Thursday, May 15, 2008

God's Language

At the "Talking Box" last week (our Children's Sermon), I pulled out a few foreign language dictionaries to look at and asked the kids if they knew any words in another language. A few did - we had Spanish, German, Japanese. Then I asked the kids what language did they think God speaks. There were probably 25-30 kids up there, and so there were quite a few voices who all said at once, "Every language!"

We all had a chuckle, then one boy put his hand up. "Yes, Preston?" I said.

"I think God speaks God-Language," he said.

That was a pretty good answer, I thought, and close to the message that I wanted the kids to hear, so I was getting ready to go with it. However, just then I noticed a girl (happened to be Preston's sister) who had her hand up, as well. "Summer, did you have something else?" I asked, ready to get on with the God's-language-is-more-and-bigger-and-different-than-any-words-we-could-use lesson of the day.

Summer said, "Maybe God's language actually is every language."

At first, I thought Summer had said the same thing we said originally, which was that God speaks every language. But as I thought about it, I realized there is a subtle difference. It is a different thing to say "God speaks every human language" than to say "The language of God is comprised of every human language." The first makes me think of God sitting there in the heavenly language lab, slogging through word by word vocab memorization like I did with German in college. The second makes me think of the words I know as if they are gifts God has given me so that I can communicate with other people.

I like that second one better, I think. If English is a little portion of God-language that God has given me, then Spanish is a little portion God has given another person, and French, and Japanese, and Quiche, and so on and so forth. Thinking of language as a gift that God gives makes it impossible for me to insist that another person learn "my language" so that we can somehow manage to get along. Rather, each of us can figure out how to communicate, using the little bits of God-language that we share in common.

It is fascinating to me how many people are so angry about people who speak languages other than English here in the United States. I'm trying to figure out the source of that anger. Is it fear? Is it pride? Is it arrogance? Is it some strange form of patriotism? To be sure, having a common language makes it much easier to communicate with each other. But why in the world does the phrase "Please press 1 for English and 2 for Spanish" make some people so cranky?

Whatever the national, secular, "official" language issues may be, what Christians read in Acts 2 is quite clearly that the disciples spoke in many different languages, empowered by the Holy Spirit. It wasn't the other way around - the Holy Spirit did not empower all of the other people to understand one language - Aramaic, for example. I think that is because the message entrusted to disciples of Jesus is just so vitally important that disciples need to figure out how best to communicate that message, in whatever language it needs to be expressed.

That means instead of insisting non-English speakers learn English, Christians maybe should learn other languages, with the goal of communication in whatever language(s) work(s) best. Not just foreign languages either, but the lingo of different age groups, the dialects of different cultures, the media of different generations, and so forth.

Remember the Tower of Babel story - a quirky little tale that illuminates the human tendency toward homogeneity, countered by God's desire for diversity (Genesis 11:1-9). Well, Pentecost wasn't the opposite of the Tower of Babel, as I once thought. I used to think that the Tower of Babel story confused all the languages and the Pentecost story brought them all back together. But now I think rather that Pentecost reinforces Babel, emphasizing the reality that God has made people different - cultures, places, languages, ages, etc. The Holy Spirit then empowers us to connect with each other within that diversity, it does not eliminate that diversity for the sake of an artificially imposed uniformity.

Language is a human creation, but I believe that God empowers that creativity. That means, for me, that language is given by God and is therefore sacred. We then can choose how to use it - to help or to hurt, to build up or to tear down, to love or to hate, to share good news or to condemn. If language is a sacred gift, how we choose to use it would then reveal something of what we think about God. So I think Summer is right - God's language actually is all languages together. And so learning another person's language teaches us something more about God.

1 comment:

Martin said...

I'd have to say I like my wife's answer the best.. she leaned over to me after you asked the question about what language God speaks, and she said to me, "God's language is Love."