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Translingual Practice, Evangelization, and Ecumenism

November 16, 2014

I was struck by these excerpts quoted in Kurk’s post on Chinese translation:

As I [Lydia H. Liu] have argued elsewhere, one does not translate between equivalents; rather, one creates tropes of equivalence in the middle zone of translation between the host and guest languages. This middle zone of hypothetical equivalence, which is occupied by neologistic imagination, becomes the very ground for change. . . . Meanings, therefore, are not so much “transformed” when concepts pass from the guest language to the host language as invented within the local environment of the latter.

because it reminded me of the changes that have occurred in recent years in both missionary and ecumenical discourse.

The understanding of missionary work during the imperial and/or colonialization period was laced with Manifest Destiny and drenched in power dynamics: we civilized European Christians had been commanded by God to “go and make disciples of all nations.” That means bringing the civilizing effect of the gospel to the heathens and the savages. That means making them over in our own image, bringing them the benefits of Christianity and Anglo-European culture whether they like it or not. We’ll come with our bibles in one hand and our military and economic weapons in the other, to ensure they accept the truth. It’s for their own good, after all. We’ll suppress their heathen customs and force them to live like civilized Christians — two words that often seemed to be used synonymously. Christendom was to be extended, and Christendom started life as an empire.

How different is the language used in the Vatican 2 document on missionary work, Ad Gentes, meaning “To the Nations.” Its paradigm for missionary work is what we commonly refer to as “enculturation”: rather than imposing our cultural pattern as the means by which we carry the gospel, we instead endeavour to discover the native dress in which the stories and truths of the gospel may be clothed, so that they may be encountered as respectful visitors rather than marauding invaders. The document refers to local culture or cultural conditions more than twenty times.

Of course, care must be taken to avoid creating a syncretist melange that is no longer Christianity on the one hand, and to avoid exploiting or appropriating elements of local culture for our own purposes, on the other. This requires the practice of an attentive respectfulness both to our own experience of the gospel we carry, and to the experience of those with whom we hope to share the gospel. Missionaries are indeed visitors in a host culture, and evangelization is an act of translation: as it was when Paul first preached to the Gentiles, finding points of contact in the religious and philosophical beliefs of the citizens of Athens in which he could clothe the gospel, that it might be more easily comprehended and received.

Similar issues of translation arise in the practice of ecumenism. The great ecumenical movement of the 20th century began with a methodology of convergence. The hope was that we simply misunderstood: misunderstood each other, or misunderstood God’s Word; and if only we could strive together for understanding, we could resolve our differences, eliminate our divisions, and reunite Christ’s church: “that you may be one, as the Father and I are one.”

And this hope was at least partially well founded. Great progress was made, especially in the early years, as separated sisters and brothers approached our texts and traditions with eyes and hearts unclouded by the polemics of the history that divided us. Through bilateral and multilateral dialogues often facilitated by the WCC Faith and Order Commission, we found language in which we could express our shared beliefs, and clearer, calmer statements of the matters that still divided us. One of my most compelling experiences in graduate school was reading the Lima document on Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry, in which the body of the text contains language that all could agree on, while remaining differences are set off in boxed text, and seeing with joy that most of the document expressed shared consensus. In more recent years, the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation have signed a similar document on the doctrine of justification, to which a number of other denominations have also become signatories.

In the latter half of the twentieth century, many churches embarked on, and some have completed, a process of re-establishing full ecclesial communion. Our contemporary Christian landscape is filled with churches that have “United” in their name, and some that don’t, that are the outcome of this process. Other churches defined, or discovered, or created means by which they could be in partial or full communion without giving up their separate ecclesial identities, traditions, and cultures: permitting eucharistic sharing and even full clergy recognition, so that a minister ordained in denomination X is fully qualified and eligible to pastor a church in denomination Y.

And yet, despite the hard work and devout prayer of ecumenists, there seem to be limits to this method of convergence. Church-dividing differences still remain, and new ones have arisen, as some churches move towards full inclusion of women and LGBT Christians while others do not. Churches in the process of uniting have encountered difficulties for various reasons; the process has stalled or been descoped, settling for partial rather than full communion.

While dialogue towards convergence still continues, in a modified approach that works towards a more nuanced differentiated consensus, a different approach has also emerged. Called receptive ecumenism, the goal of this approach to ecumenical dialogue is appreciation, rather than agreement. Participants focus on sharing the treasures of their own ecclesial traditions, and appreciating the beauty of treasures that are not their own. Instead of trying to forge an objective consensus expression of truth on neutral common ground, receptive ecumenism traverses the liminal space between dialogue partners, crossing and re-crossing the space between ecclesial traditions, as respectful visitors and as gracious hosts. The paradigm of appreciation fosters a generosity of spirit: after all, one can freely admire certain features of a work of art even when one would be entirely disinclined to take it into one’s own home! The language of receptive ecumenism resembles the translingual practice described by Liu, as gracious hosts try to articulate their love of their own treasures in language that their visitors can understand, and respectful visitors try to encounter and appreciate foreign treasures in their own settings, on their own terms.

Although receptive ecumenism does not explicitly work towards ecclesial unification, it seems to me that it is well suited to accomplish the communion of hearts. To the extent that Christianity is relational, that the church is a community of persons (and Persons) and their network of relationships, it can be said that receptive ecumenism does work towards full communion, after all.

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