Definition of terms, especially in religious dialogue, has become increasingly more important as our society shifts away from the belief that words have absolute meanings. Not everyone agrees upon the dictionary definitions, so we can’t presume that we are discussing the same topic, even when we are using the same words… especially in a “faith” context. (It is interesting that this waffling about meanings seems less prominent in discussion about non-philosophical/theological issues – no one ever questions what I mean when I ask them to bring me my “blue” sneakers!)
Because of this, I often begin faith dialogues with a series of questions which will help me better understand the way the other party defines key terms which will be used in our conversation. Keep in mind that even basic terms like “God” or “religion” may require some definition. Ask an atheist, a Muslim, a Jew, an Hindu, a Mormon, and a Wiccan to define the term and you will get a wide variety of responses, all of which will differ tremendously from the Biblical Christian definition. If you are unaware of these differences, you’ll likely end up talking past each other rather than to each other!
Not all of the definitions need to be settled upon up front. If the conversation seems to hit a sticking point that revolves around a particular word, you can bet that the problem is a difference between your understanding of its meaning and your friend’s. Stop the dialogue, define the word (in some cases, it may even be worthwhile to write down the definition being used in order to confirm your understanding of your friend’s point of view), then move on with a clear comprehension of what each party means when they say “we are saved by grace” or “God has no son”.
For example, it would be tempting to say that we believe the statement that “we are saved by grace”, but disbelieve the statement that “God has no son”, yet because of differing definitions of the words, this may not always be the case.
When an LDS person says that “we are saved by grace”, they are not generally referring to our “salvation” in the sense of the assurance that we will spend eternity with our Heavenly Father, but rather that all men will be resurrected. For the LDS, “salvation through grace” falls far short of securing eternal life!
Likewise, if in speaking to a Muslim, you were informed that the New Testament commits blasphemy by declaring that Jesus is the “Son of God” and that “God has no son”, it would be worth the effort to verify exactly how your Muslim friend is defining the word “son”. You might be surprised to discover that he views the term as biological rather than sociological and objects to the idea that God, who has no body, would obtain one in order to have physical intercourse with a human woman for the purpose of creating offspring. In this case, we would agree that no, God doesn’t have a son in that sense! (Please note that not all Muslims define “son” in this fashion – which further emphasizes the need for us to ask about definitions rather than presuming that we already understand!)
It’s also important to take the time to clearly define what you mean when utilizing previously undefined words. You’ve probably heard that old joke about speaking “Christianese” – that secret language only understood by those long initiated in the Church tradition. Well, it isn’t a joke. When you’ve been hanging out around believers for a while, you start to pick up terms like “salvation”, “redemption”, “propitiation”, “justification”, and the like. To someone who isn’t a part of the Church or who is already familiar with another faith in which these terms are utilized, but with different meanings, our use of these words can be confusing.
You can add a definition into the dialogue with a great deal of ease, simply by expounding upon what you mean by a given word immediately after using it. For example, “My salvation, the right to spend eternity in the presence of my Heavenly Father, is the result of my faith in Christ’s works, not my own.” By following this format, you both clarify your meaning to your listener and conveniently avoid that awkward moment in which you must ask, “Do you understand what I mean by that?” – a question sure to shut down any dialogue in which the person with whom you are sharing does not view themselves as an idiot and firmly believes that you have no right to view them that way either!
That said, once I’m certain that I understand where the other party is coming from, I make it a point to use their definitions rather than my own throughout the discussion. The primary reason for this is that it alleviates any potential that the traditional Biblical concepts which I seek to convey will be misunderstood due to an “error in translation”, but it also lightens the atmosphere by relieving the pressure for the other party to accept or adopt my own definitions before a productive dialogue is possible. Perhaps even more importantly, by taking the time to enquire about and understand where those of other faiths are coming from, i.e., how they define their terms and how those definitions influence their world view, I convey the message that this dialogue isn’t about winning a debate or being right, but about understanding one another and sharing those things which are so dear to our own hearts that we can’t help wanting to tell others.