The Problem of Religious Language

Recently, I asked people on Twitter what they understood by the word ‘Church’. As expected, the answers differed widely. Some were more theological, others more sociological, others again tended towards what I’d call an attempt to express an aspiration or hope rather than a definition. Common to all of them was a use of language which I suspect didn’t make much sense to anyone who didn’t share the underlying assumptions or experience of the user.

As the British people become less and less familiar with the language of the bible and the cultural references of Christianity, attempts to find a common ground to talk about religion and its place in society become more and more difficult. Although I would not myself have used the language used in the column referring to the letter signed by 1054 Catholic priests in today’s Telegraph, I do share their concern that religious freedom is being eroded. We saw what happened with Catholic adoption agencies; we know that we cannot legally assert that Sunday observance is a constituent part of our religion (so much for the obligation to attend Mass); I am not at all sure  we can insist that people wishing to stay at the monastery should observe our moral norms. Government assurances to the contrary look like most Government promises: susceptible of being changed overnight.

Is there a problem? I think so. Those who think that religion is a private matter and should not intrude on the public sphere have no understanding of Christianity, certainly not in its Catholic form. I myself dislike emotive appeals, particularly when they are bolstered by a simplistic understanding of history; but I dislike them because I believe they obscure the genuine concerns we ought to have. It is easy to ridicule someone who likens David Cameron to Henry VIII. How to get David Cameron to understand and engage with those who see some unintended consequences flowing from some of his proposed legislation is much more difficult. We need a common language but, alas, that is what we don’t have. In the meantime, those who think society will be kinder, more generous, more perfect in every way if Christianity and all its works are removed from the public sphere might just spend a few moments thinking about all the voluntary/charitable work being done by people who call themselves Christian.


16 thoughts on “The Problem of Religious Language”

  1. I have been through the established ‘church’ on Parish council, on deanery committee, on Synod but I then rejected it all. We started a house group which flourished and the ‘church’ (father’s House) now meets in a cafe in Skipton on a Thursday night. Fellowship is shared and we have a cross section of the general public. No judgement just a willingness to serve and to help others, which I think, is what Jesus would want us to do.

  2. If you re-read my post, you will see that it is about the erosion of religious liberty — one of the unintended consequences of David Cameron’s proposed legislation — and the difficulty of finding a common language in which to discuss the place of religion in society.

  3. I occasionally find myself asked by people with no prior knowledge (not even the cultural basics most UK residents will have, because they normally come from China where religion is somewhat supressed) what it is all about. I find myself completely unequal to the task of explaining. Where do you even start?

    It’s no wonder Jesus was so keen on parables, perhaps he faced the same challenges with language…

  4. I have Asperger Syndrome and Bipolar Disorder. These things are also highly misunderstood. We don’t need a “common language” as much as we need to be patient with people who anger us. Impatience is my big failure, but considering that I am also a Passionist, learning patience is at the center of my spiritual life. Our Lady of Sorrows is helping me to develop patience.

    The good news for Catholics is that we have access to a rich spiritual life in honor to our great King, Christ the King, that will bring us to where we need to be, provided that we cling to Him, regardless of what any civil government says about anything, on any issue. It is those who do not have this hope that we should be sorrowing for. Learning that is where we learn patience, and perhaps patience with each other is ultimately the only common language we can have.

    As an American, I understand that the law being based on Natural Law is the “common language” that allows freedom for all in civil society. Unfortunately, that is going out the window, so it is good that you ask, Sister, for a common language. The one that has worked for America for a long time, Natural Law, is being rejected outright.

    • Thank you, Lisa, but you make me think I’ve not written clearly enough.
      My subject was the interaction between religion and government and the consequences for religious freedom. I believe that one of the reasons why we in the UK are having difficulties with the ‘dialogue’ between religion and the State is that we are increasingly unable to find a common basis for discussion. We use words differently and do not necessarily share the same values — the examples I cited were all drawn from legislation enacted or proposed in this country.
      Not everyone would accept that there is such a thing as natural law, which is why appeals to such often meet with rejection. I appreciate that the situation is different in the U.S.A. but I’m not competent to comment on it.

  5. “[W]e know that we cannot legally assert that Sunday observance is a constituent part of our religion (so much for the obligation to attend Mass).”

    I’m not sure that we necessarily do know that. If you are referring to the judgment in Mba v London Borough of Merton (Religion or Belief Discrimination) which was published earlier this week, it’s been widely misreported.

    Mr Justice Langstaff went out of his way to say that the issue before the EAT was a very narrow one and that “anyone who expects the conclusion to amount either to a ringing endorsement of an individual’s right not to be required to work on a Sunday on the one hand, or an employer’s freedom to require it on the other … will both be disappointed. No such broad general issue arises. The questions raised must be determined in the specific circumstances of this particular case alone.”

    As it happens, in practical terms I think that, on balance, you’re probably right: it’s much harder than it was (say) twenty years ago for a Christian to argue successfully that attending church on a Sunday is a necessary element of his or her religion. But, even so, it’s a more complicated issue than recent press reports would lead one to believe.

  6. I believe that the Sabbath should be kept Holy, of course, it’s down to definitions of which day is the Sabbath. The Jewish Calendar keeps the Sabbath on a Saturday, while the Christian keeps it on a Sunday.

    It seems that the interests of business or commercial interests can over rule the rights of Christians who in good conscience wish to keep the Sabbath Holy.

    When I returned to Church in 2008, I spoke to my boss about weekend working. I said that I was prepared to work every day but Sunday – fortunately, I was in a senior management role and he agreed with me. I never worked a Sunday after that, or if I necessarily had to be on duty, I always found a church where I could worship – and one thing the armed forces does, is to recognise the rights of those of faith, to observe their Sabbath or feasts appropriately. It’s a pity that other employers can’t be as reasonable, particularly as in the case in the news, others were prepared to do the Sunday shifts for the Baptist Lay Worker.

    Reasonable accommodation for religious beliefs should be part of employment law. While these actions don’t amount to discrimination under employment law or human rights, they lack a moral imperative and just demonstrate the determination of some employers to enforce their rights over that of individuals.

    • Older Catholics will remember that we used to be forbidden to do more than three hours’ ‘servile works’ on a Sunday — meaning that rest was a way of honouring and observing Sunday, along with the obligation to attend Mass.

      • I remember those days. Holy Days of Obligation. Refraining from food for three hours and drink for one hour before receiving Holy Communion and many more.

        In the days when feast days were celebrated on the actual date and not moved to the nearest Sunday.

        I understand that many Anglicans shared these as well, as I discovered when talking to elderly people in my parish.

        Many things have changed, not always for the better. There was a rhythm and discipline to life which helped to prepare you for worship and keeping the Sabbath Holy is one of the things we have lost along the way, in the interests of commercialism, business and the secularisation of our country.

        As you know, I’m not a traditionalist in the sense of sticking to the past, but some things actually made real sense having been practised over centuries. Why throw the baby out with the bath water?

  7. I could not imagine life without faith. Christmas Easter etc is meaningless without faith. Christianity to many should be a moral code. Most people I work with haven’t a clue I go to Church. They would find me odd. Christianity has done for me what I could not do for myself. To be at peace with God in my beloved Cathedral
    means everything to me and its something money cannot buy

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