I was recently asked by a reporter to discuss why it is that Christians, Muslims, and Jews have so much tension between them. A complex question – but one for which at least one answer is emerging.
We do not speak one another’s language, and indeed increasingly refuse to do so. Christians learn about Muslims and Jews. We gather all sorts of facts and information. But we don’t speak Jewish, and really we don’t even try. We speak in English (or whatever our native language) about Jews and even to Jews. And the same is true in our speaking about and to Muslims. We learn about them, but we don’t speak their language.
And, for that matter, this is true about the way that Muslims and Jews speak to each other and Christians.
Language is about a lot more than just shared words and concepts. It is built on a foundation of shared presuppositions about the world and the basic experiences of different communities and individuals. When we talk to each other it will be those assumption and values (shared or different) that determine what we talk about, the way in which we deploy language to communicate, and whether we are fascinated or bored, engaged or isolated with or from each other.
One example of this came up in a recent dialogue I moderated. The Jewish participant enthusiastically shared a frequently told story from the Talmud. In it a group of rabbis actually quote scripture to God. They quote God’s word to tell God to get out of their discussion. For the Muslim participant in the dialogue this story was both shocking and blasphemous. And it created no mutual understanding.
The reason for this failure of understanding is that in Islamish (to coin a word) the human speaker always takes a standpoint of complete humility vis-a-vis God. A child who speaks German (or Spanish) knows to always use formal language for strangers, elders, and any person of higher social statues. A French speaker knows to always refer to himself or herself in the masculine or feminine form. And a Muslim always places God in an exalted place in theological discourse. As he or she would do with the prophets. Islamish is an inherently hierarchical language. The place in which you locate yourself, always in an attitude of submission to God and utmost respect for the prophets, is part and parcel of how you speak it. Phrases like “thanks be to God,” “if God wills,” “Blessings upon him/her,” punctuate all speech.Jewish (to use an old word in a new way), especially the Jewish spoken in the Talmud, is not hierarchical in this way. The social world of the Rabbis anachronistically places together voices from many different historical periods and constantly flattens the social distance between the rabbis, God and the prophets. Stories move easily between earth and heaven, and the God whom it would be blasphemous to name is addressed with easy familiarity. What is blaspheme in Islamish is intimacy in Jewish.
Christian is yet another language, especially the modern Protestant dialect of Christian. For theology we have neither a hierarchical language like Islamish nor an intimate language like Jewish. Our language is strongly immanent and instrumental. We neither submit to God nor argue with the Divine. We subject the objective concepts of God and neighbor to various linguistic manipulations to achieve our particular goals.
For us Islamish seems too passive and Jewish too inconclusive.
There are other dimensions to the differences in language between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. And even greater differences in the languages of Buddhism and Hinduism. In dialogue it is these differences in language that we need to finally begin to recognize and acknowledge. Then we will face a choice. Learn a new language, or continue to waste our words.