Semantic Humility: Thinking About Language

Semantic Humility: Thinking about language

In a world where up to 1 billion people are learning English as a second language, surely we should use this cultural phenomenon, surf this wave, to plant English-speaking, international-style churches in major cities?

I am strongly against this. Here are some reasons:

  • Mother tongue is how people get their worldview. If you want to displace worldview, you have to use mother tongue.
  • Eg Istanbul: starbucks, macdonalds, Instagram…
  • Language is power. If English is your first language and someone else’s second language then, no matter how good their English, the power in the conversation is with you. If you have gone to their culture, you are the guest, they are the host.
  • The church born in each language looks different. Different languages are good at different things. Eg English is good a abstract/conceptual ideas, some other languages much more concrete.
  • We inhabit and redeem language:

Origen saw the crossing of the gospel into the Greek-speaking world (a theological process which took at least two centuries), as akin to the Israelites building the tabernacle in the wilderness. Where did they get the gold for the cherubim and the gold vessels? Or the cloth for the curtains? It is because they plundered Egypt!

The theological task, in Origen’s view, is to take the things that are misused in the heathen world and to fashion from them things for the worship and service of God. 

Translatability is the most important things about Christianity. It hardwires into the core of Christianity the reality that no one centre can control the church.

Theological Argument: Nimrod vs Abram

The mixing of languages at Babel is often thought of as a curse. I don’t think that’s right. I think it was a blessing.

Ch. 10 refrain is a positive view of linguistic and cultural heterogeneity.

Ch. 11 Nimrod’s Babel is against God’s intention. One city, one temple, one language – an imposed homogeneity. God’s “coming down” is an act of grace to give the peoples their languages back.

The Babel story contains a peculiar dialectic. Human beings strive to maintain unity, God’s action effects diversity. Human beings seek for a centre, God counters with dispersion. Human beings want to be safe with homogeneity, God welcomes pluralism. Anderson.

At Pentecost, we see a repeat of these dynamics. The Jerusalem-centric temple system has become about One city, One temple and One sacred language. When everyone has gathered in foe Pentecost, God comes down (like at Babel) and adds sacred dignity to their own languages.

At Pentecost, as at Babel, God actively came down to re-instate plurality of language.

And at the very end, in the great vision of Revelation, there is a representation of “every language” around the throne. Linguistic diversity, and the cultural diversity it begets, will endure into the new creation. There shall exist a new creation unity; Jesus’ blood will take these many languages and cultures, redeem them, and make them into ‘a kingdom and priesthood’, not by homogenizing but by rendering them one in Christ. Nimrod had assumed the answer to mankind’s problem was to build a ‘kingdom’ and he was right, but the Kingdom of God is very different to the kingdom envisioned by Nimrod.

To build an international church family, navigating language is key.