Whisper Down the Lane: Religious Language Edition

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Posted on November 12th, 2013 | Filed under Challenges, Community, Featured, Interfaith
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I believe that sharing the important aspects of one's beliefs and traditions is an essential part of self-expression. We should all be taught how to communicate our religion or lifestance effectively so as to better encourage and welcome dialogue and discussion. Sometimes, though, when we focus on "getting it right" and acting as good ambassadors of our beliefs (which is an issue on which I hope to write an entirely separate post quite soon) we don't devote enough attention to the other side of this process: we don't listen very well.

I know that my students who attend interfaith council meetings have the absolute best intentions when it comes to having an open mind and learning more about one another and one another's faith traditions, and so I in no way mean to disparage the efforts they go to in order to demonstrate their genuine enthusiasm for multireligious education. It might even be this excitement that eventually gets in the way of better listening. While listening to someone describe a tradition or a rite or a belief, when actively trying to understand it as quickly as possible, we translate it into our own language. This happens a lot faster than we might realize.

Earlier this week, for an exercise during our weekly interfaith meeting, we set up 9 banners depicting major symbols of Bahaism, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Sikhism, and Unitarian Universalism. On the back of each banner was a description of the symbol and its relevance to the religious tradition, written by previous students of that particular religion, using language that those students felt was most appropriate and effective for communicating the nature of the symbol and the tradition to others. The exercise was simple. One student would read the description on the back and then teach another student about that banner. The second student would then turn to a third student and teach them about the banner, and so on and so forth, until every student had been both teacher and student for all nine religions.

I'm sure you remember a simpler version of this game from elementary school. Inevitably, the last person to hear the message repeats something with little resemblance to what the first speaker had whispered down the lane and everyone laughs and tries to trace the mistake back to whoever misheard or misspoke. Our version also had some funny moments, but it was ultimately eye-opening to the fact that we translate our religious language almost immediately. There were some cases where the information had been miscommunicated from the first speaker, and in nearly every case significantly less information was passed on with each new student. The students wanted to simplify, or to clarify, what they understood to be the essential points, but what they actually did was edit someone else's religious tradition to fit their own understanding.

We all do this. I have definitely done this. Sometimes I even do this for other people - when I explain my beliefs as a humanist to a Christian, I often frame it in terms of how it relates to or opposes Christianity. I make the comparisons for them so that it's easier to understand, but the cost of their easy understanding is an incomplete or foggy depiction of how I actually view and experience my own beliefs. There is an obvious benefit to being easily understood, and of course the goal of these discussions would be to help someone else better understand a new way of looking at the world, but we aren't actually furthering the cause of religious literacy but translating the beautiful diversity of religious belief into a watered down uniformity of language. Not everything compares. Not everything matches up neatly. Not everything is easy to understand the first time around, and that is part of what makes it so exciting and necessary.

We asked our students to teach one another based on what they had just been taught by the previous student, and so there were some who had to teach stunted or incorrect aspects of their own religion to the next student. When asked how this made them feel, some said they were frustrated, and others said they were uncomfortable. The most interesting response was from a Hindu student who said she was so accustomed to explaining Hinduism to non-Hindus in ways that were not entirely accurate that our exercise felt normal, if maybe a little disheartening. Sharing our traditions, our beliefs, and our worldviews with others should not be a frustrating and disheartening endeavor, and we shouldn't have to cut this essential part of ourselves down to fit neatly into someone else's notion of our religious identity.

Being able to claim one's own religious identity is incredibly important, and part of that is being able to share that identity in your own language, on your own terms, and in your own way. It may feel like a helpful service to clarify or simplify an explanation for someone else, but in the end it's not moving their understanding forward, and it isn’t a full and true expression of ourselves. It’s a good first step, and it might be necessary to get the conversation going, but we need to remember that it is okay to make someone work a little harder to understand what we are saying, and we should be making the same effort to better understand them.

By the end of the exercise, nearly every banner description included a male-gendered God, heaven, souls, and many had angels. Our quick translations make us think we understand something faster, but in the end we find ourselves passing on incorrect representations of someone else's religious identity.

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One Response to “Whisper Down the Lane: Religious Language Edition”

  1. Wendy Webber says:

    What an excellent interbelief activity. I think the lessons learned that you related are important for all of us. The additional reminder I got from your post is just how careful I need to be when talking about other people’s beliefs. In my increasingly common position as “the-one-who-has-been-to-divinity-school” in my humanist circles I am often asked to explain this religion or that belief. I do my best to present the information, when I have it, as someone from that tradition would, though I’m sure I am rarely wholly successful.

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Esther Boyd is the Communications Director for State of Formation, as well as a humanist working in multifaith chaplaincy at Johns Hopkins University. She holds an M.A. in Religion and Literature from Yale University, where she focused on religious identity, and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Colby College where she focused on American apocalypticism. While in graduate school, she founded Yale Divinity School’s interfaith student cooperative, Open Party, sparking deeper interest in interreligious education. Esther is also an editor for the Humanist Chaplaincy thinkblog Applied Sentience.


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