One of the ideas I like to play with is an analogy, borrowed originally from George Lindbeck: religion as language. If a religion is like a language – if learning to speak Christian is like learning to speak English – all kinds of interesting possibilities appear about how we might understand religion. One of them is that knowing your religion really well, or being really competent in it, is like being fluent in a language.
Fluency has all kinds of aspects, as anyone who has ever tried to learn a language will know. (And I don’t really, although at various times I’ve tried quite hard – I’m terrible at languages.) There’s vocabulary. There’s grammar. There’s the surrounding culture – knowing when to speak at all, for example. There are the adjustments in vocabulary and grammar for different situations, and often different ways of looking at the world. If you speak a language which distinguishes between formal and informal pronouns, for example, you have build a mental filter which sorts situations with reference to which is appropriate.
Compare someone learning a new language to someone learning a new religion. Some people will be happy with a few words picked up for fun, or enough to get by as a tourist – going to a wedding in a tradition not your own might be an occasion when you need a little of another religion in this way, for example. Some will learn a language in detail without ever really using it; it’s possible, if unusual, to study the Bible and know Christianity well without ever participating in a Christian community. It’s more common to have some grounding in a religion and then change later on (in this analogy ‘atheist’ or ‘secular’ can also be thought of as a language). As I have discussed in a previous post about belonging, it’s also possible to belong to more than one religion at once – and the image of religion as a language gives us an obvious analogy for this, being bilingual, something which is not provided by many other ways of discussing religion.
It can give us insights into the ways in which religion changes and yet is preserved – this is the focus of Lindbeck’s use of the analogy. He thinks of a language in a Wittgensteinian model, seeing that meaning is use, and focuses on the community which preserves the language or the religion. Just as English can change over time and in response to new circumstances and inventions (consider, among others, ‘mouse’, ‘gay’, and, for a religiously themed example, ‘icon’), so Christianity can change. Just as in English, fluent speakers have an instinct for what is grammatical and what is new, even in new uses of words (a new verb is still a verb), fluent Christians will know what is an acceptable development and what is not. In fact, Lindbeck is worried that without enough fluent users, religion might change beyond recognition, just as a language dies without speakers. If we share that worry, it would be worth asking: how do we train people to be fluent in our religion, whether that’s Christianity or another tradition? Can the language analogy help us to find better ways of teaching religion, as well as helping us to understand it better?