I attend a book discussion group every Tuesday night at a Methodist church in my town, which I might add is one of the best churches I’ve ever been lucky enough to attend. This last Tuesday (the 8th, I think it was), we were discussing the book we’re currently reading, when the pastor mentioned a fascinating idea that he had heard: Religion as a language. This immediately resonated with me in a way that I didn’t really understand, and still can’t claim to completely comprehend. Truth be told, he mentioned this idea only in passing, but it has stuck with me strangely.
When I really think about this, it’s a very simple idea, but such a beautiful and profound one. Religion as a language. There are so many layers to this statement, so I’ll cover what I can in the time and space that I have!
First, language is the key method we use to communicate with those around us, so a “religious” language might be seen as the way we communicate with the spiritual aspect of our lives. But, as with language, there is no one unique way of communicating with the spiritual. Some may speak the language of literal or verbal prayer. Others speak the language of meditation, and still others speak the language of dance or song. Just as we use different languages to talk to each other, we each can use different spiritual languages to connect to the spiritual in our lives, in the way that best fits our personal needs.
Second, no one language needs to be dominant in any sense. While more people may speak a particular language, the fact that they speak it in no way takes away the validity or importance of another language. The fact that my first language is English doesn’t mean that every person must speak English. There is no “right” language that the entire world must know and understand, and no language can claim moral superiority over any other. A person may be raised with a language or choose to speak it, just as a person may be raised into a religion or choose one.
And while it may come most naturally for someone to know and speak only in their own spiritual language, and only to those who understand them, I really don’t think it’s necessary. Just as someone can become multilingual, someone can become multispiritual! The conflict that so often arises between religions can be expressed in terms of language as well. If I speak my native language at someone whose native language is completely different, and neither of us knows the other’s tongue even a little bit, we can’t possibly understand each other! It’s the same with religious dialogue. If we can’t take the time and energy to learn another person’s spiritual language, the way they see the world and the spiritual, then there is no way we’ll ever understand each other.
And this leads me to what I think is the most beautiful part of this analogy. If you think of religions as spiritual languages, then it becomes possible to envision a “multilingual” spiritual existence. In this way of thinking, a religion need not be elitist and dominating, but can be something that is understood by others who may speak a different language. If a friend speaks the language of Hinduism, I can grow to understand her way of seeing the world and the spiritual by learning some of her language. Perhaps, one day, I can even speak it myself!
If we continue to tell ourselves that there is only one true language, only one way of understanding life, then we will never be able to approach others and their spirituality in a loving way. In fact, we don’t necessarily need to even understand another’s language; we need only allow them to speak it. I don’t need to fully understand the ways in which other people approach the divine. We only need to sit back and appreciate the beauty of their language, and allow them to speak to the spiritual in whatever way they know and understand. Only then can we achieve true religious understanding.