Two Ways of Thinking about Religion (Languages of God, Part I)

A friend of mine tells a story that has stuck with me for twenty years now. A kindly older gentleman came into the store where she worked during her summer vacations in university and asked after a certain product. Unfortunately for my friend, her customer spoke with a thick Scottish brogue and she couldn’t understand a word he said. Unfortunately for her customer, she spoke a clipped Canadian English and he couldn’t understand a word she said. They were both speaking English, and they were both native speakers of English, and yet their dialects were so different that they could find little common ground for understanding one another. 

I love this story. At a basic level, I enjoy it because my undergraduate degree is in linguistics and so language stories fascinate me. But on a deeper level, I love it because it illustrates that communication isn’t always easy, even when we’re speaking the same language. And for this reason, I believe language is a helpful metaphor through which we can understand talk about God. I’d like to explore this metaphor in a short series here on the blog and today I’m going to start by talking about the difference between descriptive and prescriptive approaches to grammar and how they connect to how we talk and think about God. 

One of the first things taught in an introductory linguistics class is the difference between descriptive grammar — describing how a language works — and prescriptive grammar — an attempt to determine how a language should work. From a descriptive perspective, something is grammatical as long as it conveys the intended meaning: if you and I speak the same language and you understand what I’m trying to say, it’s grammatical. A prescriptive perspective, on the other hand, argues that something is grammatical only if it obeys certain external rules, often determined by received tradition and established authorities. This is the “grammar” you may remember from middle school, with its rules about dangling prepositions and split infinitives. 

Descriptive approaches allow for more diversity and creativity than prescriptive approaches. They tend to look at the phenomenon of language with curiosity, awe and wonder; language is a mystery to explore that will never be fully understood. Language is a given and to say that a way of expressing something is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ is as silly as saying a sunset or a tree is wrong. 

But it is not a case of descriptive approaches being ‘good’ and prescriptive approaches ‘bad’; both have their place. Having prescriptive authorities in a language allows for greater coherence and thereby improves communication within a large language community, both across geography but also across time. Because we have a standard (prescriptive) grammar for written English, there is no communication barrier between me and someone writing in Australia, even though our spoken dialects are quite different. Similarly, because the Qur’an has such a strong centripetal force within the Arabic-speaking world, it has helped to keep Arabic’s now very diverse dialects from separating into different languages.

I’ll go into greater detail about how these two approaches play out when we think and talk about religion and spirituality in future posts, but by way of introduction, again I think that both have their place. A descriptive approach allows us to see faith and spirituality as it is in a community and around the world. It looks at the seven billion humans on the planet — each with their own unique beliefs about life’s big questions — and looks for patterns within them, both patterns in how they are similar and in how they are different. It’s an approach that allows for disciplines like anthropology and religious studies, but also for ecumenism and interfaith dialogue. It explores faith from a place of curiosity without a concern for who does or believes the ‘right’ things. 

A prescriptive approach to faith, on the other hand, is the realm of catechesis, creed, and canon. It’s what allows any particular faith tradition to have content and substance, and allows faith communities to determine the boundaries of membership. Of course in any conversation about rules and boundaries, the question has to be asked about whose rules they are: Who is setting the boundary and on what grounds? As much as these are uncomfortable questions for any religious community, they are also helpful for understanding about what the community trusts and values. 

My own journey with these approaches might be helpful for explaining why I think they’re useful. For a long time, and likely for a combination of reasons involving my age, personality, and circumstances, I thought about faith almost exclusively in prescriptive terms. While I was enthusiastic about descriptivism when looking at language, when it came to the important truth claims of my faith the question of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ was of the utmost importance. On the rare occasion when I looked at other faith traditions, it was still from this prescriptive perspective that was less interested in what they had to say than how they were different from my own tradition (and therefore ‘wrong’). It took the collapse of my faith for me to be able to engage other traditions through a descriptive lens. But when I did, this process of learning about other religions with an open heart ended up giving me the tools I needed to re-engage with my Christian faith in a renewed way.

Taking this approach to faith didn’t make me ‘less’ Christian; what it did was open my eyes to parts of my tradition I hadn’t been able to see before. For example, encountering the Buddha’s teaching on non-attachment allowed me to see how central this idea was to Jesus’ teaching too; and re-encountering the story of Israel not only as “the one who wrestled with God,” but as the one who has never stopped wrestling with God, reframed faith for me in a way that enabled me to re-engage with God again. 

I think there’s much more to say about all this, so stay tuned if you’re at all interested in exploring this metaphor in greater depth.

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