Transcendent language

At Vatican II, the Catholic Church decided to start saying mass in local languages. Until then it had always been said in Latin. I was only 13 when Vatican II concluded, but a Burkina Faso friend of mine said that many of the more educated Catholic lay people in that country were unhappy with the change. They felt that hearing in everyday language removed the mystery, the transcendence, indeed the religiousness of the experience.

A woman leads a worship song in a local language during a gathering of believers from northern Ghana in a city in the south

A woman leads a worship song in a local language during a gathering of believers from northern Ghana in a city in the south

This feeling about language is widespread. Indeed, proponents of the King James Version cite the grandeur of its words. Many want their religious experiences to be infused with the feeling of transcendence so they like cathedrals, liturgy, clergy in special clothing, and stained glass windows. They may also want the Bible read from a translation that also seems transcendent. I identify. I love the poetic passages from the Psalms and from Isaiah. They send my spirit soaring. When they are sung in English that is out of date, as in The Messiah, they become all the more spiritual to me. Africans have more exuberant ways of experiencing transcendence.

Official_Languages_-_Africa_HL colorsI occasionally meet Africans who object to translating the Bible into their languages because they want to keep the mystery and the religious experience of reading and hearing in the official language (French, English or Portuguese depending on the country.) To them, the Bible in their language just seems way too simple and down-to-earth to be truly religious.

But what are we to make of this common human yearning for special religious language? After all, not all human religious yearnings are endorsed by the Bible. Is this yearning good or bad?

My favorite statement on this issue comes from C.S. Lewis. Writing about the objection to modern translations that their language is too “everyday”, he wrote:

A sacred truth seemed to them to have lost its sanctity when it was stripped of the polysyllabic Latin, long heard at Mass and at Hours, and put into ‘language such as men do use’—language steeped in all the commonplace associations of the nursery, the inn, the stable, and the street. The answer then was the same as the answer now. The only kind of sanctity which Scripture can lose (or, at least, New Testament scripture) by being modernized is an accidental kind which it never had for its writers or its earliest readers. The New Testament in the original Greek is not a work of literary art: it is not written in a solemn, ecclesiastical language, it is written in the sort of Greek which was spoken over the eastern Mediterranean after Greek had become an international language and therefore lost its real beauty and subtlety.

If God himself thought that it was okay to have the Apostles leave classical Greek aside and write the New Testament in the common language of the day, why would we think that we need something else? God’s big concerns appear focused on something other than provoking blissful awe through the use of religious-sounding language.

Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you. (James 1:27)

I still listen to The Messiah and it still transports me, but I don’t expect that it will do the same for everyone else, or consider them less if it does not. I certainly do not expect that such transports fulfill my obligation to practice true religion nor that they replace listening to God in the everyday words of my heart language.

2 thoughts on “Transcendent language

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