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When religious language turns public

  • 22 August 2018


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.

This 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'