Dictionaries Change the World

One of my most terrifying professors in college made a very astute observation which I have never forgotten. (I am not entirely sure why her presence caused me to shake in my boots. Maybe it was her Type A personality, her imposing height, or her propensity toward free speech.) In any case, I will always remember what my professor told our class before we gave our persuasive speeches:

“Definitions are the most important part of a debate. Most arguments can be boiled down to a simple difference of definition. For example, look at the abortion debate. Isn’t the whole issue here about the definition of a ‘fetus’? Some people think a fetus is the mother’s tissue, part of her body. Other people think a fetus is a baby. These are two very different definitions which lead people on either side of the issue to come to very different conclusions. It is almost pointless to argue anything before you agree on a definition. You must always prove your definition and identify your terms before trying to persuade someone.”

It’s very true that differing definitions are at the root of conflict, and I have found that it is most helpful to carefully define issues before trying to discuss them or argue about them. Many times, conflict can be avoided by clarifying terms. In this way, sometimes “complex” issues are not so complex. Sometimes, after defining terms, we realize we aren’t even arguing about the same thing in the first place!

Think about [insert your pet political issue here]. Could this debate boil down to a difference of definition of something, someone, or some issue?

Definitions are real. Take, for example, the word “faith”. A simple enough word, but when you look it up in the dictionary, you will find fascinatingly different definitions. Webster’s Dictionary, for example, defines faith as “belief that is not based on proof.” (Let that astounding definition sink in for a while.) I do not think that this Webster’s definition is correct. In my opinion, “belief that is not based on proof” cannot be faith. It must be instead naiveté. Or silliness. Imagine that someone says: “I believe there is a magical unicorn in the world, but I do not see any evidence that it is there. But I have faith in the unicorn.” You see? Silliness.

However, I am told that the Oxford English Dictionary has a different definition for faith, one that includes the idea that faith is belief based on evidence. To me, this makes more sense. I believe there is a God in the world, and I see evidence He is there. I prayed to Him, and my life changed. I see people change (who I never thought could change) because Jesus Christ is in their life. In biology, when I study DNA, I see language and communication, evidence of a message-giver (who happens to be God). I see beauty, and I’m never satisfied by it. I see humans wondering about the earth, never satisfied by the things of earth. Sex, money, power… we are not satisfied by these temporary things. This is evidence to me that there is something beyond this life, JUST LIKE JESUS TOLD US THERE WOULD BE. These evidences begin to produce in me belief in the God of the Bible. And this is faith.

But I am told that I am believing in something in which there is no proof or evidence. And to me, this feels like someone is defining for me something which they should not define.

1. Belief with no proof. 2. Belief with proof.
Which one of these definitions of faith is the correct one? Could these two differing definitions lead to very different life practices and assumptions? Do you see how these two different definitions could lead to very different conclusions about the claims of Christianity, the validity of Christianity, and the belief in God?

Dictionaries matter.

But then, I am making a point about definitions, and the idea of TRUE definitions. Does truth play into this idea of “definition” at all? Does truth have a place in the conflict in our world? Could it be that the idea that “everything is relative” is actually creating conflict, rather than curbing it?

If you find yourself in conflict, you might think about definition. Is your definition correct? Is your definition based on some majority use that happened to make its way into the dictionary? Or is your definition based on truth?

Maybe, just maybe, dictionaries can change the world.


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