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.

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Them and Us

I like Americans. Most Americans are blissfully unaware of that fact and would probably be indifferent if they did. However, I am very conscious that, although we speak the same language (more or less), our ‘thought worlds’ are different. A politician’s ability to speak French marks him out as one of a privileged elite in the States; here an inability to do so marks him out as a bit of a liability. We value what’s left of our welfare state, believing that everyone should have access to healthcare and education irrespective of an individual’s ability to pay for it; in the States that’s often condemned as creating an ‘entitlement culture’ at odds with the pioneering spirit of self-help and advancement. As with Americans, so with some of our nearer neighbours. The Scots member of the community has often interpreted for me ‘what is really being said’ in some of the more surprising statements about Scottish independence.

We have the same problem with liturgy, except that it’s worse because we are handed a text which needs the mediation of a human voice to disclose its meaning, and every voice interprets. I was thinking about this at Mass yesterday, when a different priest celebrated Mass here in Hendred. The words and gestures were ostensibly the same, but a completely different kind of celebration took place because the priest gave them a slightly different emphasis. Sometimes liturgical ‘discussions’ end in an unholy row, with all participants claiming that theirs is the ‘right’ (=only admissible) way of saying/doing anything. The world is divided into them and us, with us the good guys and them the baddies. I doubt if it is so simple. Perhaps we need to think harder about the meaning of the words before we assume that we know what is being said.

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Religious Language and the Web

You can see how important Benedict thought the right use of speech by looking at today’s section of the Rule, RB 7. 60 to 61. The eleventh step of humility is concerned with speaking little but making every word count. It might have been written with Twitter in mind! The things Benedict condemns, either outright or by implication — harshness, mockery, the obscenity and cruelty we discussed yesterday, vapidity  and mere clamour — are temptations at any time but especially when we go online. Our nearest and dearest may long ago have given up listening to us, but online it’s another matter. We can express our opinions, however outrageous, to our heart’s content; but with that freedom comes responsibility, and it’s worth thinking about how we exercise it.

One of the things that has always interested me is how much religious language is used online. Does familiarity with such language in an online context cheapen our understanding of it elsewhere? I refuse to have ‘followers’ on Twitter, for example, because I’m a follower of Christ and of Him alone. But I think some people actually enjoy the messianic overtones and are for ever calculating how many followers they have, as though that conferred validity on what they say. We regularly use words like ‘authority’ in connection with anything from search engines to blogs; we have ‘communities’ for every interest under the sun; even the most blatantly commercial web site will have a ‘mission statement’; and we devoted (note the word) Apple products users are usually described as subscribing to the ‘cult’ of Apple.

Which brings me back to Benedict. He urges that when we do speak, we should do so gently, humbly, seriously, in a few well-chosen words. There is a quietness about his approach that is immediately attractive. I wonder what his voice was like. Judging by his Rule, I imagine he spoke gently, in a low tone of voice for the most part, but with immense authority, the kind that is innate rather than cultivated. Perhaps today we might think about our own voice on the web. Shrill? Frivolous? Or a voice which allows the Word to speak in and through us?

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