Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Learning the Language of Faith. . .

Yiddish is a High German language of Ashkenazi Jewish origin, spoken throughout the world. It developed as a fusion of German dialects with Hebrew, Aramaic, Slavic languages and traces of Romance languages. It is written in the Hebrew alphabet.  It is a language invented by the marriage of culture and religion, heritage and location.  Eventually it became a language in its own right but, at some point, it was a language born of people whose mother tongue was married with the language of the marketplace.  As successful as Yiddish became, it is still a symbol of a mixture of things that the Old Testament sought to make distinct -- the language and culture of the people of God from the language and culture of the world around them.

Modern Christians have come to believe that we have no common language.  We adopt the language of our location both in worship and witness.  It is as if Christianity were merely a message that had no culture or identity of its own.  Some have suggested that the success of Christianity is its ability to transcend all cultures, languages, and elasticities.  Others see success as when the language of Christianity is married to the local tongue in a fusion of faith and culture that mimics the formation of a language such as Yiddish. While there is much truth in this, there is also a fallacy or myth -- that Christianity has no language of its own.

Christianity does have a language distinct and, sometimes, in opposition to local culture.  The language of Christianity is first of all the language of Scripture.  Our vocabulary and our manner of speaking the faith is shaped by the Scriptures in the same way that the kerygma or content of that message is molded by the Scriptures.  It is not "our" story but the story of Christ that has become both the language and the message we witness to and before the world.  Our story is THE story -- the core and center of our identity and our proclamation are rooted in and shaped by the Scriptures in such way that they cannot be distinguished.  Style and substance are one for the church's proclamation of the Gospel.

Secondly, the language of the Church is the language of the liturgy.  What we do together is not an option to us or even a choice by us but that which the Lord has given to us in the Word and Table.  The liturgy is its own culture, language, and identity.  It is not, as some would suggest, borne of any particular age or "Imperial" culture but represents a development that has spanned several eras but is largely rooted in Scripture itself.  The Christian is initiated into this language and culture first through baptism, then catechesis, and finally experiences this in the regular rhythm of the Eucharist on the Lord's Day.

Finally, the language of the Church is the language of time but not the chronos of the world with its attention to the moment.  Rather, the Church is in synch with the kairos of God's acts and God's fullness of time.  The Church Year is by intention disconnected from the earthly measure of time and its passage and directs the person instead to the saving acts of God in Christ and the teaching of Christ that accompanies the events themselves.  In this way we are both prepared for and reflect the once and eternal nature of our lives, rooted in Christ's death and resurrection.

Learning the language of faith is then learning the language of Scripture, the language and culture of the liturgy, and the shape of time reflected by the Church Year.  This is no fusion of sacred and secular or even the triumph of sacred over secular but the transcendent Word and actions of God that makes the Christian in but not of the world.  I frankly do not see how it is possible to be Christian and not to learn and be formed by this language and culture.  While it may have been the sin of the past to identify the language and culture of the Church with one particular earthly culture and language, it is no less the sin of the present to suggest that the Church and the faith have no language and no distinct culture or identity (other than the one in which it is located at any given time and place)...  The particular error of Lutherans began with the idea that German was a language so crude it could not be used to speak the Gospel and then it became the idea that German was uniquely suited to speak the Gospel and English was somehow inferior.  As we laugh about this tribalism now, I fear we miss the larger point.  We do not atone for this error by stripping the language and culture away from the faith so that it is generic.  It is an exclusive truth which is the most inclusive truth of all and yet it speaks with its own voice, its own language of grace, and its own culture of mercy and service that springs from grace and faith.

It seems that today we have people who want to know God without knowing the Gospel of Christ's death and resurrection, who want a spirituality devoid of doctrine and dogma, who want worship that is little more than a reflection of the moment and the individual, and who believe that there is little importance to what has been received by those who have gone before and not much to pass on to those yet to come.  It is clear from the polls that we have not done a great job at communicating or catechizing people into the language of the faith and the language of the Church.  Yet this is certainly part of what it means to share the faith or speak in witness.  Those who refuse to or are not introduced to the language of the faith will find Christianity as strange to them as the Spanish you took in high school but never really learned.  You are left with little bits and pieces that enable you to say hello and goodbye without being able to converse between the entrance and the departure.


Anonymous said...

Without a doubt the language of
Christianity is the Holy Scriptures.
So we need to do a better job of
teaching the SCRIPTURES to our laity.
Dynamic Bible classes on Sunday and
during the week which are taught by
the pastor are a must. Daily Bible
reading plans/schedules for our laity
are a necessity. Every home of our
members have Bibles, but are they
being opened and read?

Anonymous said...

The particular error of Lutherans began with the idea that German was a language so crude it could not be used to speak the Gospel and then it became the idea that German was uniquely suited to speak the Gospel and English was somehow inferior.

Oh my. I do find that somewhat amusing. Unless one fluently speaks and understands German that is a harsh judgment. My mother's High German was actually very pleasant to the ear. Luther's translation of the Bible into German became a literary masterpiece in Germany.

Then, of course, is the fact that German is a language much used in the scientific community.


Anonymous said...

and then it became the idea that German was uniquely suited to speak the Gospel and English was somehow inferior.

I might add, this experience was repeated in just about every ethnic immigrant group that founded parishes on American soil.


Terry Maher said...

This is all based on a confusion of "language" in a literal sense and in a metaphorical sense. Here's a drash on that.

The language of the church is the language of Scripture? The languages, plural, of Scripture are Hebrew and Greek. I don't see any Hebrew classes like the local Orthodox synagogue has. The statement is true in a metaphorical sense only, and analogues with the statement in a literal sense do not hold.

Liturgy of itself doesn't guarantee bupkis. The most liturgically correct, by the syndocially approved book, Communion, no screens, no praise bands, etc Lutheran service I know in town is on cable access Sunday mornings -- led by its all vested up and ready to go priestitute.

What we have is essentially a Christian version of a Sabbath morning service, right down to a Christian Amidah, torah and haftorah readings, then followed, or not, by a stylised seder.

Beyond that pattern, there is nothing but a multiplicity of languages (literal languages)and cultures resulting in such variety of identity that to be retained it had to be revised acccording to the touchstone of, not whether commanded in Scripture because no liturgy is, but whether it contradicts Scripture because at key points liturgy did.

Pastor Peters said...

Language... with a vocabulary, with a style, with a context, with a framework... Example... the word grace is not a simple vocable but is fully descriptive of something far richer. Look at the pattern of words as well as which words. I believe it is an unmistakable conclusion that faith has a recognizable and discernable language and that this is born of Scripture, confessed in the creeds, said and sung in the liturgy, and shaped by the church year. Okay, so you want to be specific about one definition of language and quibble with what I said but surely what I said is not that unclear!

Anonymous said...

Hi Terry

Classes for the laity on Hebrew is
not realistic in Lutheran parishes.
We have pastors who did not have to
take Hebrew at the Seminary. It is
possible to read the Septuagint
and enjoy the Old Testament.

Terry Maher said...

Hi Anon, or Pastor Anon, as the case may be!

What I said was not at all to suggest classes in Hebrew, or Greek for that matter, but rather to illustrate two quite different senses of the word "language", a literal and a metaphorical. I thought about saying that if there is a language of Christianity, Scripture or liturgy, there is no option to choose Christianity, Scripture or liturgy as a language you know on a Facebook profile, and that is because these are not languages at all, except in a metaphorical sense. Another example I thought of was signs like "Customer service spoken here" in a store, which conveys via a metaphor that customer service is a store priority, not that there is a language called Customer Service. Since the study of the original language of a holy book is a priority for laity in other religions, Judaism and Islam for example, I went with that instead.

I am not anti-liturgical. "The liturgy" is meaningless. Which one? Whose? The word itself is originally secular, from ancient Greece, where is denoted a work of public service at one's own expense that it was believed a wealthy Athenian owed to the body politic. Its purely cultural and secular roots not only do not detract from, but help clarify, its appropriation in that time and place for Christian worship, namely, that it refers to not just a worship service but one in which work of the wealthy Athenian in the sky so to speak, God, does at his own expense, becoming Man in Jesus to die for our sins, for the good of Man.

The same is true of why the Romans chose a military term, sacramentum, to translate the Greek word mysterion, when there is a Latin word for it, mysterium.

Liturgy is an adiaphoron -- another term that is not religious or Christian at all, but was appropriated from Stoic philosophy. It can be used for well or ill but is not of itself either well or ill. That is what that means, not that we can do as we bloody please.

If liturgy were itself well or a guarantor of anything, no reformation would have been needed and I would be where I started, in about as liturgically precise a church as it gets.

Pastor Peters said...

Terry, I would suggest that you are using the term in the same way that modern anthropologists use it and not in the way that theologians of the Church use the term liturgy. For the West, there is only ONE -- the Mass, the Divine Service, where a few words have changed over the years, a few additions have been made, but you can put TLH, LW, LSB, the 16th Century Reformation Church Orders, the Tridentine Mass, and go all the way back to the Didache and you can see THE liturgy (only slightly changed or adapted and certainly no more or less than different translations have altered the text of Scripture). There IS a language to the liturgy, a vocabulary of words not ordinarily used outside the liturgy or used in a different way within the liturgy, just as there is one with Scripture and there is a sense of time foreign to our secular calendars in the church year. This is not a metaphor. It is real. Computer programers have their own language (not just binary) but a vocabulary, a way of using words that might mean other things in other contexts, etc. The medical profession has one. The Church, her liturgy, the Scriptures, and the church year form another language.

Terry Maher said...

I would say a little anthropology then goes much farther than deciphering the raging neo Platonism reworked as Christianity of most "theologians".

When one understands what liturgy originally was, that the term was appropriated from its secular cultural meaning to refer to Christian worship makes it clear that Christian worship could not be anything other than what we say it is, Christ's Body and Blood for our salvation, and that in so saying we hold not some later invention or cultural artifact but the very identity of Christian worship.

The liturgy is indeed not user or seeker friendly, but understood and believed after catechesis. That is why those who were not believers were excused when that (Service of the Sacrament, Mass of the Faithful) was celebrated after the Christian synagogue service (Service of the Word, Mass of the Catechumens).

If the Tridentine Mass (of which I must have served thousands), the Common Service/DSII, the novus ordo style cafeteria I,II,III,IV, Option A,B,C, etc amount to a few changes and slight differences since what is found in the Didache, then those who laboured to make those changes laboured in vain, including our own reformers

Pastor Peters said...

I am not inclined to prolong this discussion but if you took out the prayers of the canon (which were spoken quietly and not discernible to the majority of the assembled congregation), how different is the structure and even the majority of the ordinary? Take away the confession which was not original and still is preparation and not a formal part of the mass, and how much difference is there? I am not saying that the liturgical reform returning the Mass to sacrament from sacrifice was not essential or salutary. And, if it makes you feel better, skip the word "liturgy" and insert "Divine Service" into what I said.

As so the complaint about the options in DS I or II as compared to the Common Service, they are not many. Skip the "Worthy is Christ" and the "Thank the Lord" and that is about it... the offertory was a proper and not an ordinary (which it became in the common service).

There is not an identical sameness but certainly the distinct family resemblance between all that I mentioned.

In fact, the Reformers were so careful to introduce change that would be scandal to the people that they kept virtually all the ceremonial, form, and texts of the medieval mass -- save for the canon!

Terry Maher said...

Yes they did. We have not.

As to the canon, that is a HUGE change. The canon was said silently for a reason, not at all that it was negligible. And that reason -- still operable in my lifetime -- is this: the Mass follows the pattern of the life of Christ, first, teaching, which is vocal and audible, then action, which is done and seen but not vocal and audible, even as Christ spoke not a word in his defence. Therefore the canon is important, not at all that it be heard by the people but that it be said by the priest, who stands in loci Christi making present the one sacrifice of Christ.

So, to eliminate it, or for that matter to modify it but retain it and speak it audibly as the RCC has done, either way represents a major shift in what it the content communicated by a "language" of "the liturgy" and a family resemblance is just not enough. People can resemble each other without being in the same family at all.