Sunday, February 21, 2016

What Language Does God Speak?

Christianity’s move from Aramaic and Greek into Latin gave the Roman church its imperial bearing.

‘The Inspiration of St. Matthew’ By Caravaggio.ENLARGE
Image from article: ‘The Inspiration of St. Matthew’ By Caravaggio. PHOTO: ALINARI VIA GETTY IMAGES
Does an English-speaking Christian understand the gospel in ways that, simply as a consequence of language, differ significantly from the way, say, a Chinese Christian understands that same doctrine?
In a sense the answer is obvious: Of course. But how? Nicholas Ostler, a linguist and historian of languages, sets out in “Passwords to Paradise” to document the many and subtle ways in which the world’s three “missionary faiths”—Buddhism, Islam and Christianity—have altered as a result of moving from one language to another.


By Nicholas Ostler
Bloomsbury, 351 pages, $30
The book is at its strongest when recounting large-scale and long-term changes. When Buddhism moved northward into Gandhara (roughly, present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan) in the second century B.C., it moved also into a new dialect (Gandhari) and thus opened itself to influences from Iran and even Greece. Over time, the doctrine of the dharma became less a program for adepts and more a universalized program for human deliverance. Similarly, Christianity’s move from Aramaic and Greek into Latin—the language of the Roman empire—would eventually give the Roman church its imperial bearing. “The Roman Catholic Church as it developed,” Mr. Ostler writes, “is unthinkable without the precedent of the (western) Roman Empire.” 
Much of the book, however, is concerned with far narrower points of language and doctrine, and you often feel it doesn’t live up to the promise of that word “re-invented” in its subtitle. Mr. Ostler contends, for example, that the principal disagreement leading to the Christian church’s third ecumenical council in 431, the Council of Ephesus, had primarily to do with the different meanings in different languages of a single word: hypostasis, Greek for “understanding” or “substance.”
The church had long held that Christ had two natures, human and divine, but that these natures were unified in one hypostasis. But a contrarian bishop named Nestorius nonetheless held that Christ must have had two hypostases, one for his human nature and another for his divine nature, and that this is how it’s possible to say that God was born as a man. Mr. Ostler suggests that Nestorius would have been reasoning in Aramaic, a language in which hypostasis was usually translated qnoma, the word for “self.” For Nestorius, then, saying that Christ only had one qnoma would have made the human and divine natures identical in one “self.” 
This is fine-tuned stuff, but if Mr. Ostler is correct, his point is not insignificant, since after Ephesus the Syriac-speaking (Persian) church increasingly took the Nestorian line and eventually separated entirely from the Roman church.
I remain unconvinced. Nestorius wasn’t some untrained layman but the Bishop of Constantinople. He would have been well aware of the corresponding meanings of disputed terms in Latin and Greek. And, as Mr. Ostler admits, we aren’t even certain that Aramaic was Nestorius’s native language.
Many of the book’s arguments similarly promise more than they deliver. A chapter on 16th- and 17th-century Spanish missionaries in the Americas seems to illustrate that the practices of indigenous peoples had barely any effect at all on Spanish Catholicism for the simple reason that Spain’s ecclesiastical hierarchy ruthlessly discouraged all uses of those practices in any part of religious life. The chapter is fascinating in its way, but you’re left wondering what the point is.
By the book’s end, what seems most remarkable is how little, rather than how often, the essence of Christianity has changed during its long history and many forays into new languages. (I say Christianity and not Islam or Buddhism because 12 of the book’s 15 chapters concern Christianity.) I’m reminded of an observation made by the church historian Jaroslav Pelikan: For all Christians’ many disagreements about the meaning of the Lord’s Supper, he suggested, it’s still true that “for more than nineteen centuries and in a great variety of cultures, Christians have been blessing bread and wine and celebrating the sacrament of the Eucharist nearly every day.” The same is true for just about all of Christianity’s major doctrines and practices in hundreds of languages and cultures.
“Writing [the book] has not been easy,” Mr. Ostler admits in the foreword, “and it is hard for me to say why.” Perhaps the reason is that he overestimated the merits of his thesis. Even so, thanks to his vast learning and mellifluous style, “Passwords to Paradise” reads well enough as a kind of history of translating religious texts. Just don’t look for a lot of re-invention.

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