Losing the Language of Christianity
There’s a quite good report in the March 30 issue of The New Yorker, talking about efforts to save languages that are fast going extinct. Judith Thurman writes:
The mother tongue of more than three billion people is one of twenty, which are, in order of their current predominance: Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, English, Hindi, Arabic, Portuguese, Bengali, Russian, Japanese, Javanese, German, Wu Chinese, Korean, French, Telugu, Marathi, Turkish, Tamil, Vietnamese, and Urdu. English is the lingua franca of the digital age, and those who use it as a second language may outnumber its native speakers by hundreds of millions. On every continent, people are forsaking their ancestral tongues for the dominant language of their region’s majority. Assimilation confers inarguable benefits, especially as Internet use proliferates and rural youth gravitate to cities. But the loss of languages passed down for millennia, along with their unique arts and cosmologies, may have consequences that won’t be understood until it is too late to reverse them.
“Let’s be honest,” Kaufman said. “The loss of these languages doesn’t matter much to the bulk of humanity, but the standard for assessing the worth or benefit of a language shouldn’t rest with outsiders, who are typically white and Western. It’s an issue of the speakers’ perceived self-worth.” He suggested that I meet some of those speakers not far from home—members of the Mohawk nation. “The older people are the only ones who can tell you what their youth stands to lose,” he said. “The young are the only ones who can articulate the loss of an identity rooted in a mother tongue that has become foreign to them.” He told me about a two-week immersion program that takes place each summer at the Kanatsiohareke community center, in Fonda, New York, a village on the Mohawk River between Utica and Albany.
These kinds of programs are called “language nests,” and they were started by the Maori of New Zealand. Thurman points out that “a nest is a sanctuary from predation as much as an incubator.” The idea is simple but profound: the natural cultural forces around us are destroying these languages, and with them cultures, even cosmologies. The only way to save them is to pass them on to the next generations, and the only way to do that is to study them intensely a sanctuary/incubator setting, and then to put what you learn there into use in daily life.
Reading this, I thought this is the Benedict Option for languages. These speakers of dying languages and their children are not running for the hills to hide out, but they are creating communal institutions within which precious but severely threatened knowledge can be passed on, even as the younger generations live and work in the world. The elders know their children will be assimilated to a certain degree within the broader world, but they are trying as hard as they can to give them the knowledge and the love to hold on to their traditions and inheritance.
This is a good way to think about what I call the Benedict Option for Christians and other religious traditionalists. Think of Christianity as a distinct language, a way of construing the world. Like language, the Christian faith was not delivered perfect from heaven and preserved pristine and unchanged for centuries. But it does have a vocabulary and a grammar, so to speak, that set it apart from other languages. In its 2,000 years, Christianity has developed a number of what you might consider “dialects,” but because we in the West have lived in a recognizably Christian culture, it has been possible for us to understand each other, and to more or less hold on to the core concepts at the heart of the language.
We now find ourselves, though, in a post-Christian world, one in which the pressure to assimilate is causing tens of millions of people to lose the language — often without knowing that they’re losing it. You might say that “Christian” is the language that people who identify as Christians speak. But if that were true, wouldn’t it be the case that Chinese-Americans who speak not a single word of Mandarin Chinese, but rather English, could be said to be speaking “Chinese”? Clearly that’s absurd, but that is what it means to identify Christianity with whatever people say it is. If it is not firmly rooted in long-established standards, it will be a different language — or a different religion.
This is the great danger of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. As sociologist Christian Smith writes:
However, it appears that only a minority of U.S. teenagers are naturally absorbing by osmosis the traditional substantive content and character of the religious traditions to which they claim to belong. For, it appears to us, another popular religious faith—Moralistic Therapeutic Deism—is colonizing many historical religious traditions and, almost without anyone noticing, converting believers in the old faiths to its alternative religious vision of divinely underwritten personal happiness and interpersonal niceness. Exactly how this process is affecting American Judaism and Mormonism we refrain from further commenting on, since these faiths and cultures are not our primary fields of expertise. Other more accomplished scholars in those areas will have to examine and evaluate these possibilities in greater depth. But we can say that we have come with some confidence to believe that a significant part of “Christianity” in the United States is actually only tenuously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition,9 but has rather substantially morphed into Christianity’s misbegotten step-cousin, Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This has happened in the minds and hearts of many individual believers and, it also appears, within the structures of at least some Christian organizations and institutions. The language—and therefore experience—of Trinity, holiness, sin, grace, justification, sanctification, church, Eucharist, and heaven and hell appear, among most Christian teenagers in the United States at the very least, to be being supplanted by the language of happiness, niceness, and an earned heavenly reward. It is not so much that Christianity in the United States is being secularized. Rather more subtly, either Christianity is at least degenerating into a pathetic version of itself or, more significantly, Christianity is actively being colonized and displaced by a quite different religious faith.
Note well that this is not something that is being imposed on Christian young people by outside oppressors, like the cruel authorities of old who beat and punished Native and Cajun children for speaking their language. This is a soft colonization, with the speakers of the old language not even noticing what is happening.
But it is happening.
I am certain, though, that the world is quickly becoming the sort of place where the old-style language oppressors will find themselves empowered and active to force traditional “Christian speakers” to abandon their ancestral tongue. Even if this doesn’t come to pass, the language of Christianity is fast fading from our culture, and with it a cosmos.
Churches, families, and religious schools that don’t become “nests” will not be recognizably Christian within this century. I’m convinced of that. Hence the Benedict Option.