Words Create Meaning

To understand how someone thinks, we must understand how they speak (or write). This is not as obvious of a statement as it may seem. There is a growing body of research that suggests that our language and our cognition are linked—not only as a means of delivery, but rather that our language shapes our thought.

Language is in the business of categorizing, but despite Plato’s thesis of forms, these categories may be more arbitrary that we think. Consider how different romance languages assign genders to nouns. For English speakers, trying to decide if a table is more masculine or feminine—not as a particular table, but tables in the abstract—can be a very challenging task. For French, German, Spanish, and Italian speakers, the problem is solved before it is considered. They are taught by their language the gender of a table.

Not only are there cross-cultural implications to such observations, but even within a language, the way we use it when referring to certain concepts is significant. The language of prayer not only reflects what we think and feel about God, but over time, it shapes how we think and feel about God. We are prone to think that certain kinds of Christians tend to use certain Scripture translations and to pray in certain ways, but what if using certain translations and praying in certain ways tends to create certain types of Christians?

Put another way, do Anglicans tend to use the Book of Common Prayer, or does the Book of Common Prayer tend to produce Anglicans? As an advocate of liturgical formation, I would like to believe the latter, but counter-examples exist. It raises the question, does the 1979 U.S. Book of Common Prayer tend to produce liberal Anglicans? Further, if the 1979 is liberal, what set the conditions for its creation? Presumably, the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, which is favored by conservatives.

Obviously there is more at work than “just” our liturgies in the direction of our provinces, so we return to the question: are liturgies causative or reflective? Do they make us who we are or do we gravitate toward them because of who we are?

These are far from idle ponderings as liturgies are more often reviewed and revised now than at any other point in history. Indeed, we may even consider allowing—or demanding—the use of the vernacular in our liturgies as a serious question effecting formation. Not only does a common language for a religion create a unified liturgy, it may create a unified faith. It would be interesting to know if dissent on matters of faith increased in the Roman Catholic Church since Vatican II removed Latin as the language of the liturgy. It seems there is a strong correlation between vernacular language and division of thought in the Protestant Church. Could that be, at least in part, due to new modes of thinking increasingly laid against the doctrines of the church by thinking about them in concepts and categories brought by other languages?

We may never return to a world where the church speaks one common tongue, so we must be mindful of the differences and distinctions that thinking about God in different languages will cause among us. This applies not only to Greek and Hebrew, but to any language which has speakers engaging in theological thought.


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