Which language is God’s language for communicating with us? What is the lingua humana? Was Hebrew the language God spoke for accomplishing creation? Was Latin the language God used to nurture the church institution? Is English the language God speaks now?
Is the lingua humana a changing function reflecting the link of military power and language supremacy? Or is it a function of demographic and democratic choice by God related to population size? Is God switching gradually or decisively to communicate in Chinese or Arabic?
Once we recognize the limitations of every human language to any claim to a special spiritual status as singular and supreme, there can be a sort of human liberation based on the recognition that all human languages are created by humans for humans. Each language develops in accuracy, sophistication, bias, and distortion over time. These languages are precision tools, valuable tools, but rough and changing tools.
If God uses many languages, how do we manage the translation process. How do Christians understand “jihad”? How do Moslems understand “crusade” or “chosen people”? Even within religious traditions, how do Christians understand “eucharist” or “trinity”?
Within the Quaker community, there is no current shared clarity about the phrases “that of God within” or “Jesus Christ.” We are all groping in the fog of human experience, pointing out to one another where the bread may be found. Even with the useful assistance of Lyn Cope-Robinson in the The Little Quaker Sociology Book with Glossary (Canmore Press, 1995), we stumble on the challenge of language.
A new book by Lewis Glinert, The Story of Hebrew (Princeton UP, 2017) raises the question of language in the communication with God, and the dangerous power of the uncritical embrace of particular languages in providing any direct and primacy line between humans and God.
Language is a challenge as well as a tool. Without a lingua humana and without common understanding within any languages, we must tread carefully and develop our deeper listening attention to the exercise of these tools in facing these challenges.
Contributed by Larry Spears
Image & Resources
Image: “Unsere Sprache – Die Geschichte, Verbreitung und ihre Bedeutung,” from Geschichte-Lernen.net, a German portal for learning history on the Internet.
Lewis Glinert, The Story of Hebrew (Princeton UP, 2017)
“BookMarks,” The Christian Century (August 2, 2017, p. 35)
Lyn Cope-Robinson, The Little Quaker Sociology Book with Glossary (Canmore Press, 1995)