Being Found in Translation: Reflecting on Issues of Theological Translation in Spiritual Community
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Translation is Movement
Whenever Quakers from various streams get together, similarities and differences quickly arise. Even more so when Quakers and non-Quakers (whether religious or not) get together, even more opportunity for differences in language and experience, misunderstandings, and the possibility to deepen one's own understandings are present.
Massive differences among Friends is the current state of the Quaker tradition; it’s not something we should fight against. Instead, we need to learn how to be with one another by being clear about who we are while “moving towards sympathy,” as Howard Thurman says, with another.
This work of being clear about who I am while embracing someone else is part-and-parcel of what it means to translate.
trans*late (unfold for definition)
verb [with object]
express the sense of (words or text) in another language move from one place or condition to another: she had been translated from familiar surroundings to a foreign court.
- formal move (a bishop) to another see or pastoral charge: in 1228 he was translated from Salisbury to Durham.
- formal remove (a saint's relics) to another place.
- literary convey (someone, typically still alive) to heaven. Physics cause (a body) to move so that all its parts travel in the same direction, without rotation or change of shape.
What do you see in these different definitions of what it means to translate? Is there anything you'd add?
Translating in Community
I think the work for Quakers, and anyone seeking authentic spiritual community, will be to follow the movement from #1 to #2.
In other words, in community, first we work on learning how to:
express the sense of (words or text) in another language.
When someone shares a different spiritual experience, or uses a a word or describes their faith in ways that we find challenging, the first step is to learn how to translate what is being said into you own paradigm.
But we do not stop there. Next we seek to:
"move from one place or condition to another..."
When we listen to one another speak about our spiritual convictions, our work is not simply to take in what others say and put it into our own words. The work for those who are translating in a faith community is to be moved by the other, to not just hear what we already know, but to expect to find the Light in a new and different way. In the very act of listening – and translating – we can be be moved, transformed, and changed.
This is easier said than done.
The challenge for us isn’t typically that we don’t know what the other is talking about, the problem is more that we don’t like what they are saying.
This reminds me of a favorite quote from Anthony De Mello, a Jesuit Priest from India:
The whole world is crazy…The only reason we’re not locked up in an institution is that there are so many of us. So we’re crazy. We’re living on crazy ideas about love, about relationships, about happiness, about joy, about everything. We’re crazy to the point, I’ve come to believe, that if everybody agrees on something, you can be sure it’s wrong. Every new idea, every great idea, when it first began was in a minority of one. That man called Jesus Christ — minority of one. Everybody was saying something different from what he was saying. The Buddha — minority of one. Everybody was saying something different from what he was saying. I think it was Bertrand Russell who said, “Every great idea starts out as blasphemy.” That’s well and accurately put.
It's not true that everything we don't like is because we view it as blasphemy, but how often do we react to something different or new or "wrong" as though it were?
It is also hard when we do not see ourselves in their experience, or when their experience runs counter to our own. It is easy to assume that when they say they believe X, Y or Z, we know exactly what they mean based on some previous experience or assumptions we’ve made.
In classes I teach, I not only invite students to listen and translate the words that I say into words they know and understand, but to hear how the words that are being used are being used differently than what they might already know. For instance, perhaps someone grew up in a community where God was portrayed as angry, violent, and punishing. Furthermore, it might be the case that this violent God then became the justification for mistreatment in their families and communities. Unfortunately, there are too many examples of a violent god being used to justify attitudes and behaviors that are really rooted in human rivalry, hunger for power, and need for control. When an individual who has experienced this level of spiritual violence hears the word "God" being used there is, often and rightfully so, a strong and negative reaction. In the act of translating as we're talking about it here - as a move towards sympathy, I want to hold that as true and authentic for this person.
First, I want to move towards the other and their experience in an act of sympathy and as a member of their spiritual community.
Second, I want to invite the person to hear "God" being uttered in completely different, and sometimes, radical ways. Personally, when I speak of God, I speak of one who is loving and has no need for vengeance, violence, or scapegoating. This God of whom I speak is one who advocates for the poor, the dispossessed, the marginalized, and whose "backs are against the wall at any given moment in human history," (Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited).
This is a God who does get angry but gets angry at empire, at systems of oppression, and the people who use them to exploit others. This is obviously a very different rendering of the name "God" that would be lost if all we were doing it was simply translating into something we feel comfortable with. So, how are these words that we are so used to hearing, and sometimes so used to seeing misused, being reclaimed, reused in subversive ways?