Thursday, October 31, 2013

What If Theology Were in English?

This morning at breakfast, young First-Grader Anonymous (who had been up all night vomiting) asked his Father (who had been up all night cleaning vomit off of sheets, books and stuffed toys) what he was reading.

"It's the Book of Concord," we muttered groggily.

"What's it about?"

"Well, this part is called the Epitome of the Formula, and it's about the doctrine of election."

"They have doctors just for voting?"

"Umm.  No.  Not that kind of election, exactly."

What followed was a brief discursus on the verb eligo, "I choose," and the various instrument of choice available to human beings as opposed to the instruments available to God.  The youngster seemed to take it all in stride, especially so for somebody whose main consideration was whether he would be able to hold down a handful of dry Cheerios.

Afterward, though, it occurred to us that we might have saved time by saying that Epitome XI concerned "teaching about choice" or something like that.  Perhaps, for clarity, "the Church's teaching about how God chooses people."

The point is that there is no necessary reason for theology to be couched, as it generally is, in Latinate words when Anglo-Saxon ones will do.  Indeed, as our ninth-grade English teacher pointed out, this is true of most writing in English.  She delighted in pointing out (often to the children of IBM managers) the folly of business writers who preferred "utilize" to "use" and "finalize" to "end."

Theologians, like people in so many other lines of work, often seem to hide simple ideas behind needlessly long and strange words.  We talk about "eschatology" when we mean "about last things," and "ecclesiological" when we mean "churchy." (Father A. himself remembers well the first time he heard a professor use the adjective "salvific" -- his snort of contempt would have made that old English teacher proud. ) Life would probably be much easier for the people around us if we used more straightforward words.  They might even be able to take us a little bit more seriously.

Two qualifications must be noted at once.  First is the fact that theological jargon, like the jargon of any other profession, does have a practical side.  It is a sort of code which makes communication faster and more efficient among those who use it every day.  "Soteriology" may be a stupid-sounding word, but it is genuinely easier to say than "doctrine, study or language for talking about salvation."  This becomes even more true when one is attempting to read theological works written in a foreign language -- the fact that so many languages employ cognate words with Greek and Latin roots makes skimming and translation much easier than they might otherwise be.

This is most true in certain kinds of liturgical and historical study, in which familiar foreign words are customarily used in their original form, often as proper nouns.  It is far easier to speak of the Kyrie and Gloria in excelsis, of capax and simul iustus, than to stop and translate these every time we use them.

The second qualification is that many of the people who write theology are well aware that their cultic language is an obstacle for the common reader, and have tried to help.  Witness the frequent replacement of the word "theology" itself with the good Anglo-Saxon compound "God-talk."  This is not a matter of dumbing down, either.  Some writers (Gordon Lathrop comes to mind) work hard to avoid jargon, and yet are still required by the nature of their ideas to adopt a style that requires great attention from the reader.  Attention -- but not a glossary.

Still, qualifications noted, we could do better.  Many of the things that Christians believe about God are indeed complicated and difficult to describe in ordinary language.  Some -- notably the teaching of the Trinity -- seem to elude clear description.  But many others are simple enough:  God made us, God loves us, God saves us.  We don't need to hide them behind complicated expressions, and may serve both God and the Church better if we don't.

1 comment:

RAR said...

Amen! Amen! And amen!