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I work as a teacher, poet and spiritual director at a number of institutions in the DC area. My teaching focuses in various ways on writing, poetry, Spirituality and Christian vocation and ministry - especially from the point of view of the laity. I also offer classes and retreats encouraging people to explore their inner lives, engage their creativity and reflect on their beliefs about God, vocation, and how we can discern and pursue new ways to transform our broken world. I enjoy speaking of faith in the secular academy as well as reminding those preparing for ministry in the Church that our primary purpose is to love and serve the world beyond the church's doors. I love helping people to grow in faith and to find their own voices, and I also love encouraging them to use their minds. I see no contradiction between these impulses, believing as I do that faith, reason and creativity work together.

Monday, November 5, 2007

The Language God Speaks - Musings on an Interfaith Conversation

Also on Episcopal Cafe, November 14 2007

I’m teaching an Honors seminar at the University of Maryland this semester called “Ideas of God in Scripture and Literature,” and we spend the first six weeks or so on Scripture and interpretive traditions in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. I brought in a Muslim colleague and a Jewish rabbi, on separate days, to speak to the class on the idea of God in the Qu’ran and on the Rabbinic interpretive tradition, or midrash.

Describing the rabbis’ attention to the Hebrew text, ever “jot and tittle” of it in their often creative interpretations, the Rabbi told the students “the conceit is that God speaks Hebrew,” so the words of the Hebrew text are themselves sacred. At the previous class, the students had heard from my Muslim colleague that in effect God speaks Arabic, since Muslims regard the text of the Qu’ran as literally God’s words, dictated to the Prophet Muhammad. In conversations with these colleagues and my students we also explored the idea that each monotheistic tradition reveres a means of revelation – a way that the transcendent, distant God has made godself available to human perceptions: for the Jews, it is through Torah. For the Muslims, it is through the Qu’ran; For Christians, it is through a human being, Jesus, the Word of God incarnate. Whenever I engage in these interfaith conversations (as I do each time I teach the course), I find myself believing, and joyfully, that deep down, it is all the same revelation, that God just keeps trying to get through to us, calling us home.

Each time the class comes to this interfaith conversation, I gain new insights. This year it has been about this question of the language God “speaks.” If the Jews say that God speaks Hebrew, and the Muslims that God speaks Arabic, what language do we Christians say that God speaks? Our revelation is not so much through a text as through a human being, Jesus, (and, however unlikely this seems sometimes, through his body, the Church visible and invisible). What is the human language that translates this revelation? What is the language God speaks, for us?

After some reflection, I decided that the language God speaks, in Christianity, is the language of Pentecost: the gospel is proclaimed in all the languages, through all the cultural frameworks, of the world. As people learn to read Scripture for themselves, in translation, this is magnified, as each reader brings his/her own life experience and point of view to the reading of the story of the gospel. But we read the gospel story, revealed in Scripture, each in our own language, in order to come to know and follow the Living Christ.. That has made the interpretation of the gospel both challenging and lively as Christianity has spread across classes and cultures, some core of it always surviving, miraculously it sometimes seems.

The Rabbinic tradition of midrash holds that every new interpretation of Scripture, if it is faithful and connected to the text, adds to the sum of human knowledge of the divine revelation – even when the new insight contradicts the insight of other rabbis. Without admitting it, I think Christians at our best also adopt that attitude: Brian McLaren, in A Generous Orthodoxy, speaks of 21st century Christianity as a potluck supper to which each tradition brings something valuable, and the point is that we share the feast together. I would add, we share it in the company of the same Host. Not that truth isn’t important; of course it is. But since none of us will ever completely grasp the mystery of God and God’s love for us, isn’t the most important thing the lively and engaged pursuit of understanding, and of genuine Christian discipleship, in fellowship with one another?

I don’t think this is the vision that my Honors students have of Christianity. They see us as being mainly occupied with who’s in and who’s out, who is going to Heaven and who is going to Hell. And that is the underside of the language of our faith: that we have heard the gospel in so many different languages, we scramble to find some kind of of ordering principle that will distinguish “us” from “them”, “myself” from the “other.”

But, good Anglican that I am, I believe that there is a “both/and” that is the bottom line in our faith, the one we should be claiming in the 21st century. We quote Galatians 3:28 in the service of many agendas, but it continues to hold out a vision for us of who we are called to be. When will the world see Christians living as if this were truly our core belief: that God speaks the language of every people and every nation, and that differences, though real, are not the bottom line? ”There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Gal 3:28-29)

6 comments:

  1. Great post Kathy. I really appreciate the thoughts on the "language" of God. So often we get caught up in the language we use around God, I've not given much thought to the language God uses around us.

    As I approached your guess of the language of Pentecost, I was thinking of the Reformers in positing that God speaks the language "of the people." - which I think is saying the same thing.

    A question - as you brought in McLaren's concept of the 7 Jesus' that we each hold some pieces and parts of the Truth - what do we do with the bad stuff; the pieces and parts of the Lie that each of us holds on to as well?

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  2. This is a good question, and one I've also been pondering, especially in my class where it's so painfully obvious how Christianity has been distorted for various cultural and political purposes, and some of my students will quote Foucault and talk about how religion has basically been used as a tool to shore up authority structures and solidify power.

    This is where a more "postmodern" lens proves interesting. The Lie, I suspect, turns up almost anywhere that we are classifying someone as "Other" and demonizing them, and especially when we are doing that in the name of Jesus. If we really believe that our common devotion to Christ is the bottom line, then it should be possible to let Him be the judge on ultimate doctrinal truth, and concentrate on relationships and compassion. I am learning this out of my experience worshipping in a multicultural congregation where we don't always agree on doctrine but we do have a common vision of ourselves as belonging to one another and to God.

    This isn't completely clear, but something about this question about the bad stuff is illuminated a little by Matthew 5:21-22 (that exaggerated language about insulting a brother or saying "you fool" making us liable to the hell of fire) and also 43-48. "Being perfect/holy" seems to be a lot about being together. Desmond Tutu puts it another way when he says that the radical message of Jesus is that we're called to be family--not to be equals or to be in agreement but to be family, to belong to one another.

    This is turning into a whole other post so I'll stop - does any of this make sense?

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  3. Thanks for the thoughts. I'd say that your assessment of the Lie is a good one; though the ways in which we define "us and them" is so broad that it brings in to question just about everything a denomination does; Vestry, Membership, Stewardship, Ordination, Vestments, Language, etc., etc.

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  4. Here is one question: Is it possible to define "us" without rejecting "them"? Something I've been pondering. Why does it seem so important to us to decide who's in and who's out? I don't know the answer - but these are the questions.

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  5. isn't that THE question? I mean we (the church) struggle with it on so many levels. I think your phrasing of the question rests on that "reject them" phrasing. Not being one prone to optimism I fear that we can't define "us" without rejecting "them" - but am hopeful that we can model Christ a define "us" while loving, honoring, and inviting "them" to walk with/beside "us". There hasn't been much work done to live this way, but it seems to be part of our call to holy living; embracing those who aren't "us".

    Still now answers, but the questions are good enough for me.

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  6. Steve
    Here's something I want to ponder some more: Is it really true that "we can't define 'us' without rejecting 'them'"? It certainly seems to be our pretty basic impulse, in community. But is it perhaps the call of the Church to be a new "us?" This is food for a further post, coming out of my experience in a really culturally and theologically diverse congregation. Mulling over this now. . . Stay tuned.

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