Speaking the Language
“Master,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in Your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not accompany us.” “Do not stop him,” Jesus replied, “for whoever is not against you is for you.” (Luke 9:49-50)
I often refer to being able to “speak” Catholic, Mennonite, Evangelical, Mormon, or Buddhist. Some of these I’m more comfortable with than others. That’s because each religious culture has its own specific phrasing and terminology. And sometimes the same word means different things. “Witness,” for example, means something different to a Catholic than it does to an Evangelical (and something far different to a Buddhist).
Today, my pastor asked me whether I learned abut the various “languages” of religion from my mentors, whom he has heard me talk about many times. I thought about that for a moment. The answer is no. My mentors have been of particular religions or sects. Fr. Niphot Thienvihan in Thailand worked to communicate well with the Buddhist majority, but at the time I was Buddhist, so that’s not something I learned from him.
This is a talent I developed myself, because of my unique background and circumstances. As a child and an adolescent, I was the outcast in almost every situation. I recently learned that this is because I’m on the autistic spectrum. I don’t communicate or develop intimate relationships as easily as “neurotypicals,” as the Aspies call y’all. Drinking made this easier. I suspect it made it easier to bear rather than making me fit in any better. I still didn’t communicate well. I still said the wrong things at the wrong times. I just didn’t care. And neither did my drinking buddies.
As a sober adult, and with some very patient help, I learned to compensate for some of my communications challenges. I’ve been married three times, though whether that speaks to my abilities or lack of them I’m not sure.
I also learned something else: when you don’t fit anywhere, you fit everywhere equally well. This became a gift in Sri Lanka, where I was as comfortable talking to a villager as I was the U.S. Ambassador. I found I had a gift for getting people to talk to me, and I used it to gather information that helped my team understand the civil war better.
But I had to be able to communicate in terms they understood. I had to “learn their language,” so to speak. (I did learn some of the local language, but was never particularly fluent. What I mean is that I learned to communicate in their euphemisms.)
I studied theology at Loyola Marymount University because I wanted to understand Christianity. I wanted to learn to “speak” it. At the time, I had no interest in conversion. But I realized that if I wanted to help people in a Christian culture, I had to understand and be conversant in that Christian culture. (I didn’t realize yet that different sects used different languages.)
These days, I’m comfortable chatting with Catholics or Mormons or Buddhists. I’m learning to speak Mennonite. I still don’t entirely grasp the Evangelical lingo. I understand their theology, but I have trouble using the right expressions.
Why is this important? Because the Christian community is so diverse. It’s fragmented, and tends to isolate and specialize. Ask an Evangelical what his or her favorite Bible passage is and it may be Ephesians 2:8-9, emphasizing grace. A liberal Catholic might suggest Amos: “Let justice roll down like waters.” A Mennonite recently listed his as Isaiah 40:29: “He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.”
There is but one Gospel and one Body. Each of us comes to them with different concerns, and different strengths and weaknesses. Then we specialize. And too often, we judge. “They” don’t believe what we believe (or maybe they just don’t emphasize it). “They” don’t worship like we do.
The Bible is clear on this: “No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). Or, as Jesus put it, “Whoever is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:50). We are all one Body. But we don’t always act that way.
I’m naturally inclined to build bridges. I want rural people and urban people, and liberals and conservatives, to understand each other. How much more do I want to see Christians respecting and working with each other! Especially when trying times are ahead of us.
None of us has the same strengths and weaknesses. None of us knows the mind of God. We will always differ on details. But let us embrace each other as Christians!
I strive to speak the various languages of religion so we can better understand each other, because understanding is the root of acceptance.