Theology as a Second Language
What’s a good way to think about the study of theology in relation to the life of the church? There are Christian circles that hold the study of theology with great suspicion. Too many, in their estimation, strike out on the path of academic theology only to find at the end of the path a gate with a large exit sign above it; passing through, they leave their faith far behind. And anyways, even amongst those who manage to keep their faith, most become more or less useless to ‘everyday’ Christians what with their big terms and constant readiness to point everyone else’s ‘heretical’ formulations. Quite frankly, who needs them?
And then there are those (I confess, I long took up my position in this camp) who think that proficiency in theology (or rather, ‘theological terminology’ – what Augustine would call ‘signs’ rather than ‘things’) is really the goal of the Christian life. What else, pray tell, is Christian maturity if not the ability to rattle off a few Latin transliterations, to explain the theological significance of the enclitic conjunction, and to offer a short disquisition on the significance of the iota (Gibben’s remarks notwithstanding).
Of course, neither of these two positions will do. I want to suggest that learning theology for the Christian is like learning a second (dead) language.
I Only Learned English by Learning Latin
Recently, while teaching one of my Theology classes, I was attempting to make a point about the primacy of God’s initiative in salvation. To do this, I wrote a sentence in the passive voice on the board and asked what I thought was a straightforward and simple question: in this construction, who is acting and who is being acted upon? After a bit of awkward silence, a brave soul piped up, but unfortunately got it wrong. Afterward I was lamenting to a colleague the abysmal state of our current education system. He remarked that in college he had not really understood English either, at least until he studied (classical) Greek.
His comments reminded me that I, too, had not come to understand the English language until I had begun to study Latin. We learn our native language within a particular community. As children we are fully immersed in that language community and we develop our own speech largely by imitation. This is a kind of participation; a participation that shapes our use of language. We pick up, largely at an intuitive level, accents, idioms, expressions, and the like. This is why, when learning another modern spoken language, experts will say the best method is immersion into that language community, or something very close to it. But this cannot be done when learning a dead language (or, not as easily, at least).
So, to learn a language like Latin, I had to learn it from the ground up, as it were. I had to learn how a language functions to communicate meaning. And this meant learning the basic building blocks (alphabets, nouns, verbs, modifiers, etc.) of language. I had to ascertain how those basic blocks are put together to form more complex meanings (phrases, clauses, sentences, etc.). Learning the nuts and bolts of a language was necessary if I was going to make heads or tails of the Latin texts that we would be reading. What I found, unexpectedly, was that it also gave to me a much better understanding of how my native language works.
This better understanding of my own language occurred on two levels. First, I now knew why I spoke or wrote what I did in order to communicate what I wanted. It’s not as though I was learning English for the first time. I had been able to communicate fairly well prior to learning Latin. But if you had asked me why I had phrased myself that way, or why I had used that particular construction, my answer would have been something like: ‘that’s just how you say it.’ Having studied Latin, I could now explain the why questions down to the very building blocks.
Second, I could now communicate in English better. More tools were at my disposal for crafting my communications with care, precision, and freedom. I could now think through what it was, exactly, I wanted to communicate and how best to do so. Before, I had been more or less reliant upon a stock of vocabulary, expressions, and modes of thinking. Now I had a freedom, not a freedom from that stock, but a freedom with it.
Theology as a Second Language
If the theology-as-a-second-language analogy is pressed too hard, it breaks down. Nevertheless, I think a few things may be gleaned from it. First, when we learn our Christian faith—what it means to live as a Christian at this time and in this culture and place—we learn this intuitively from our church communities. Like learning a language natively, we begin to pick up on the community’s liturgical rhythms, grids and rubrics for interpretation of reality, and ways of expressing its own faith and life. After a time of immersion in that community, these become almost instinctual in us.
I suspect, though, that for many Christians whose life of faith is now fully native, if they were asked why they lived out their faith in that way, why they expressed their faith in this manner, why they (along with the Christian church through the ages) confessed that doctrine, that their response would be something like: ‘That’s just how you say/do it.’ This is not a criticism.These Christians are faithfully living out their lives before the face of God. It is not a criticism, but it is an observation of an opportunity.
This is where theology can be helpful in the church context. Learning theology can be much like learning a second language: boring, tedious, difficult. You have to keep new vocabulary straight and learn rules for what are appropriate ways of speaking about God, and what are not. You learn to think using different idioms and different expressions. All of it can, at times, seem very far from the concrete life of faith. But then again, Latin seemed very far from English when I first began to learn it (even with a shared alphabet).
For those who stick to it, theology provides its pupil with a better understanding of the basic building blocks of the life of faith. This, in turn, deepens our understanding of our own native lives of faith within our particular communities. We learn the why of our liturgical rhythms, our grids, our expressions. This is the intellectual part; it is growth in understanding—but it doesn’t stop there. Just like facility in the basic building blocks of language enabled me to communicate better in my own native tongue, so facility in the basic building blocks of the Christian faith enable the Christian to live out that faith better. It allows for a kind of freedom within tradition. Learning the Christian faith within a particular church community shapes our Christian instincts. The Christian life should be instinctual, but it should not be solely instinctual. The native English speaker can mature, moving beyond speaking merely on instinct, to speaking with foresight and intent. The ancients would call this speaking wisely. That is what theology ought to do for the church. Rightly practiced, it enables its members to live the life of faith not just instinctually, but wisely as well.