The Language of Faith

Sunday, 22 November 2015

The Language of Faith

Good morning, and thanks, Donald, for inviting me. It is always a pleasure to come to chapel, as I do from time to time. I have to admit the chapel choir is a major attraction, as the music adds so much to the service. I also enjoy the wide variety of preachers – and certainly never thought I would be one of them.
My background, with regard to attending Sunday services has been very mixed. I was initially brought up in the Anglican Church, in Cheshire, but at the age of seven, my family moved to Northern Ireland, where our local parish church was Presbyterian. I don’t think my mother even knew what that was, and it was certainly a big change from the church in England in the sixties. Added to this change was the fact that I was convinced nobody spoke English – my first memory is going to the local 2-teacher primary school where the children kept asking ‘wha’ they ca’ ye’?’. Needless to say, within a few weeks, I could speak broad Northern Irish! This experience was perhaps my first encounter with language, which was to become a major fascination for me. I went on to learn Gaelic at a school I attended in the south, along with French and Latin. I later moved to Methodist College in Belfast and took up Spanish and German, then during my undergraduate study in Exeter, I picked up Italian. Now, I am working on Portuguese.

My years in Ireland also made me very aware of people having very different ways of thinking and talking about Christianity, though nobody seemed able to articulate their beliefs. It was clearly a cultural matter, and you were born into one path or another. So now, after years of living in England, Belgium, France, Nigeria, and now Scotland, where I have the privilege to work almost entirely with international students, I have come to ponder how faith can be put into words, and since there are said to be around 6,500 languages in the world, how can we communicate our beliefs? Do we all believe the same things?

The two elements of my talk are language and faith. The first, language, is defined as uniquely human, and a human universal. Practically everyone acquires language, and in fact a large proportion speak two languages. Sadly, the English speakers are the biggest monolingual group! The human brain is genetically programmed to be able to acquire language, by deducing the patterns through exposure to the language in the environment.

We use language to communicate, to formulate our thoughts, and to consider the past, present and future.
Equally, all humans have the capacity for religious faith. We are aware of our mortality, and faith helps us understand the world around us and cope with life. But we need language to express this, and as our cognitive abilities developed, so did our understanding of God. We are made in the image of God – so, you may ask, how is this linked to language? John’s gospel begins with the words you have all read at the gate to St Mary’s – in principio erat verbum. John glances back here to the beginning, recorded in Genesis and affirms that he who was afterwards manifest as the Christ existed before creation began; that he was present with God; that he was divine; that he was the Word; that by or through him were all things made that were made. The first chapter of Genesis helps us to understand its meaning. God said, “Let there be light,” “Let there be a firmament,” “Let the earth bring forth,” etc., and it was done. God exhibits his creative power through the Word, and manifests his will through the Word. There are mysteries belonging to the divine nature and to the relation between the Son and the Father that we have to wait for eternity to solve. They are too deep for human solution, but this much is clear: that God creates and speaks to man through the Word. As we clothe our thoughts in words, God reveals his will by the Word, and when that Word is clothed in flesh, as the Teacher of men, we recognize it as Jesus Christ – And the word was made flesh, and dwelt among us – the Word assumed a human form and became incarnate as the child of Mary.

So, right from the beginning of Genesis, we are introduced to the Word, and are told that we are made in the image of God. Scripture never provides an explicit definition of the image of God, but there are a number of contextual clues. We read that humans are created in the context of a covenant – a solemn relationship between two parties, with mutual promises and obligations. This can only be accomplished through language. Language is what enables us to recount history, make commands, and offer promises. If being made in the image of God implies a covenant relationship, and this relationship requires language, then we must conclude that language is an essential part of our identity as human beings.
Furthermore, in Genesis we read that God speaks the world into existence through his creative word, so language is essential, not only to humanity, but also to divinity, which supports the idea that being made in the image of God means imitating God – in principio erat Verbum, et Verbum erat apud Deum, et Deus erat Verbum.
Yet there are problems; can we use language like God? What are we doing when we are talking about God? Are we stating truths, facts, how things are, in a way that is similar to how science describes the world? One problem with thinking that talk about God makes statements about the world is that we cannot establish the truth about such claims via sense experience.

This is where language, the word, the very human characteristic that gives us the ability to talk about anything, and that is inextricably linked with our beliefs and thoughts, seems to me to be problematic. How does language have a meaning if it doesn’t state facts? Wittgenstein argued, in his Philosophical Investigations, that we cannot understand language without understanding the ways in which language is used and how it interacts with how we live and what we do. He attempted to illuminate the nature of language by comparing it to games. Like games, language is guided by rules – and the rules guide what one can do; in language, the rules are used to make meaning.
So meaning is often a matter not only of the words we use, but how we use them – the denotation and connotations of words. Consider the sentences ‘the bus passes the bus stop’ and ‘the peace of the Lord passes all understanding’. The meaning is clearly not given by words alone. Meaning is given by how the speaker uses the words and in what context. Every speaker sees the world from his own particular perspective. This leads to what I find the most interesting part – how can we share our faith and beliefs across languages when even within one language there is so much scope for making different meanings? Since coming to Scotland, how many of you have had to learn new words and new meanings? Have you learned to describe the weather as dreich? And that to be full means, not that you’ve had enough to eat, but too much to drink?

Sapir and his student Whorf believed that the language you speak shapes your thoughts – so how can we share a faith if we speak a different language? Humboldt before them declared that ‘there resides in every language a characteristic worldview. As the individual sound stands between man and the object, so the entire language steps in between him and the nature that operates, both inwardly and outwardly, upon him’. The worldview embodied in a language is seen as a positive force, producing national unity not only in its linguistic but also its cultural and social dimensions. Its only negative aspect is that no individual can ever fully escape the worldview of his mother tongue.

So again, how can we share our thoughts and beliefs, first even with speakers of our own language, and be sure that they understand what we mean? If I understand God in a particular way, and you in another, can we share our understanding of God?

Let us have a look at Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, where the meaning of love is so beautifully expressed. But we must be careful in interpreting this, because much hangs on how we define love. I first realised the difficulty of interpreting this word when I realised that, while in English, we can love practically anything – our phone, our car and our partner – not necessarily in that order, in Spanish ‘amar’ the verb to love, does not have those meanings, but is restricted to love for one’s husband or wife. For other loves, we need ‘querer’ or ‘gustar’. In Greek, the language Paul wrote his letters in, there were several words for love. Paul used ‘agape’ to express the unconditional kind of love that God expressed toward us through Christ. It implies loving when there is nothing worthy to evoke love. To complicate matters further, some translations of the Bible translate this concept as charity. Paul begins ‘if ! speak with the tongues of men and angels’. This is a rhetorical way of referring to all possible speech. Then he writes ‘if ! have the gift of prophecy and know all the mysteries of knowledge…’ again language is required. He then describes love as patient, perhaps longsuffering; kind – useful and gracious; not jealous, meaning to boil with envy; not arrogant or ‘puffed out like a pair of bellows’, and so forth. This passage really underlines the difficulty of translating from the original Greek, and then makes one wonder how this is achieved in other languages.
So what do we believe, and how can we share it? Is my God the same as yours? I don’t think it matters. We use language to try to communicate our beliefs with others. We share prayers and study groups, and we all come away with our own view of the ‘peace of God that passeth all understanding’. Faith doesn’t need words, it is inside and cannot be expressed. We all share a common faith but express it differently, experience it differently, wherever we are, whoever we are, and whatever language we speak.