Interfaith Learning as Foreign Language Acquisition (Languages of God, V)

The previous post in this series on using linguistic analogies to understand religious differences talked about the idea of language games. You may have noticed that in that post I only talked about differences within a particular religion, and not differences between religions. This was intentional. 

While intellectually speaking, engaging with a completely different belief system functions in the same way as engaging with a different tradition within one’s own religion, I think the pitfalls of approaching other faiths with the language games analogy far outweigh the benefits. Language games work on the assumption of a shared basic grammar.

The reason you can alter the phonology or sentence structure and not impede communication is because the rest of the grammar stays the same. This makes the analogy work really well for differences within a religious tradition — all Christians share the same basic grammar of wanting tell and live out the story of Jesus — but makes it far less appropriate for thinking about other religions. It would make a false assumption of essential similarity that would be more likely to promote misunderstanding than understanding. At its worst, and often unintentionally, this approach can also easily slip into a colonizing or culturally appropriating attitude: The wisdom of the world is there for us to learn, appreciate, and share in — with humility and respect — but it is not there for us to mine, exploit, and put on and take off as a kind of intellectual costume. 

So, I think it’s wiser, more respectful, and more accurate to treat learning about another religion like foreign language acquisition, and conversing between that faith and my own as an exercise in translation. 

If I were to travel to Japan, before I could understand people or make myself understood, or even know what we’re talking about in the first place, I would need to either learn Japanese or find a good translation. While both are good options, neither is problem-free. Languages rarely have one-to-one correspondence between words, particularly when it comes to concepts instead of things, and so translation is always fraught and always partial. 

And just as important for our purposes, while you can learn another language, your native tongue will always be your default, and even after many years, you’ll likely still speak with an accent. 

Similarly, when it comes to talk about God, it’s important to remember that when encountering other traditions, we’re either translating another belief system into our own words and concepts — thereby changing it — or we’re speaking the language of that faith as a “foreign language,” with greater or lesser fluency depending on our background and how long and how seriously we’ve been studying. There is a lot of room here for misunderstanding and misappropriation, and so we must be very careful before making any grand pronouncements of similarity or difference between traditions. 

Two examples from the Western engagement with Buddhism come to mind as helpful. First, last year, I came across an interesting debate within Buddhism in the English-speaking world about whether ‘forgiveness’ is a Buddhist concept. Some teachers will speak of it as an inherent part of the process of meeting suffering head on; others note that Buddhism doesn’t use the ‘debt’ imagery, making talk of ‘forgiveness’ strange, and that the dharma is inherently far more about ensuring our present and future actions are right than it is about our attitudes towards what others have done to us in the past. This is essentially a question of language acquisition: Is this idea “genuinely” Buddhist (from a prescriptivist perspective), or is it just Westerners speaking Buddhist with a thick (culturally) Judeo-Christian accent?

The second example comes from Brother David Steindle-Rast, a Benedictine monk who spent many years among Buddhist monks. He spoke of his immersive interfaith experience as a kind of spiral of similarity and difference — something many translators would find relatable: “There are many different levels,” he said. “On one level there are great cultural differences … But the moment that you penetrate through the accidental cultural differences, you find a remarkable similarity …. Then you go deeper still and you discover profound differences in approach … But then, if you go still deeper down … you can experience communion and unity between the traditions” (“Become What You Are,” Interview by John Loudon with Brother David Steindle-Rast, Parabola 7.4). And so on. Learning another worldview is spiralic: a constant encounter with similarity and difference.

Looking at interfaith learning as an exercise in foreign language acquisition also allows for conversation and understanding amidst differences. What we can learn from one another goes far beyond what we have in common. Sometimes we can encounter a word in another language that is so helpful we can’t help but incorporate it into our own: Think of how common the German word Schadenfreude has become in English over the past couple decades; it was a useful concept and the German word filled a void we didn’t know we had. The same can work for ideas and concepts. 

But more often, for me at least, what is helpful in learning about other religions or languages isn’t an idea or concept, but the simple fact that they come at everything from such a different angle. They ‘ask’ such different questions from my belief system that they provide an insight into the world that I would have otherwise missed. Fore example, the verb systems of languages can be classified typologically in terms of whether at their core they are based on a) when the action happens in time, b) how the action happens through time, and c) how the action relates to the people or objects engaged with it. Learning about this taught me something new about my own language (English is actually in the second of those categories, not the first — surprise!), but also opened my eyes to seeing the world through the lens of the third category. (Incidentally, this is how Hebrew functions, so it’s helpful to understand this to understand the thought world of the Hebrew Bible!) The answers to these basic questions aren’t necessarily contradictory — they don’t necessarily make different truth claims — but are simply different sets of questions through which to explore the world.

Again, I find this a helpful way of looking at different faith traditions. Much of the difference between religions is less about the answers they have to life’s big questions than it is about which big questions they ask. The essential question of Buddhism, which is “What is the root of suffering?” but practically speaking turns into something like, “How do we survive having a brain?” is very different from the essential question of my own tradition. But it’s definitely a helpful one. 

In fact, because of this very different question, in the aftermath of my Dark Night that left me spiritually and intellectually desolate, Buddhism gave me the intellectual and philosophical tools to knit myself and my life story back together. When I eventually read the Gospels again, this encounter with Buddhism allowed me to see Jesus in a new way and opened up depths in Jesus’ teaching on the ego and attachment that I either hadn’t seen before or had previously marginalized or ignored. 

Similarly, telling a friend the story of Israel (“without any Jesus stuff”) gave me an ‘in’ that allowed me to reclaim my place within the Christian story (with all its Jesus stuff!). And later, reading rabbinic writings provided me with an approach to reading Scripture that freed me to read it again for myself with greater curiosity and openness. 

I am not a Buddhist, nor am I Jewish. I am a Christian. I know that when I incorporate the wisdom of these traditions into my life, I am doing so with a thick Christian accent. I don’t think this is essentially disrespectful or appropriative so long as I recognize what I’m doing and engage with those ideas with humility and gratitude.

This series has grown unexpectedly — originally it was going to be just one post, then two, then three, and now here we are… — but I think there’s just one more aspect I want to return to before leaving these linguistic analogies. In the next (and, I think last) post, I’ll return to the idea of prescriptive grammar and think through the need for rules and definitions in our faith and God talk.

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