When It Comes To Religion, Language Defines Us

Language is a powerful means of expression that inspires us, it gives us the ability to reach deeper into our spirituality. We can connect to people around us, share what makes us love, what draws our passion, what ideas grip our minds in fascination. It shapes how we think of ourselves and the world. Look to the philosopher Michel Foucault for a better explanation, but let me say that the words we give our ideas become the limits we must test.

Imagine if there was only one word for the Divine. Impossible. Why? Because one word would mean one culture, one person, one way of thinking. We are a diverse world, with billions of ways to interpret the Infinite, as many as there are people. The names of the Sacred show this complexity, and whether you fear or love the differences out there, we cannot deny their existence.

In our country, Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) have the most members. This sense of the majority is relative: if a Christian traveled to a predominantly Buddhist country, they would feel like a minority. As my friend and fellow Scholar, Adlil Issakoo, says, we need to be careful not to overemphasize minority versus majority; he fears that it will breed tolerance instead of acceptance. My hope in recognizing differences, and the role of language, is to bring awareness to ourselves, our way of being in the world, without falling to the side he is concerned about.

Language can alienate people. Certain words, certain ways of looking at things, become far more common than other ones. I noticed long ago that, in most company, anyone can refer to a soul without issue, but mention chakras, and you might get some funny looks. Welcoming different ways of expressing beliefs and experiences allows for common understanding and nurtures religious freedom.
I identify as an independent Earth spiritualist. Religious identity depends on language: labels are the words we attach to ourselves, and seize and live our lives by. We try to match them to us, dipping into what words are available to try to capture who we think we are. As many of my fellow scholars know, I have wandered for a long time when it comes to finding a personal label that defines my spiritual path. The thing is that I don’t need it for myself, but to communicate with other people. Other religions have been floating around in, or maybe even defining, our culture long enough where a single word can accurately be associated with a religion’s ideas. The thing about earth religions are how individual they become. A word or name might mean something highly specific to someone; even when you think you understand it, it could be completely different for that person. Then people outside the religion might already have ideas for what those words mean. This leads to a million language related problems. For example, trying to explain the concepts dubbed “witchcraft” and “magic” in a culture where those words are associated with potions and warts leaves me wishing my predecessors had chosen different words. I am working on coming up with some of my own terms to better express those concepts.

Yes, invent and adapt language consciously. We are already creating and modifying it; we are its origin (Nietzsche). But, why not take it up and respectfully change it, since it affects us so deeply?

-Bridget Liddell

Interfaith Scholar 2009-2011

Published in the April 2010 Issue of the Interfaith Review

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