Native Tongue

(Written in 2000)


The sunlight is one and the same wherever it falls, but only bright surfaces like water, mirrors and polished metals can reflect it fully.  So is the divine light. It falls equally and impartially on all hearts, but only the pure and clean hearts of the good and holy can fully reflect it.
     Every man should follow his own religion. A Christian should follow Christianity, a Mohammedan should follow Mohammedanism, and so on. For the Hindus the ancient path, the path of the Aryan Rishis, is the best.
     People partition off their lands by means of boundaries, but no one can partition off the all-embracing sky overhead. The indivisible sky surrounds all and includes all. So common man in ignorance says, ‘My religion is the only one, my religion is the best.’ But when his heart is illumined by true knowledge, he knows that above all these wars of sects and sectarians presides the one indivisible, eternal, all-knowing bliss.
     As a mother, in nursing her sick children, gives rice and curry to one, and sago arrowroot to another and bread and butter to a third, so the Lord has laid out different paths for different men, suitable to their natures.  
      Dispute not. As you rest firmly on your own faith and opinion, allow others also the equal liberty to stand by their own faiths and opinions. By mere disputation you will never succeed in convincing another of his error. When the grace of God descends on him, each one will understand his own mistakes.
     So long as the bee is outside the petals of the lily, and has not tasted the sweetness of its honey, it hovers round the flower emitting its buzzing sound; but when it is inside the flower, it noiselessly drinks its nectar. So long as a man quarrels and disputes about doctrines and dogmas, he has not tasted the nectar of true faith; when he has tasted it, he becomes quiet and full of peace.
     People of this age care for the essence of everything. They will accept the essential of religion and not its non-essentials (that is, the rituals, ceremonials, dogmas and creeds).
     Honour spirit and form, both sentiment within and symbol without.
     Common men talk bagfuls of religion, but act not a grain of it, while the wise man speaks little, but his whole life is a religion acted out.

Sri Ramakrishna
From The Pocket World Bible, pages 79-80

At the beginning of February I was invited to perform a wedding blessing for a couple in Tralee. After the ceremony I was introduced to an uncle of the bride, the celebrated Irish writer, John Moriarty, who was interested in the literary figures associated with Unitarianism, particularly Coleridge, Emerson and the novelist Herman Melville. He had made an extensive study of Melville’s Moby Dick (which he considers to be the greatest work of fiction in the English language), and since, coincidentally, I had finished the novel only days earlier we were able to pass the time before the reception in what, for me, was interesting and illuminating conversation – something of a rarity at weddings as I’m sure you will agree. I had read the novel as an exploration of the interior life, a quest for the self, whereas John saw it in more political and sociological terms, but we were agreed that it was a work of profound spiritual significance and our discussion of this led us automatically to religion. In response to my question about his own religious life and practice, John said, ‘I don’t go to church any more, but Christianity is my native tongue.’
His use of the phrase ‘native tongue’ in this context struck me forcibly. He was not saying, negatively, as many people who have ceased to practise the religion of their birth do say, that he still had a sentimental attachment to Christianity even though it could no longer satisfy him intellectually. He was saying, much more positively, that Christianity was so much a part of him that it continued to provide the basic framework of his life and thought; that its categories of heaven and hell, good and evil, sacrifice and redemption, forgiveness, holiness, suffering could never be shaken off even when overt commitment to churchgoing had long since been jettisoned; that the religion of infancy, like the language of infancy, stays with one for life.
The more I thought about this metaphor – religion as language – the more intriguing it became, and I have realised over the past couple of months that it provides us with a very fruitful way of understanding many of the factors involved in contemporary religious discourse.
For example, if we think of a religion as a kind of language, we do not need to dwell so much on whether or not it is objectively true. No one would ever ask, ‘Is the English language true?’ It works; people live, laugh, love and think by means of it. It is a primary vehicle of our life, and questions about its truth or falsity are nonsensical, like asking, ‘What colour is tomorrow?’ And in speaking one language we don’t necessarily have to disparage another. French speakers don’t deny the efficacy or the beauty of Italian or German or English, and it is quite possible to extol the virtues of a language other than one’s own without being accused of harbouring unpatriotic sentiments. As an English speaker I can enjoy the euphony of Italian, the simple directness of Hebrew, the precision of German and can still delight in, and maintain, my attachment to the language in I use daily to structure my own world. Every language has its particular genius and specific utility. Dr Johnson made the same point in a humorous (if slightly disrespectful!) fashion when he said something like: ‘I conduct my business in English, I make love in French, I sing in Italian, and I speak to my horse in German.’ So, we who speak in Christian categories need not consider the categories of Hinduism, Buddhism or Judaism as inferior to our own. We can celebrate the tolerance of Hinduism, the compassion of Buddhism, the ethical focus of Judaism, without in any way compromising our commitment to Christianity.
Seeing religion as a language also helps us to appreciate just how deeply religious principles and convictions affect the psyche of a particular group. A language is not just an arbitrary set of conventions: it comes from the very soul of a people, helping to form it, and being formed by it. There was a letter in the Irish Times a couple of weeks ago, from an Englishman who has just taken up the study of Irish. He said that his brief acquaintance with the Irish language had taught him so much about the nature of the Irish people, the collective Irish psyche, that his whole approach to living here in Ireland, and to understanding his Irish friends and colleagues, had been transformed. The writer realised that to understand a language is to penetrate to an intense intimacy with another people, to know them on a level denied to those who make the facile assumption that a language is just a code and that we can substitute one set of sounds for another without any real loss. To lose a language is to lose a soul, and to take a language away from a people – either by force or by the subtler means of cultural imperialism – is a heinous crime against human richness and diversity.
The same is true for religion. Religions grow within a culture and help to nurture a culture. To separate a religion from a culture is like amputating a limb, and to force a religion onto a people who are psychologically and culturally unprepared for it is to invite rejection, just as the body will reject any alien intrusion. Black Elk, the Native American medicine man, spoke of the cultural devastation wrought upon his people by the white men; even the apparently innocuous provision of rectangular huts on the reservations was deeply disorientating to people who had lived their lives in round tepees grouped in circles; and the linear theology of Christianity proved difficult for people who thought in terms of cycles to understand and assimilate. Translation from one culture to another, like translation from one language to another, needs to be done with great sensitivity to the nuances which are easy to miss, but which mean so much. Cultural, linguistic or religious structures are not interchangeable. Ignorance of this can lead to profoundly inhuman acts, often perpetrated, ironically, with the best of intentions.
Should we, then, leave each culture and each religion alone and not even try to find points of contact and similarity? By no means: we are obliged to learn something about other religions, if only so that we can better understand our own. It has been wisely observed that the person who knows only one religion really knows no religion, and this is true in the sense that some acquaintance with the part religion plays in another society will help one see more clearly the part it plays in one’s own – just as learning a foreign language always has an immense impact upon one’s ability to appreciate the way one’s own language functions. We do not need to force religious systems into uneasy compromises. Left to themselves they will begin to impinge upon one another, to flow into one another, and to influence one another, just as languages do, and this is almost always mutually enriching. The richness of the English vocabulary, for example, has been attained by constant exposure to influences from other languages in a development which has been going on for over a thousand years and which continues as I speak. Words and expressions are borrowed or discarded; new words are coined as needed; words change their meaning or lose their force over time, and this is a natural process, which no amount of interference from language purists or governmental agencies can stop. The French Academy, which tries to maintain what it considers to be to integrity of the French language, may lament and try to prevent the adoption of anglicisms into French, but popular usage is always stronger than scholarly disapproval, and I am afraid that ‘le weekend’ has now become as much a part of French as billet doux is part of English.[i]
Religions, too, change by assimilation. The richness of Christianity springs from its birth in mystical Judaism, its early contact with Gnosticism, Mithraism and Platonism, its rediscovery of Aristotle in the Middle Ages which gave rise to Scholasticism, and in more recent times, its encounters with Rationalism, Marxism and Modernism. It is currently being redefined, as never before, by contact with non-Christian religions. Magisterial bodies, the self-styled defenders of orthodoxy, are, in religion, engaged in the same kind of impossible task as the French Academy – attempting to prevent the natural congruence of religious ideas by insisting on the purity, integrity, uniqueness and truth of their own systems. So, the pope can declare, just six weeks ago that ‘Jesus Christ represents the full and complete revelation of the saving mystery of God.’ Non-Christians may attain salvation if they seek God with a sincere heart, but their situation is lacking ‘if compared to that of those who, in the church, have the fullness of the means of salvation.’[ii]
Meanwhile, at grass roots level, new forms of religious understanding are developing, a new appreciation of hitherto unexplored areas such as reincarnation is emerging among ordinary Christian believers who have been exposed to eastern ideas for the first time; new understandings of classical theological terms, such as redemption and salvation are taking shape as people begin to exercise their intellectual freedom and to take advantage of improvements in education and communications. These are expressions of the vox populi – the voice of the people – which may well be inspired by the Spirit of God in a way that popes, bishops and moderators rarely are. Religions change, just as languages change, because of what people do with them. A religion, like a language, is an unfinished entity, a continuing process. It comes out of earlier forms and, in so far as it is alive, it moves into new ones, ever responsive to the needs and concerns of the people it serves.
What I am describing – and advocating - here is the very thing that the pope was condemning: theological relativism, which declares that the quest for ultimate truth in religion is a fruitless and inevitably a divisive one. But I am not advocating theological syncretism, which attempts to construct a kind of religious Esperanto, an amalgam of bits and pieces taken arbitrarily from different religious systems and forced to coexist uneasily in an all-embracing mish-mash. When people ask me what Unitarianism stands for I point to Paddy’s sculpture and say that we honour all religious systems and we try, in Tennyson’s words, to keep our temple ‘always open-doored to every breath from heaven’. And while we feel free to draw our inspiration from non-Christian sources, we don’t practise every religion, or a mixture of religions. Christianity is our native tongue, and, continuing to develop this extraordinarily fruitful metaphor, we can say that we, as Unitarians, speak one dialect of it while remaining sensitive to the other Christian dialects and to the other religious languages – major and minor - which surround us. This is the advice that Sri Ramakrishna gives us in the passage I read earlier: Christians should become good Christians, Muslims good Muslims, etc. We do not need to learn every language in order to communicate effectively, and although familiarity with systems other than our own is always beneficial, we do not need to understand every religion in order to be religious. Indeed, the actor Peter Ustinov, who is an exceptional linguist, once advised us to beware of the person who speaks many languages because, he said, ‘the chances are he’ll have nothing to say in any one of them.’ Similarly, learning about religion, seeking ever more exotic religious paths, can be an excuse for avoiding the actual practice of the religious virtues. Talking about religion, reading about religion, even listening to sermons, is not religion. ‘Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God.’ (Micah 6:8) That’s religion, and all the great religious systems teach it in one way or another. We can all learn to do it through the medium of Christianity, our native tongue, if we would just learn to speak it more effectively.

[i] A letter in the London Times (2/7/2000) expressed this beautifully:
Quelle horreur:  Apropos the cri de coeur uttered by the French vis-à-vis English corrupting their language, I admit a certain frisson of empathy.  We English have become blasé about the fait accompli of the French debut into English.
     Despite our resistance, a lamentable volte-face occurred in the face of force majeure and French has now become the bête noire de nos jours.  Indeed, the proliferation of French terms seems to have some sort of perceived cachet so it now appears that there is a clique unable to find le mot juste unless it is French.  It is all very well to speak of chacun a son gout:  English is a sovereign language and it borders on lese majeste to think otherwise.
Peter Taylor

[ii] Irish Times, 31/1/2000


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