some antibiotics. This is an adaptation, and an amazing example of evolution in action. In fact, one could easily be a Young Earth Evolutionist if “Evolutionist” is used in this sense. (As an aside, the word “evolutionist” is typically used to refer to someone who holds the more controversial view of universal common ancestry.)
Recent problems have arisen regarding the way that people use the words “marriage”, “love”, “faith” and many others. Confusion usually follows when people use a word with a different definition than what is commonly understood (or at least originally meant) by the word. For example, the meaning of the word “Christian” has been sadly lost in many contexts. A Christian is a “follower of Christ,” that is, one who actually believes what Jesus taught and lives their life according to the teachings of Scripture. An important aspect of Jesus’s teaching is the call for people to repent of their sin and turn to Christ for forgiveness. When one lives that way, they are Christians. If people profess to be Christians but live in continual, unrepentant sin, they cannot, by definition, actually be Christians. This is a colossal problem in the American church, and in America in general. Many are quick to claim that America is a “Christian nation.” Yet, the majority of Americans live in perpetual, unrepentant sin, so it is difficult to see how the “Christian nation” moniker can be true in any legitimate sense of the word, “Christian.”
Someone recently asked me why I am saddened by the SCOTUS decision to try and redefine marriage. “After all, isn’t Christianity all about love? Who wouldn’t support a decision to encourage love?” Do you see the problem here? My friend and Jesus mean two completely different things by the word “love.” My friend means something like, “let everyone do what makes them happy.” Jesus says that true love entails dying to oneself, including our sinful desires, to follow him. Until we understand each other on those terms, we cannot have a meaningful conversation. Yes I can be annoying when I correct people, but wouldn’t I be quite unloving to allow my friend to believe that love is simply about self-gratification?