When religious language turns public

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When people hear fellow commuters speaking 'foreign' languages in trains and buses they react differently. Some celebrate the richness that difference brings. Others are disturbed, believing that national unity requires a single shared language to be used in public affairs and conversation.

Fr Gerald O'Collins, A Christology of ReligionsThis difference of response extends beyond the relationship between English and other community languages. It touches also the relationship between the dominant cultural language and those of communities — Muslim, Hindu or Indigenous, for example — within the broader society. There is always pressure to conform to the public language, whether linguistic or cultural.

A recent book by the Jesuit Fr Gerald O'Collins, A Christology of Religions, led me to reflect on this issue. In his book O'Collins discusses the place that Christians might find for other religions and frameworks of belief in their understanding of faith.

The question has implications for society as well as for Christian churches. Interreligious violence and intolerance have long accompanied a negative view of other religions, particularly within a society where there is a dominant religious language. Rejection of intolerance, in turn, can lead people to dismiss or censor the religious language shared by particular communities if they believe others might take offence at it.

I encountered this latter response some years ago in a theological class. It considered Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner's complex argument for insisting that virtuous non-Christians could be saved. He described them as 'anonymous Christians'. Some students dismissed his argument out of hand on the grounds that non-Christians might consider it condescending to be described in that way.

Though appreciative of their sensitivity, I was concerned at the implications of their position. It seemed to imply that people may not freely use the language of their tradition to explore their relationship to others, but must adapt it to fit the public language of society.

If this approach to community languages were generalised, it might imply that Indigenous Australians who tried to make sense of European invaders would have been wrong to incorporate them in their cultural myths in ways that could offend them — as snakes or storms, for example. They would have to restrict their own cultural language to the public language acceptable to the invaders. That demand would surely not enrich but impoverish their response to this new situation.

 

"In much of my own writing I have been concerned to interpret Christian faith for a public audience in a public language. I found O'Collins' book stimulating and challenging because it led me to identify the potential loss that is incurred in this enterprise."

 

I would argue that both community and public languages are essential, and that the public language is the more enriched when community languages are given free reign. Adaptation to the conventions of the public language and of other community languages properly takes place at a later stage when the community engages with the wider society. In the theological class, the proper procedure would have been first to consider Rahner's argument in its own terms, then to consider whether the clumsy phrase 'anonymous Christians' spoke clearly and attractively to a public audience.

When conversation in a community is restricted to the public language of the broader society, its power to engage the community members is often diminished. That has perhaps happened in the development of a theology of religions within the Christian churches. It often emphasises themes that unite religions and are less specifically and distinctively Christian, and focuses on removing obstacles to the acceptance of other religions as partners in faith rather than as rivals. The goal has been worthwhile but the conversation has not seemed to energise the communities it is aimed at.

To argue for the freedom to use community languages on their own terms does not entail dismissing the language of the wider society. In much of my own writing I have been concerned to interpret Christian faith for a public audience in a public language. Done well, that is a valuable contribution to both church and society.

I found O'Collins' book stimulating and challenging, however, because it led me to identify the potential loss that is incurred in this enterprise, even while affirming its value. O'Collins writes in the community language of Christian theology. In speaking of a Christology of religions instead of a theology of religions he assumes that the reader knows what Christology is, and in developing the implications of understanding Jesus Christ as the Son of God, he speaks unashamedly the language of the Christian community.

O'Collins claims that for Christians the value of other religions is best discussed through a comprehensive reference to faith in Jesus Christ. He demonstrates his claim by considering Jesus' own reaching out to people outside the Jewish world, and his understanding that in his tortured death he was giving his life for all people. He takes into account, too, Jesus' rising from the dead and his continuing presence, especially through the celebration of the Eucharist in which he intercedes for the world, and not simply for Christians. In developing these themes he focuses on the priesthood of Christ.

In another review, written for a Catholic audience, I have described how O'Collins' exposition has not only enriched my understanding of the Catholic tradition but has energised and set within a richer framework some of my public commitments.

In my experience, at least, public and communal languages are mutually enriching.

 

 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Gerald O'Collins, Christology, interreligious dialogue

 

 

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Existing comments

Thankyou Andrew for a once again clearly defined article. There needs to be adherence to what you suggest. May I also add that sometimes for ordinary folk the message of Jesus is even better shared through the use of 'no words', Rather use actions instead of words. Actions speak volumes. If a neighbour is dying of cancer and they are an 'anonymous Christian' maybe providing companionship , family support, the odd meal and just being present in the hard times speaks adequately of a people following the good news. If a world is hurting, sometimes it is better to use actions , not words.
Celia | 22 August 2018


In the person of Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels we see an extraordinary integrity between his words and actions, all harnessed to the proclamation and realisation of his Father's vision of life and the world: "the reign of God." As I read it, his didactic, prophetic and prayerful language is characteristically steeped in both scriptural metaphor and the vernacular of his everyday environment and circumstances, both distinguishing his "kingdom" from an exclusively secular view and inviting Jew and Gentile alike to be part of it.
John | 22 August 2018


The only checklist you need. Easily translated in any language, and easily understood by any from any culture.“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled....
AO | 22 August 2018


Thanks Andrew for the reflection, you raise for some fascinating challenges. Understanding the complexity of the human condition is extremely challenging, even more so as we travel through the passages of time. We humans are creators of symbols and language would have to be one of the most symbolic paradigms we create. Living in a very much post christian era, where secular language is the most dominant, religious language is struggling to some extent to find a place in secular society. It (religious language) buffers against the modern epistemology and our understanding of the cosmos. The concepts of love, compassion, forgiveness these concepts are not the sole domain of religious societies as they once were. We are certainly living in interesting times. those of us who have a sense of spirituality, our religious language has to be agile and change in order to make sense to the modern world in all of its complexity.
Paul Donnelly | 24 August 2018


Jesus' disciples often had trouble understanding just what he was communicating. He spoke to large groups of people in parables which had a number of layers of meaning. And St Paul, the brilliant trained Pharisee, has left us the legacy of a deep interpretation of how radical was Jesus' communication. Often it was the uneducated, the outcast and the so-called morally inferior who were most profoundly reached. Thanks for this thoughtful article.
Pam | 24 August 2018


Many years ago Donald Coggan, then Archbishop of Canterbury, made the statement on BBC television: 'Religion is so jolly relevant to life'. Jesus' inspired presentation of religion, which basically turned the contemporary Judaism of his time upside down, was spot on and desperately relevant for the times. He lived in a society in many ways similar to ours. It was multiethnic and multi-religious. He would have been aware of other religious traditions and did interact with Gentiles and Samaritans, although his primary focus was on his fellow Jews. Perhaps his example is relevant. Our contemporary society has many people who come from a Christian background but have lost touch with it for one reason or another. I would suggest that any major outreach and the language used by it be directed at these contemporary 'lost sheep of Israel' Matt. 15 : 24.
Edward Fido | 24 August 2018


Thank you, Andy, for your excellent summary of O'Collins' new book on Christology. I first encountered him in a short exegesis on Mark that he wrote for New Blackfriars in 1975. For those who may not know of the immense contribution of this eminent Jesuit to a study of the person, nature and role of Christ, here is the reference: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-2005.1975.tb02209.x
Michael Furtado | 24 August 2018


Thank you Andrew for another thought provoking article. I am wondering in light of your arguments if one can call themselves christian and not believe in all the tenents of the Nicene Creed as interpreted by the current Catholic Church? IE resurrection and transubstantiation, to mention two.
Tom Kingston | 24 August 2018


I occasionally have conversations about religion, faith, the Church etc with young adults in my family, insistently atheist, but interestingly curious. I never use community language, for obvious reasons. More rarely, I have discussions on matters of faith within my faith community. I find that I rarely use community language there either, because some very important words seem to have different meanings even within that group. For example, 'resurrection ' means something slightly different to me and one friend, 'mission of the Church' seems to mean one thing to me and another thing to a fellow parishioner. 'Eucharist' - don't get me started! I'm actually a bit afraid to get into a debate in these cases, so I don't use the terms much. But is this helpful in the end? After reading Andrew's article, I wonder. Maybe we all need to use our community language more, so that we can be enriched in our understanding of the Mysteries. In my case, I'd need a lot more courage and humility.
Joan Seymour | 26 August 2018


I understand the purpose of your article, Andy. Catholics do need a proper intellectual framework to interact tolerantly with other religions without compromising their own faith. This may well require a knowledge of these other religions, as well as the essential grounding in their own. Given these they could well follow in the footsteps of the late A J Arberry, former Professor of Arabic at Cambridge, who could understand the spirituality of Islam without in any way compromising his own Christian beliefs. There are areas where Christianity and other religions, including both Hinduism and Islam, are in conflict. This need not necessarily be so. Indeed I see mutual respect between Christianity and Islam, particularly in places like Western Europe, as a powerful factor in resisting the pernicious militant secularism which is doing so much to undermine the basic social fabric of society there in areas such as euthanasia.
Edward Fido | 27 August 2018


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