When You Aren't Really Agreeing: The Dangers of Universal Language

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Pieter Bruegel's Little Tower of Babel, 1563 (thumbnail)Tooling around the blogsphere, I found a neat little wish list from a Christian for the near-perfect church. It’s a great lesson in ideas vs. instantiation, whether or not you are a religious person. Some of his wants for this community include:

They use all kinds of music, from ancient to contemporary.

It is taken for granted that the Christian community crosses generations, cultures and every other barrier.

They stay with the Christian year and use the liturgical resources of many traditions.

The sermons are Christ-centered, Gospel-saturated and application oriented.

The creeds are central and the confessions are appreciated, but all human statements of theology are received with a humble and critical spirit.

Scripture is read publicly, and Bibles are brought unashamedly. (And we all read the same translation!)

Worship is expressive and comfortable with both charismatic and catholic manifestations of piety.

Worship is formal at times, and relaxed and informal at others.

Art is appreciated. Technology is used sparingly, appropriately and without developing dependence.

This list comes from Michael Spencer’s post last month “Looking for a Church That Doesn’t Exist….or does it?” His readers, from a variety of denominations, all agreed whole-heartedly with his vision.

And that’s the problem.

The list, in almost every point, uses “universal language” to describe the virtues. This has the advantage of being vague so that almost everyone from the society can agree to it. Most contemporary American church-goers can come on board with most of these sentiments.

If you don’t think so, read the comments. It was only those people who asked questions about how this point or that one would be instantiated that the leaks in the boat started showing.

This is what happens with universals. We can all agree that crime should be reduced but we can’t agree to how that should be done. Americans believe that we should love our neighbors, as taught in the Good Book, how that gets worked out in public policy creates strong disagreements. Management books tend sound like this, using universal language that almost every modern manager can agree with, which is how they can sell to so many different points of view. It’s only when we start instantiating these things from the realm of ideas that engage people’s working values and purposes. We not only disagree over what should be done, we also then disagree over how it should be done.

And that’s the problem with using universal language. It’s not even really part of the realm of ideas. It’s generalities about universal values, generalities not connected to reality.

You don’t have to be religious to have this problem. Lori Gottlieb’s recent article in The Atlantic (“Marry Him!“) talked about these issues (albeit indirectly) in choosing a mate, that when you have these ideas about the Perfect Husband you lose out the Good Enough Husband. Married people do the same thing, looking out at the person who they are infatuated with and imagining life. But you haven’t seen the person with morning breath, or not in their “date night” clothes, or even when they would rather scrapbook or watch the game than be with you (to use sexist examples). Even parenting can suffer if we think that we aren’t realistic about it. As psychologist Stan Smith of Human Patterns says, Children don’t need a good mother; they need good enough mothering.

We even do this in our worklife, looking for a work environment that meets some list of universals.

<<Le bon Dieu est dans le détail>> of course. For in the working out of the politics of any human group, we find that the way that we look at the world is not the only way of looking at it (see Warren Kinston’s “Seven Languages of Achievement” inStrengthening the Management Culture for an example). Singly, our visions of our human groups are stunted because it is only in the combination of our decision-making approaches, worked out in real life, that we find what we want: a working human group.

Spencer would have been wise to listen to Bible-translator Peterson’s quotation he cites at the start.

The church you want is the enemy of the church you have,

Or, as Voltaire wrote, <<Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien.&gt’>


As a closing note, I’ll admit that RO folks can be as utopian about organizations as Spencer is about church. One of the things that impressed me about the contributions to the GO Society’sOrganization Design, Levels of Work & Human Capability was that they often left doctrine at the door, looking at what can actually be done within the political realities of many corporations.

About the Author

Forrest Christian

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E. Forrest Christian is a consultant, coach, author, trainer and speaker at The Manasclerk Company who helps managers and experts find insight and solutions to what seem like insolvable problems. Cited for his "unique ability and insight" by his clients, Forrest has worked with people from almost every background, from artists to programmers to executives to global consultants. Forrest lives and works plain view of North Carolina's Mount Baker.  [contact]

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