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.

William Carnegie and the Question of the Compassion

Teaching about William Carey and his arguments with some members of the Particularist Baptists regarding “the use of means to evangelize the heathen” reminded me of the story of another William. He is William Carnegie, the father of 19th century industrialist Andrew Carnegie. According to the story, William was attending a local Secessionist Presbyterian Church (in Scotland) and the sermon was on Infant Damnation. In that sermon the fiery preacher gave an equally fiery account of infants, those who died as babies who were not predestined for heaven, screaming in the torments of hellfire. William was horrified by the message. According to the story, he stood up in the middle of the sermon and said loudly, “If that be your religion, and that be your God, I shall seek a better religion and a nobler God.” (J. F. Wall, “Andrew Carnegie,” p. 34)

One could argue that William Carnegie’s complaint was three-fold.

1. He was bothered by a religion that would have as one of its doctrinees that innocent babies would burn for ever in torment because they were, for practical purposes, chosen for hell regardless of their potential merits or sins. Why would we set up a religion to teach that— especially since the Bible doesn’t actually say this… though some belief that it is a logical conclusion based on some verses?

2. He was bothered in what this teaching said about their God. Their God was fickle and sadistic, choosing to create some people with the irresistible end of blessing them for ever, and choosing to create others with the irresistible end of eternal torment. Is this compatible with a God who St. John said was best understood with the term “Love.” After all, if Thanos is called a villain because he wants to randomly cause half of the population of the universe to cease to be, how much more so if God randomly chose to have a majority of humans come to a state of eternal constant torment (ECT) where there is nothing that could have ever possibly been done to avoid that?

3. His biggest concern appeared to be more than this. William Carnegie was deeply bothered that the congregation was not moved by the preaching. How could people listen to stories of children, for no better reason that an essentially random preselection, being brutally tortured and not feel moved by that? How could they not respond with horror? I vaguely recall an old Bloom County cartoon where the gang was watching TV. They weren’t sure it is was a news broadcast of wartime killings, or a movie. They couldn’t decide. Finally one said something to the effect… “Can someone please tell us whether we should be enjoying this or not?” That’s a good question. If it is a movie, it is kind of okay to see death and mayhem. But if it is real life, we should be be disturbed by the horror, and feeling great compassion for the victims. If the preacher was expressing an obvious fiction with no connection to reality, it would be somehow sort of acceptable for the congregation to appreciate the message and (maybe even) enjoy it—- maybe. But if he is expressing reality, how could people not be moved mightily and cry out against such injustice?

William Carnegie brings the question in for thought here. If we have compassion… if we have empathy… how should we react to the idea that some people have no hope— their only future is one of absolute and unending horror.

How does one reconcile a strict form of Calvinism with Missions and how does one reconcile it with Compassion or Empathy? For me, I don’t really consider myself a Calvinist. In college I thought I was maybe a 3.5 or 4-point Calvinist (the 5th point was a matter of sophistry in my opinion… and that has not changed). But over time, I struggled finding much I could agree with. I am maybe a 2-point Calvinist which I suppose is not high enough to make me a Calvinist. I am not Arminian either. I feel there is a lot of healthy space in between those two groups.

But I still wonder. I know people in missions who are Calvinists. They like to say that their Calvinism drives their Missions. Historically, that has not been the case. Historically, such as 18th century England and 19th century America, Calvinism hobbled missions. And even in the case of William Carey, a missionary who came from a Calvinist group, his argument for doing missions was not that his theology informed his missions, but rather that Jesus commanded all Christians to evangelize. One must never use one’s theology to contradict God’s command. I spoke recently with a 5-point Calvinist who was on a short-term mission, and he was trying to explain how his theology “just made sense.” He worded his doctrine in such vague language that almost any Christian could agree with the language. But the language hid valid disagreements rather than informed. I left not knowing if the guy actually understood what he believed, and whether he knew how deceptive his presentation was.

In the end, however, I rather agree with William Carey. It is not really critical the exact details of minor theological points as long as one doesn’t use them to undermine Christ’s clear instructions to us.

Karl Barth was a Calvinist (or maybe post-Calvinist). In his later years he appeared to be a Universalist… believing that all people will, ultimately, be saved by God. A theologian friend of mine had made the suggestion that this was the most obvious way of reconciling a firm belief in strong Calvinism and the clear doctrine of God being Just and Loving. God can be just and loving while ramdomly choosing who to save and who to damn, if He saves everyone. I am not a Universalist, but then I am also not a Calvinist.

But I know many Calvinists do not follow the path of Barth in this area. I also know that the so-called “Neo-Calvinist” movement has been linked to a certain culture of ‘Christian machismo.’ I am not sure what to make of that. However, the macho or machismo quality has some qualities that may be a bit insightful. Machismo is often typified by being Strong, Unwavering, Independent, and Sexually Virile/Active. In Christian circles sexually active may not be seen so positively, but perhaps that has been replaced in being more gender complementarian or maybe being a “guy’s guy” in some way. But one thing that doesn’t really typify the label of “machismo” is being compassionate or empathetic. More often it is seen in being “cool” or a bit emotionally detached. The Westminster Catechism (a doctrinal guide for some Calvinists) describes God as Impassible— not having passions, or at least not being guided by those feelings. Since the most common emotion used to describe Jesus was His compassion (feeling the pain and sorrow of another), and that His compassion actually guided His actions, I struggle to see how Impassibility is a Biblical doctine. But it may be part of the explanation for the growth of Calvinist machismo. It is much easier to deal with death and torture of those we know, if we idealize a general lack of empathy or a lack of compassion.

I don’t have an answer to all of this. As I said, I am not a Calvinist, but I dwell in the tension between different schools of thought. I have found nothing that completely satisfies me. But I feel that all of us should wrestle with the same things that concerned William Carnegie.

Conversion or Fulfillment?

I have posted before on the question of whether we all worship the same god or not. I noted that when it comes to the Abrahamic religions– most notably Christianity, Judaism, and Islam– there is a lot of discussion as to Willi-Heidelbachwhether or not we worship the same God. The same question could equally apply to religions that have as their center of worship a god who is the creator of all things. Some of these may be described as polytheistic or henotheistic, but really only have one being that they worship who is truly ultimate.

Some say NO. Since the characteristics of the god each worships is different, then clearly each worships a different god. The challenge with this view is two-fold. First, it works against a missiological connection. Missionaries have often used a group’s belief in a creator god as a starting point for bringing in Biblical revelation. Second, since there are perhaps no two people who completely imagine God identically, and no single person who has ever envisioned God as he truly is, a NO response opens the door to the bigger question of whether anyone truly worships God in both spirit and truth.

Some say YES. If there is only one God, it is almost nonsensical to say we worship different gods. However, with different faiths have so radically different descriptions of god, how can we really say that the object of our worship is really the same?

I suggested an intermediate response before of NO, BUT

That is, No we don’t worship the same God, But we SEEK to worship the same God. This is most clearly true in the case of the Abrahamic faiths, since all of them seek to worship the God of Abraham as revealed in the Torah. However, any group that worships the one creator god could be seen as seeking the same object of their worship.

With further reflection, I would like to add another answer that does not replace “no but,” but does enhance the answer. The answer is YES, BUT

That is, Yes we do worship the same God, But some do not know the God they worship.

This answer is quite supportable in Scripture. In John 4, Jesus seems to give this answer to the woman of the Samaritan faith, an Abrahamic faith.

“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.  Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.

John 4:19-23

Jesus appears to acknowledge that the Samaritans worship the same God as the Jews, but it is a god they do not know.

The same could be said regarding non-Abrahamic faiths. In Acts 17, Paul links the God of the Bible, rhetorically to Zeus and to Deus. In Acts 14, Paul and Barnabas note that they are speaking of the living god who created all things who has revealed himself and his goodness to all nations at all times. These presentations of the Gospel also could be viewed as consistent with a message to people who ultimately worship the same god, but one that they don’t truly know.

There is not a lot of difference between NO BUT and YES BUT. Yet there is some reason to value YES BUT.

A major value is that it offers the possibility of reframing Conversion as Fulfillment.

Some of the Hill tribes of Myanmar and India for example, worshiped the god who created all things, but they believed that they had failed in losing the Great Book that was once given to them. Many of them, now Christians, do not see the transition in terms of rejecting their former faith, and conversion to a new faith. Rather, they see themselves as believing the faith of their ancestors, but now fulfilled with a restored book and Savior.

This is not so different from the first century Jewish Christians who saw their faith in terms of a fulfillment of the faith of their forefathers, rather than a replacement. I believe the Samaritans could also see acceptance of the Gospel of Christ in terms of a fulfillment of their ancestor’s faith rather than a replacement.

Could the gospel of Isa fulfill the faith of those who have followed what was established by Muhammad, Bahá’u’lláh, or Nanak? Can God’s revelation in the Bible fulfill other faiths as well?


Among Them and Overwhelmed

Quote from PGJ Meiring’s article, “Max Warren and His Seven Rules for a Dialogue Between Christians and Non-Christians. “Actually, the article was originally written in Afrikaaner (Max Warren en sy sewe reëls vir ’n dialoog tussen Christene en nie-Christene” DEEL 47 # 3 & 4 SEPTEMBER & DECEMBER 2006, P. 588-599.)

The fourth rule/principle is “Identification.” Here is a rough translation of an excerpt of Meiring’s article regarding Identification:

Preparation of the Prophet Ezekiel

The fourth principle probably asks the most of the conversation partners: the willingness to identify as far as possible with the other person’s life and conditions he lives in. It asks you to understand “the language of his heart”. It does not come naturally of itself: it requires imagination, endurance, humility and much love. Warren loved to refer to the example of the prophet Ezekiel, the prophet to the exiles in Babylon, sent with an all-important message from the Lord. Even though Ezekiel cannot be in the modern sense a “missionary” – after all, he is a prophet sent to his own people – he provides a model for all to consider as the Lord prepared him for his preaching task. Before the prophet was sent to speak, he had to first experience and learn to listen – and this is a lesson that every missionary in our day needs to seriously consider.

In the Authorized Version, Ezekiel 3:15 is translated as: “I came to them of the captivity … and I sat where they sat, and remained astonished among them for seven days “. The Revised Standard Version translates this slightly differently: “I came to them of the captivity … and I sat there overwhelmed among them for seven days”. The emphasis is different, says Warren: the first-mentioned translation emphasizes Ezekiel’s “entering into the experience of the exiles” while the latter “the ‘Overwhelming’ character of what the prophet experienced by joining these exiles where they were ” is emphasized (Warren, 1960: 60vv).

Both emphases are important: first of all, we must meet people where they are, we must “Sit where they sit”. We must understand their situation – their joy and their pain and how these experiences influence their views and beliefs (Warren, 1960: 17). “You and I can not bring men to Christ by whistling to them at a distance. We have to go and meet them, as God does, and psychologically speaking, this means coming to them imaginatively where they imagine themselves to be “(Warren, 1955: 31). The second emphasis, however, is just as important: that we become “Stunned.” We find ourselves speechless because we find it so difficult to really understand the other because their need is so great, and we are struggling to make clear the salvation of Christ because our vocabulary is too inadequate. But also speechless because we experience God already there, that He has already made his voice heard in the situation (Warren,1960: 17).

Encountering Theology of Mission

I recently finished reading Encountering Theology of Mission: Biblical Foundations, Historical Developments, and Contemporary Issues, by Craig Ott, Stephen J. Strauss, and Timothy C. Tennent. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I enjoy Mission Theology, and have long been concerned that much of missions has a sort of Machiavellian quality to it (do what seems to work), partly due to a failure to recognize the foundational nature of theology to sound ministry practice.9780801026621

I read as an interested party rather than a reviewer. As such, I probably lack the critical eye needed to give a proper analysis of the work. What I can say is that I felt that the first two parts (‘Biblical Foundations of Mission’ and ‘Motives and Means for Mission’) were excellent giving a good overview of the subject matter. Although clearly from an Evangelical perspective, the picture given was broader, and appropriately tentative, commonly, with regards to conclusions.

Perhaps I need to read it again, but the third part (‘Mission in Local and Global Context’) left me rather unsatisfied. It seemed to me that the coverage of contextualization of theology was inadequate, with no serious mention, as I recall, of evaluating localized theologies. I think the weakest section was the final chapter, dealing with ‘The Necessity of Mission: Three Uncomfortable Questions.’ It seemed like the rather balanced and theological tone of the previous chapters disappeared, and was replaced by a more apologetic approach to some awkward questions in Evangelical circles. There is a tendency here to challenge the arguments for non-traditional viewpoints (to an Evangelical) with equally disputable arguments. To be fair, they were dealing with tough questions that will always be open to honest disagreement, and maybe I am being unfair since my views may not be entirely in line with the authors in this section.

For me the strongest section would probably be chapter 6 where I feel the authors did an excellent job of dealing with the difficult balance of “Spiritual” and “Social” aspects of Missions. Additionally, the historical and contemporary motivations and understanding of mission tasks I felt to again be fair and address intelligently the diversity that has been associated with the Christian mission.

All in all, those interested in theology or missions (or theology and missions) should find this book interesting and valuable. To me, it establishes a good foundation historically and biblically for viewing a number of issues regarding theology of mission. At its strongest, I found it greatly rewarding without getting bogged down in minutiae. Even in its less strong points, it still provides a good starting point for additional research. Of recent books that I have read on a theological or biblical foundation for missions, I would place it second only to C.J.H. Wright’s book, “The Mission of God.” And compared to Wright’s book, this book is shorter and more accessible. That does have its advantages.  Bosch’s book “Transforming Mission” is hard for me to compare to this book because of the years separating the reading. I guess I would have to say that one should really read all three books… and value each one for its own strengths.