A dispute within the Roman Catholic Church about a revision of a worship book provides a chance for all of us to think about how crucial language is -- or can be -- in faith communities. And also about the limits of words.
The Catholics are considering a new translation from Latin to English of the Roman Missal, but Bishop Donald W. Trautman of Erie, Pa., former chairman of the U.S. bishops' liturgy committee, recently leveled some sharp criticism at the revision, suggesting it was much too literal and thereby missed a lot of the intended meaning. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is to consider the changes when it meets in November.
Well, as a Presbyterian, I don't have a dog in this fight. So I won't be either leaping in on Trautman's side or defending the translators.
But I think Trautman's critique offers reminders about what use people of faith are to make of language and how important, if limited, that language is.
First, no matter what religion we claim, all of us should acknowledge that all words -- all words -- are simply metaphors in that they themselves are not the objects they describe. Rather, in an almost sacramental way, they point beyond themselves.
One of the implications of that reality is that we would do well not to fall in love with particular words or phrases because we think they exhaust the divine meaning in something. So none of the many creeds in our Presbyterian Book of Confessions, for instance, contains words that, if I say them, will guarantee me an eternal relationship with God. Rather, they direct me to eternal things. They themselves are not eternal. Some of them, it turns out, reflect misguided thinking from centuries ago, and we'd be foolish to hitch our wagons to them -- even though, as an ordained elder in the church, I have pledged to "sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church. . ."
In Christianity, at least, truth is not a doctrine or dogma expressed in exact words. Rather, truth is a person, Christ Jesus, known as the Word of God. And I find that enormously liberating.
But whatever our faith tradition, if any, let's remember not just the importance of beautifully crafted words but also their limits. That's partly what I draw from the current Catholic dispute.
(The illustration here today is from http://fysop.files.wordpress.com/2009/06/words-12.jpg.)
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THE VATICAN IS WATCHING
When Pope Benedict XVI met the new Iranian ambassador to the Vatican on Thursday, it gave him a chance to let Iran's leaders know that he and other religious leaders around the world are watching the ways in which that country either defends or denigrates the religious freedom of all its citizens. That's one good reason for countries with bad histories of religious oppression to have formal relations with the Vatican.