Word Cloud (3)

Language in Dialogue

by Anthony MacIsaac

One issue that often emerges during inter-faith dialogue is that of language. Without considering the fact that faiths often use different languages in their liturgies and scripture, it is also true that simple definitions and religious vocabulary appear to overlap between the different faiths but may have very different meanings within each religious tradition. Consider the word “God”. What does this most fundamental of words signify? The answer will likely be variable within each religious spectrum, even within different schools of thought attached to these traditions. Nevertheless, striking commonalities may also be found concerning “God” between these same religious groups.

Of perhaps more import, are those words which have direct impact on communities and the theological narratives of faith. Consider the word “Prophet”. This has quite a precise definition within Christianity, and a similarly precise definition within Islam. Yet these definitions are very dissimilar when we compare them, they diverge. Within the Islamic context, a “Prophet” is an individual specially chosen by God, apart from the rest of humanity. He is an individual who communicates a particular message from God to a particular people, and who is usually endowed with extraordinary power – by default, he is free from any sin. There are a very narrow number of Prophets considered by the Islamic tradition – prophecy is not something we can share in. Within Christianity, by contrast, a “Prophet” is simply one who witnesses to God in any time and place. Each believer might effectively become a Prophet for their own time, and the number of Prophets is thereby unlimited. The role of prophecy is far more general in scope for Christianity than for Islamic theology. Certainly, the Prophet within Christian terms is not free from sin, and he/she doesn’t necessarily have access to miraculous power. Other words like “Christ”, “Resurrection”, “Fasting”, “Charity”, “Mercy” and “Law” have similar difficulties. They need pinning down.

We may finally consider the word “Sacred”. Here perhaps we find the greatest chance of convergence between even the most disparate of religious traditions. We may indeed find here an origin point for dialogue. God is something “Other”, something abstract and difficult to pin down. Meanwhile, terms like “Prophet” lie within the narrative structures of theology. Yet the “Sacred” is something else: it is both mystical and down-to-earth, it is the sense of the “Other” found in the world around us. This may be on the slopes of a mountain, or within the recesses of the forest, it is equally present in the power of the sea, and the thunder of a tempest. Religious foundations, whether found  in the church building or the local mosque, attempt to harness the element of the “Sacred”. Theologies attempt to describe it. Each faith has its own perspective on how best to communicate it.

Effectively, all inter-faith dialogue seems to hinge on a shared experience of the Sacred, which may lead to a shared searching for God, and even towards the mutual study of religious narratives. All of this being said, it seems important to take some care in our dialogue, when we use terms that are connected to those narratives, when we don’t begin with the Sacred in its simplicity. Religious jargon can be misleading and outright confusing, if not defined properly. So failure to take care may simply lead to a spirit of friendship (surely a good thing) but without the real understanding of different positions to our own, which can lead to syncretism – the desire to understand the other faith positions within our own framework, our own religious lexicon. This won’t contribute to an authentic encounter between different faith groups, and the initial dialogues have mitigated value. This may mean that questioning our companions during dialogue, on even the simple aspects of their faith, is essential during the first meeting we have with them. Without some knowledge of their own semantics, we may completely lose the point that our friends are trying to communicate. The same rule applies to how we explain our own faith too. Dialogue is akin to the art of communication, and it takes time to practice, but its rewards are manifold.

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