“To have another language is to have another soul” – Emperor Charlemagne
My love of languages started at age 11, when I was made to take Latin. I enjoyed French, too, though not as much. There was something about learning an ancient tongue, belonging to such an alien and distant civilisation. At the age of 12, I managed to pester our school chaplain into teaching me Greek, too. In the end, I took all three languages to A-level and pursued Classics as my first degree.
My favourite linguistic pursuit was “prose composition:” translating from English into Latin and Greek. I relished the puzzle of trying to frame my thoughts, or those of the writing I was translating, into a completely different mode of expression, with such different assumptions.
In literature, what drew me most was poetry. Translating poetry, even more than prose, shows just how unscientific an act translation is.
Under the influence of science’s empirical method, we tend in the West to default to the linguistic theory of nominalism: the idea that there is some objective reality to the world onto which humans map concepts, as words.
Try to translate poetry, and you will see just how weak this theory is.
This objective reality, separate from the workings of the human mind, if it exists at all, is simply unfathomable. Our language does not merely reflect some underlying reality which can then be perfectly remapped in an alternative linguistic “code.” Rather, that code itself defines reality.
This is not as strange as it may sound. Imagine, for instance, translating Shakespeare into Japanese – which is, nowadays, my second language. Just think of how much nuance would be lost. Plays on words, cultural and historic references, effects of rhyme and metre, and especially jokes: all these would be lost. Some words may have no direct equivalents, and even those which seem to may have quite different implications. Does the modern English concept of the word “love,” for example, map identically onto any word in Japanese? There is of course such a word in Japanese, but its precise connotations are different. In fact, our modern connotations of romantic love implicit in that word are probably somewhat different even from those of Shakespeare, let alone another language.
To make anything like a good translation, you would need to know not only the Japanese language, but to be as fluent as possible in the culture that it preserves and imparts. And even then, the translation can only go so far.
This is because language does not just express what we think: it defines how we think. Learning Latin, Greek and Japanese have, as Charlemagne put it, given me three additional “souls:” or to put it into the modern language of psychologist Lena Boroditsky, three “cognitive toolkits,” or even “parallel universes.”
The theory of nominalism is decidedly old hat, and comes from the same very specific intellectual family tree as relativism. Postmodern European philosophy is gradually catching up with the non-European religious traditions and realising the limitations of this model of understanding reality: insights shared, as we will see, by certain pre-modern Christian, Jewish and Muslim ways of seeing the world.
A religion is much like a language. Each offers a different way not just of speaking about reality, but even of perceiving it. A parallel reality, in fact.
Teaching religious issues by theme, rather than teaching them systematically in their own right, ultimately precludes fluency in any religious tradition. It is like teaching scraps of vocabulary from Mandarin and Pashto to someone who is barely literate in their native tongue. To learn another language, you need to learn its grammar, not just some disparate bunch of words. And to understand the grammar of another language, you need to know the grammar of your own.
The Church of England has expressly called for a return to the systematic study of religions in their own right in its 2014 Review of Religious Education in Church of England Schools:
“Crucially, a return to the systematic teaching of specific faiths in their own terms is the key to improving children’s understanding. In line with the Statement of Entitlement that means the skills being developed are the skills of understanding and interpreting each faith in its own terms and not imposing illegitimate overarching constructs on material that develops within widely different cultural and intellectual contexts.” – Foreword to “Making a Difference?”: A Review of Religious Education in Church of England Schools
Both nominalism and relativism are such “illegitimate overarching constructs.” What we need to aim at, instead of uncritically imposing such unacknowledged cognitive codes on religions, is to try to attain some degree of fluency in them.
But first, we need to know our own language. The Bible, liturgy, history and the theology of the Christian Church are a key components of the grammar of European and national history, literature, philosophy, music, politics and art. An analogous case could be made for the classical education from which I was unusual to benefit at a state school, as they have been systematically expunged from almost all but private schools in Britain. Biblical literacy is going the same way as classical literacy. And yet, it is simply impossible to have any fluency in the last two thousand years of European culture without knowledge of these spheres.
Yet many Upper Sixth form RE students will never have needed to touch a Bible, let alone read an entire book of it. St Paul and Isaiah are names as vaguely intuited as Cicero or Sophocles, known merely as sources of Tweet-length citations to be mined for examination points. That is not to mention Sankara or Plato or the Qur’an or the Bhagavad Gita. What our educational masters have historically counted as ‘religious literacy’ does not involve reading or listening to any religious texts on their own terms at all.
Failure to teach our pupils fluency in the Christian tradition of our nation, far from leaving them open to a wider variety of ideas, in fact stunts their capacity to understand any religious tradition at all. If you are not fluent in one language, it is impossible to learn a second.
This is emphatically not to say that we should learn Christianity at the expense of other religions. Rather, a deep understanding of Christianity gives a far better and more sympathetic vantage point for the study of Islam or Buddhism than the uncritical adoption of a relativistic approach. There is more overlap in their languages than there is with that of western secular modernity.
The irony of this is that if Religious Studies is offered from a theological perspective and takes seriously the truth claims of the major faith traditions, it can offer a genuinely critical perspective to the otherwise arbitrary and coercive set of so-called ‘British’ values imposed by the State. It is far more conducive to encouraging dissent and free thinking than the cosmetic liberties which relativist ‘objectivity’ purports to afford.
Relativism is not a freeing of the mind, but a prison, a pandering to our all too common monoglot tendencies of the Anglophone world.
And, we will see, relativism has its own purposes and vested interests, quite contradictory to those of Christianity or any religion.
The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.