The Changing Meaning of Words

I think I’ve hit this topic before, but it seems worth going over once again. There definitely seems to be an issue of misunderstanding with regards to certain concepts and the language used to represent them. Two of the most prominent of these are the common uses of words like “intolerance” and “fundamentalism.”

Interestingly, these two words are often found being used alongside one another. We hear all the time about how those “fundamentalists” are being “intolerant.” Now, in the way that it is often used, I’m assuming that by “fundamentalist” they are referring to those Christians who brow-beat non-believers and tell them that they are going to burn in hell for their sinful ways and that they are the minions of Satan who bring evil and vileness into this world yadda-yadda-yadda.

If it helps any, those people annoy me, too. But I still don’t like that they are tagged with the label “fundamentalist.” Mainly because, by definition, I consider myself to be somewhat of a fundamentalist according to what that word actually means. In other words, I believe in the basic fundamentals of what the Bible teaches; God created the universe and everything in it, Adam brought sin into the world, Jesus was God in the flesh and died to impute His righteousness to us, He commanded us to bring the gospel to the world and to love one another.

Those are some of the “fundamentals” of the Christian faith that I believe in. I don’t see how this term can be used for people standing on soap-boxes on street corners shouting at people and reading scriptures specifically to show how sinful people are and how they’re going to burn in hell. That’s not what the Bible teaches us to do. It’s not how the Bible teaches us to spread the gospel. Therefore, those people are not exemplifying the fundamentals of Christianity. It follows, then, that the term “fundamentalist” is misused on these people.

And then we have “intolerance.” While there certainly are those who are actually intolerant (the people who I’ve argued are incorrectly labeled “fundamentalists”) I have often been told that I myself am intolerant based solely on the fact that I disagree with someone’s viewpoint. That’s not intolerance. That’s disagreement. In fact, I can only tolerate a viewpoint or idea that I disagree with. Otherwise, I’m not tolerating it, I’m agreeing with it. By definition, I must disagree in order to be tolerant.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure that a word’s meaning can really ever be recovered once it’s been compromised in this way. Take C. S. Lewis’ example from “Mere Christianity” where he talks about the fact that the word “gentlemen” used to be a term from which one could discern particular information about an individual. But, over time, the term began to be used as a way of indicating the speaker’s own opinion regarding an individual and therefore no longer has any real value for the listener in that it no longer conveys information about the subject. Instead it only conveys how the speaker feels about the subject.

Nonetheless, I continue to obstinately hold out hope that one day these types of distinctions will be common knowledge and the term “fundamentalist” will be rightly applied…as will “intolerance.” Until then, I suppose there will be a time in the future that this topic will be revisited. And perhaps I will have to continually qualify these terms when used in discussions and conversations.

Grace, love and peace.

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