Friday, July 31, 2009

Language and God

Conversations with people from different religions, including atheists and agnostics, have peaked my curiosity on the direct correlation between language and God.

The following encounters make me wonder whether language shapes the way we think of, speak of, believe in, approach, and ultimately worship God. Two Mormon missionaries visited, leaving behind copies of The Book of Mormon and some pamphlets on family living. A Christian used the New Testament to argue that God's will for divorced couples with children is always for them to reconcile. An agnostic lectured me on how religious types give the impression of having God figured out. What texts do agnostics adhere to, I wonder?

Did YHWH call Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David? Did Paul encounter the risen Christ on the road to Damascus? Did Muhammed receive revelations from Allah? Did Joseph Smith have a religious experience? I have no doubt. A tension arises though, felt by most people when they encounter someone with a different belief system. This tension stems from being right and making others wrong. What I believe must be right. Anything else must be wrong. Whatever is wrong becomes a threat to my personal belief system.

The right-wrong approach has its limits when trying to understand conflicting religious beliefs. Paying attention to language can perhaps help. Christians use the word 'Trinity' to describe God in three persons. The Koran outright criticizes Christians for having this belief. Trinitarian doctrine lies at the heart of many divisions, not only between Christians and non-Christians, but among Christians. Language can be problematic. How can you capture a mystery or religious experience with words? The Mormon missionaries who visited had never heard the word "incarnation." They did not know what the word meant and that it pertained to Jesus' virgin birth. These examples may seem trivial, yet they reveal something important. Trinitarian language and incarnational language, for example, give rise to a specific religious context. Such language reinforces what it is exactly Christians/Catholics believe. Different interpretations of such language, however, bring about the need for ecumenism.

I am hardly a proponent of religious pluralism. My subjective, first-hand experiences of Jesus Christ as God cannot be denied. I have no doubt that Christ's intervention has made it possible for me to be alive today. At the same time, it is clearly the case that the Bible, the Koran, The Book of Mormon are all deemed sacred by their adherents, that each of these texts reflects the religious experiences of its writers. The language of each deserves greater credit for influencing, shaping, and reinforcing entire religious communities and traditions. Religious tolerance is a human construct. Understanding each others' language and relating to one other on the level of human being--a divine one.