Back in the late 60s, Francis Schaeffer wrote the first book in his “trilogy” called “The God Who Is There” and in it he warned that in the culture at large, and even in the church, people were beginning to use what he called “contentless religious words”.
“[People] in our culture in general are already in process of being accustomed to accept nondefined, contentless religious words and symbols, without any rational or historical control. Such words and symbols can be filled with the content of the moment. The words Jesus or Christ are the most ready for the manipulator. The phrase Jesus Christ has become a contentless banner which can be carried in any direction for sociological purposes. In other words, because the phrase Jesus Christ has been separated from true history and the content of Scripture, it can be used to trigger religiously motivated sociological actions directly contrary to the teaching of Christ. This is already in evidence, as for example in the ‘new’ morality being advocated by many within the Church today.”
I think this is so widespread today that people don’t even question it, but I don’t think religious words are the only words that are subject to this treatment. Today, I think what is perhaps even more common is the use of contentless emotion words or phrases.
What I mean by that is people use words that have long since lost a meaning which is common to people, yet they still entail a certain emotional reaction from people. In a way, this is using an appeal to emotion fallacy without actually making an argument. For example, if I say the word “discrimination” you instantly associate negative emotions to that word, and more than likely bring to mind slavery in early America. Conversely, if I use the word “right” you instantly associate good emotions to the word.
Now, why do I say that people use these words in such a way as to make them void of content? Because people throw them around without either defining them (or being able to) or without actually making arguments to support them. We can take any example from the news currently, but I’ll start out with a less controversial one like gun control. Before you throw out your favorite meme about how criminals don’t follow laws, just hear me out. When I say that we have a right to own guns, we get some vague thinking about how there must be something about that in the constitution or bill of rights or something, and that we definitely have a right to do so. It’s in the Second Amendment of the Constitution, but I don’t have to tell you what that means or what it says in order to get you on my side. All I have to say is something like “we have a right to own guns and the government is taking away that right!” and odds are you’ll agree with me. At least if you live in the mid-west, like I do.
Interestingly, in these sorts of discussions, nobody really asks questions. For instance, it seems to me like nobody knows what rights are or where they come from. Don’t believe me? How would you define it? Or, better yet, the next time someone talks to you about some hot button issue and they say they have a right to something, ask them what they mean by a “right” and where they get the idea that rights are good and should be protected? How do you determine what is and isn’t a right? Where do these amorphous things come from? I’m betting you won’t get an interesting answer, if you get one at all.
People have generally established notions of good/bad, right/wrong, but as a whole have largely lost the ability to even understand what that means. But as long as you can tap into those emotions using certain void, yet charged, words, then you can win people to your cause. And if we can’t even define those basic terms, then how can we even begin to define terms like “rights” , “equality” , “discrimination” , or anything ending in –phobia?
Perhaps this is wishful thinking, but I think people in general need to start asking these sorts of questions when talking about anything. Christians in particular need to be asking these questions because I believe we’re the only ones with the worldview foundation to adequately answer them. You can argue one until you’re blue in the face about whether America is/was a Christian nation (I don’t think so) but the fact is that the Judeo-Christian worldview had a massive impact on its founders and the general ethos of the early nation.
I think this is why people still have these instinctual wisps of morality that the manipulators have been able to tap into. I find that ultimately, what is right comes from what conforms to the nature of God and what is wrong comes from what goes against that. Not because God is arbitrary in choosing things which are good/bad or because God realizes the goodness of something outside Himself, but because God is goodness, by His very nature. So any discussion or formulation of rights need to be grounded in that, and not in a sort of might makes right decision or a bundle of laws granted by the state (even when those laws happen to agree with me). This is the grounding that we as Christians have to start. From there we can determine what rights are and which ones should be granted to whom/what. We can determine what should/ought to be and what should/ought not be.
I find it interesting that in the story of the rich young man in Mark 10, Jesus completely bypasses his question at first. The man comes up and says “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” and instead of launching into an argument, Jesus first asks “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” Now, in the context, Jesus was making a point and a claim to His divinity, but think about what He did for a moment. If the guy had no idea what good even meant, then why should he believe Jesus? This is the sort of thing we need to start doing in conversation. We need to start asking questions of people. It actually shows we care about them, because instead of just having two people angry with one another and regurgitating the media talking points, it actually gets to the heart of what people care about and why.
It takes work. First you have to figure out how you define certain words, and what you believe before you can start asking it of others. Then you have to figure out ways to ask questions so that the conversation doesn’t get derailed and emotions to get out of control and dominate the discussion. That takes time and practice, but I guarantee it’s worth it. Whatever it is you believe, please put in the effort to develop this skill. For if we don’t, we are quickly going to develop a culture that is entirely dependent on and dominated by the manipulators.
Christians, out-think the world for Christ. Out-love the world for Christ. This is a way that we can do both of those things and show that we care of them and follow God at the same time. “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” – Colossians 3:17