Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Religion as Language

I’ve been on a writing binge over the past week, but I haven’t actually written much. What I have done is developed a language that I always had in the back of my mind regarding one of my stories. I’ve given it an alphabet, a grammar structure (which is weak at the moment, but good enough for composing simple present-tense sentences), and a growing vocabulary, which has exploded this week. I’m no lingual expert. I can’t speak anything other than English, IPA spellings confuse me, and after four semesters of Latin, I still fumble on declensions. But I like studying languages. Language is the vehicle for civilization. As a group, we assign random symbols to reality so that we can communicate beyond gestures and grunts. We can express memories and desires and possibilities and abstracts. It’s beautiful. 

What’s also beautiful is how each language has its own beauty, its own personality, its own history. Arabic uses three grammatical numbers: singular, dual, and plural. A native Aboriginal language has no words for left or right; all directions are in relation to external directions (north, south, east, west). English is a hodgepodge, stolen off the tongues of invaders, and yet despite all the word stealing, English didn’t have a word for the color orange until the 1500s.

Whether people find language as interesting as I do or not, it’s still necessary to master a language. You can’t fully express yourself with a limited vocabulary. Happy is not the same as cheerful, joyful, ecstatic, pleased, or whimsical. The more precise the word, the better expressed the intent, and the better another person can understand another and build a connection.

The same can be said for religion. You don’t have to be a theological scholar, but you do need a certain level of mastery to best express faith as an adult. I think this is where religion loses a lot of teenagers/ young adults. They see the hash-tagged, mono-syllable version of religion and reject the entirety as shallow. They never learn the bigger vocabulary or see the well-formed structure behind the syntax. Yes, Christianity can be condensed down to, “Love God and love your neighbor.” That’s true at the most basic level, but a fuller understanding of Christianity involves knowing about Original Sin, the covenants, Christus Victor, and the Trinity.

Faith takes commitment. It takes submitting to a structure already in place, a heritage passed down. This isn't about arguing over which structure is "right" or "better." Rather it's about commitment to a tradition, becoming part of something larger than yourself. If everyone created their own language, no one could understand anyone else; knowledge could not be spread. The structure isn’t limiting; it’s freeing. If creating a language has taught me anything, it’s that I’m bad at it. But I don’t bear the burden of developing my own theology and hermeneutics to understand the divine. I learn from existing structure. I accept it or reject it, and then I move on. I focus on my relationship to God, my understanding, and my expression. Because I don’t have to build the foundation, I can flourish in the beauty and nuance.

(On a lighter note, while writing this, I started pairing off traditions with languages.Hinduism as Hindi. Islam as Arabic. Orthodoxy as Greek, Catholicism as Latin (obviously), the various Protestants as the various Romance languages, and Mormonism as Esperanto. Scientology can be Klingon.)

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