The Cost of Holy Languages


welshI typed in Google about “speaking holy language” and got a lot of websites discussing or arguing or maybe pontificating about the following:

  • Is speaking in tongues (ecstatic speach) a holy language?  <No. ecstatic speach doesn’t have the structural qualities of a language so it is not a language– holy or otherwise.>
  • What is the language of heaven? <The Bible says that heaven is populated with people of every language. Based on that, Pentecost, and how God created us a language innovators, it seems safest to say that Heaven is joyously multi-lingual.>
  • What does Paul mean in his (rhetorical?) use of the expression “tongues of angels”?  <Since angels are messengers— communicators— of God to people, clearly they speak the languages of the people they talk to. One might argue that their God-given task requires that they be very multi-lingual. Since that would make a lot of sense to the context of the passage in I Corinthians 13, I feel that answer would suffice.>

What I really wanted to look at was what is the cost of having Holy Languages. A sacred language, “holy language” (in religious context) or liturgical language is any language that is cultivated and used primarily in religious service or for other religious reasons by people who speak another, primary language in their daily life.”  <A wikipedia answer>

Many religions have holy languages. These would include 7th century Arabic for Islam, and Sanskrit in Hinduism. Many Christian denominations (Roman Catholic, Coptic, Greek Orthodox, Tewahedo among others) utilize a langauge that in many cases is no longer spoken by the population outside of religious settings. In many religions part of the entry to being a religious scholar is to be trained in the sacred language of the religion. The religious services are held in and sacred Scriptures are written in a language that is barely known by the adherents to that religion. On a practical level, doing so has some advantages. For one, it leaves the interpretation of doctrines in the hands of the few professionals,  keeping ecclesiastical power in the hands of a few (and this is certainly an advantage for those few). It strengthens uniformity and historical connections by having a universal liturgy. Further, it seems cheaper and safer since  translation is expensive and some leaders worry that translation may lead to false teachings proliferating. Probably most importantly, people often see the language as mystically associated with that which is transcendent or otherworldly. In effect, some feel that the mystery that is associated with religious ritual is cheapened by the use of vernacular language.

But is there a cost to holy languages as well.

  1.  False teaching. This seems to contradict what I wrote above, but that is intentional. I disagree that translation leads to false teaching. For doctrine to reach the common people who do not understand the “holy language,” either they must learn the language and then translate it (poorly most likely) internally into their own heart language, or rely on a trained person to translate it and interpret it. Translation is going to happen no matter what. The translation can either be done by a group of experts in creating vernacular texts, or it can be done poorly by the people or by individual ministers to the people. Additionally, making the people too dependent on the words of individual clerics gives them an awful lot of power and leads to the temptation to abuse or misinform. (Go to Youtube and see what individual “experts” can do to twist and misinform people who are dependent on them for their understanding of Scripture.)
  2. The Faith fails to cross cultural or religious boundaries. One of the best examples of this is the case of Christianity in North Africa. With the Muslim invasion in the 7th century, the Latin church slowly faded away. In fact there are relatively few places in the world where established Christianity completely disappeared. Why would it? While there certainly was religious bigotry and taxation and the typical ways religious majorities use their power to abuse minorities, the biggest issue seemed to be an error of the Christians themselves. They never sought to reach out to the Berber peoples in North Africa and never made the Christian faith (in terms of text, liturgy, and music) available in Berber or Punic languages. As such, Christianity was the religion of the favored Latin peoples in North Africa. But with the Muslim invasion, the favored minority became an unfavored minority.
  3. Culture becomes canon.  If one doesn’t really have the authority of Scripture available for the people, a syncretized culture commonly develops, and that culture becomes the guide for faith behavior rather than Scripture. Here in the Philippines is a great example of a syncretized folk Christianity that developed out of a Christianity that was presented in a thoroughly foreign language– Latin. The Bible was completely unavailable in local languages until the very end of the 19th century. Vernacular liturgy was unavailable until around the 1970s or so. Of course, many of us know the conflict William Carey had with the Indian practice of widow burning. This practice was perpetuated in part because it was seen as a religiously supported practice, not just a cultural practice. Carey promoted translation of Hindu Scriptures in to Bengla partly to show that the practice was not supported by their canon.

Of course, vernacular faith does not guarantee that there are no problems. Americanism (a term coined to describe a strange mix of Evangelical Christianity with capitalism, nationalism, and militarism, and power politics) still exists despite a plethora of vernacular translations of the Bible. Within Islam, while it is certain that Jihadist madrassas have been helped to promote violence through sloppy exegesis of their faith, that does not mean that first language Arabic speakers are immune from such propoganda.

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