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by Robert Louis Wilken
First Things, August/September 2005.
When St. Augustine abandoned the teaching of rhetoric in Milan to enroll for baptism, he asked St. Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, what to read in the Scriptures “to make me readier and fitter to receive so great a grace”? Ambrose told him to read the prophet Isaiah. Augustine took his advice, but as soon as he took the book in hand he was perplexed by what he read. “I did not understand the first passage of the book,” he writes, and he thought “the whole would be equally obscure.” So Augustine laid it aside, as he explains, “to be resumed when I had more practice in the Lord’s style of language.”
In dominico eloquio—it is an arresting phrase. For the Christian reader Isaiah is a demanding and difficult book once one strays beyond the familiar passages cited in the New Testament or commonly read in Christian worship (Isaiah 9 at Christmas, Isaiah 53 during Holy Week). To the uninitiated, the first chapter is particularly daunting with its arcane oracles against Judah and Jerusalem: “Ah, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, sons who deal corruptly. They have forsaken the Lord, they have despised the Holy One of Israel.”
For someone like Augustine, formed by the poetry of Virgil and the philosophy of Plotinus, the opening verses must have seemed embarrassingly parochial, taken up as they are with the fortunes of the ancient Israelites centuries earlier. Words such as “sinful nation,” “holy one of Israel,” “daughter of Zion,” “new moon and Sabbath” would have sounded alien, and anthropomorphisms like “I will vent my wrath on my enemies” or “turn my hand against you” would have offended his cultivated spiritual sensibility.
Yet Augustine called Isaiah’s language “the Lord’s style of language,” and he recognized that if he were to enter the Church he would have to learn this new tongue, hear it spoken, grow accustomed to its sounds, read the books that use it, learn its idioms, and finally speak it himself. He had to embark on a journey to acquaint himself with the mores of a new country. Becoming a Christian meant entering a strange and often alien world.
In the early Church, catechumens were received at the great vigil of Easter, beginning on Saturday evening where the creed was “handed over.” As Bishop Ambrose realized, there was more to becoming a Christian than putting the creed to memory and being instructed in the “mysteries.” Christian catechesis meant learning the distinctively Christian language formed by the Scriptures. And among the books of the Bible, Isaiah was preeminent: an evangelist as well as a prophet, according to Jerome.
The “faith” is not simply a set of doctrinal propositions, creedal affirmations, and moral codes. It is a world of discourse that comes to us in language of a particular sort. And language, as we discover when we study a foreign tongue, is not simply an instrument for ideas, beliefs, and sentiments. Language defines who we are; it molds how a people think, how they see the world, how they respond to persons and events, even how they feel. Thinking and understanding, like memory, are not solitary acts; they are social, wedded to the language we share with others. If we forget how to speak our language, we lose something of ourselves. “What is pronounced strengthens itself,” the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz once wrote. “What is not pronounced tends to non-existence.”
But the language of a people or a country is not the only kind of language. There are also languages within languages. Just as there is a language proper to biology or to medicine, so there is a language proper to Christianity. Our beliefs, our moral convictions, and our attitudes are carried by very specific words and images. Words, not ideas, bring into focus with compactness and intensity what is honored and cherished. They are the indispensable carriers of the Church’s faith as it is handed on from generation to generation.
Think, for example, how many terms Christians use in a distinctive way: Father, Son, Spirit, faith, hope, love, grace, sin, mercy, repentance, forgiveness, image of God, flesh, kingdom, lamb of God, suffering servant, righteousness, see (as in “blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”), know (as in “know the truth”), believe, truth (as in “I am the truth”), creation, “male and female he made them,” passion (as in the Passion of Christ), the face of God, Kyrie eleison. And that is not to mention the many place names with extra meaning: Jerusalem, Mount Zion, Egypt, Galilee, Sinai, Carmel, Damascus, the Mount of Olives, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Golgotha. Or the names of persons: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Moses, Samuel, David, Solomon, Isaiah, Paul, James, Mary, Mary Magdalene, Peter.
All of these words come from the Scriptures, for the basic lexicon of Christian speech is the Bible. Indeed, with some few exceptions—the Greek term homoousios (one in being with the Father) in the Nicene Creed being one example—the distinctively Christian vocabulary is almost wholly drawn from the Bible. Though Christians may speak English or Spanish or Arabic or Russian, they nevertheless use another language, a language within their native language, that is uniquely and recognizably Christian.
Consider the difference between the phrase “Happy Easter” and “Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia.” The one is the language of our society, the other the Church’s speech. Or take the words “nature” and “creation.” The first is the conventional term in our society to refer to the world of plants and animals and mountains and oceans—what we call the “natural world.” “Creation” is the term used by the Bible and Christians to point to a Creator and the world as ordered and purposeful. Instead of revered ancestors, Christians speak of saints. When we are speaking of Christ’s birth, we speak of the Incarnation.
Even some of our prosaic terms are unique: We have a “pope” rather than a “president”; we say “bishop” instead of “governor”; and we say “council” or “synod” instead of “convention.” Christians even have a unique term to refer to the community to which they belong: “Church.”
There is a consuetudo loquendi ecclesiastica, Augustine said—the Church’s customary way of speaking. As an example, he gave the word “martyr,” the term used by Christians for what the Romans call vir, or “hero.” Recall the opening words of the Aeneid, the great Roman epic. Arma virumque cano—“Arms and the man I sing”: of the making of war and of a hero. The term vir had a venerable history in Latin, and from one perspective it seemed fitting for the martyrs. But Augustine thought Christians should avoid it and use a distinctively Christian word for their valor. The word “martyr” bore overtones that were absent from “hero,” and “hero” carried connotations that would be offensive to a Christian martyr.
“Martyr” was, of course, a biblical term meaning “witness,” and it is used with a specific sense in the book of Acts. Again and again, the disciples are called “witnesses of the Resurrection”—people who knew Christ during his earthly sojourn and to whom the risen Christ appeared. Accordingly a martyr is one who knows Christ and bears witness in death to the living Lord. By comparison the term vir seemed colorless and anemic when applied to such faithful and courageous witnesses to the faith. In a sermon on the celebration of the martyrdom of Cyprian, St. Augustine highlighted another term used by Christians for the martyrs. Natales, dates of birth, designated the days of martyrdom:
Today we celebrate the birthday of the most glorious martyr, Cyprian. This expression, natales, is regularly employed by the Church in this way, so that it calls the precious deaths of the martyrs their “birthdays.” This expression, I repeat, is regularly employed by the Church, to the extent that even those who do not belong to her join her in using it. Is there anyone to be found, I ask you, and I do not mean just in this city of ours, but throughout the whole of Africa and the regions overseas, and not only any Christian, but any pagan or Jew, or even heretic, who does not call today the birthday of the martyr Cyprian?
Why is this, brothers? What date he was born on, we do not know; and because he suffered today, it is today that we celebrate his birthday. We would not celebrate that other day, even if we knew when it was. On that day he contracted original sin, while on this day he overcame all sin. On that day he came forth from the wearisome confines of his mother’s womb into this light, which is so alluring to our eyes of flesh; but on this day he went away from the deep darkness of nature’s womb to that light, which sheds such blessing and good fortunes upon the mind. *
Another suggestive example is the Latin word passio, “passion.” It occurs in 1 Thessalonians, “that each one of you know how to take a wife for himself in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like heathens who do not know God.” Augustine judged this translation unacceptable because “passion” was the word used for Christ’s suffering and death. “In the Church’s customary way of speaking” he said, the term “passion” is not used in a pejorative sense (as in the phrase from 1 Thessalonians—the “passion of lust”). It should be reserved for the suffering of Christ and the martyrs. Latin-speaking Christians also used altare rather than ara, the conventional Latin term for “altar.” For “pray,” they preferred orare to rogare, the more common Roman word.
Augustine even thought that Christians should avoid the Roman names for the days of the week—Monday, dies Lunae, meant the moon’s day; Wednesday, dies Mercurii, the day of Mercury. “We do not like this practice,” says Augustine, “and we wish Christians would amend their custom and not employ the pagan name.” And then he adds: “Christians have a language of their own that they can use.” Augustine preferred the simple numeration of days—first, second, third—a practice that is kept to this day in the Latin breviary (feria prima, feria secunda, etc.).
The faith, then, is embedded in language. It is not a set of abstract beliefs or ideas, but a world of shared associations and allusions with its own beauty and sonority, inner cohesion and logic, emotional and rhetorical power. The Church’s way of speaking is a collection of the words and images that have formed the thinking and actions of those who have known Christ. The faith they confessed cannot be divorced from the words they used, nor the words uprooted from the lives of their speakers. Christian thinking is inescapably historical.
Christian speech is not primarily the technical vocabulary of Christian doctrine: “substance,” “essence,” “one person and two natures,” “prevenient grace,” “atonement,” “transubstantiation.” It is the language of the Psalms, the stories of the patriarchs, the parables of the gospels, the moral vocabulary of St. Paul’s epistles. Though Christians became comfortable with the philosophical vocabulary of the cardinal virtues (“prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance”), their native language for the virtuous life comes from St. Paul who spoke of “fruits of the Spirit”: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” In using the Church’s language, we learn to live together as a community, to breathe in harmony. We learn to think the Church’s thoughts, share its loves, and live by its precepts.
One of the most beautiful words in the Christian lexicon is “hyssop,” as in the fifty-first psalm’s “purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean.” This is a term we only hear when reciting the Psalms. In Christian speech, “hyssop” has overtones of repentance and forgiveness, and calls to mind the beautiful seventeenth verse of the psalm: “A humble and contrite heart God will not despise.” Nothing is more characteristic of Christian life than repentance.
Another is the term “patience.” About A.D. 200, Tertullian, the first Christian to write in Latin, prepared a little treatise called de patientia, “On Patience.” Cyprian and Augustine also wrote works with that title. Tertullian observed that patience was not only a divine but a human virtue. The supreme example is Christ’s Passion, an observation echoed by Augustine: “The Passion of our Lord is a lesson in patience.” For Christians, patience is not only about endurance; it is about a hope grounded in the Resurrection. For Tertullian (himself an impatient man) it is the premier Christian virtue because it signifies a life oriented toward a future that is God’s doing. Its distinctive feature is longing—not so much to be released from the ills of the present, but for the good to come. Even love, said Tertullian, cannot be practiced “without the exercise of patience.”
“Mercy” is another beloved Christian word taken from the Bible. St. Caesarius of Arles called it dulce nomen, “a sweet word.” Some years ago, sitting in Christ Church at Oxford during morning prayer, I noticed on the stone floor medallions with the terms justitia, prudentia, fortitudo, and temperantia, representing the four cardinal virtues. But then I noticed that there was a fifth. When prayers had ended and I could make my way to the front, I found the fifth was misericordia, “mercy.” Clearly the designers of the church thought that the cardinal virtues, inherited from the Greek philosophical tradition, were not complete without the addition of a distinctively Christian term. As early as the third century, recognizing the indispensability of the term misericordia for thinking about the Christian life, the Christian writer Lactantius chided the Stoic philosophers because they had no place in their moral vocabulary for the affections.
Without the distinctive Christian language there can be no full Christian life, no faithful handing on of the faith to the next generation. For that reason, the words that embody what we believe and practice—words given us by those in whom Christ was present—cannot be frivolously tampered with, translated into another idiom, or discarded. As Augustine taught us centuries ago, the appropriate metaphor for the Church is a city. Language is a defining mark of the Christian polis. And, like a city, the Church draws its citizens into a shared public life, one marked by its central cultic activity, the Eucharist, and by other rituals, such as Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, and Corpus Christi. The Christian society has its own calendar that sets the rhythms of the community’s life, offices, institutions, laws, architecture, art, and music, its own customs and mores, history and memory.
One of the most significant features of the transformation of the Roman world in the fourth and fifth centuries was that Christianity occupied and then re-oriented public space. The classical city with its agora and temples and theaters gave way to a new city plan with the church located at the center. With this Christianization of space came the sacralization of time as the Church’s calendar marked the days for fasting and resting and feasting. In the early middle ages, when kings and their peoples embraced Christianity, conversion was more than adherence to a new set of beliefs. It brought about a change in public practice.
And yet, in modern times—particularly in the last hundred years—the Church has gradually given up this public face, relinquishing the public square to other rituals, other calendars, other architecture, and other languages. There has been an alarming decline in communal rituals and practices. The Church’s way of life is being chewed up and spit out by the omnivorous secular society that surrounds us.
A telling example is the rise of the term “culture.” We tend to use “culture” not of the Church but of the society in which we live. But the task of handing on the faith is not primarily a question of how “Christ” relates to “culture” but of how the Christian culture is to be sustained and deepened in the face of another culture that is increasingly alien and hostile. The Christ-and-culture paradigm implicitly assumes that the secular culture is the arbiter of meaning. Consequently, a high premium is placed on translation from one idiom to another. Translation, of course, is inevitable in any religious transaction, whether it be telling a story from the Bible to a child, explaining the sacraments to a convert, or preaching the gospel to a people who know nothing of Christianity. If, however, Christianity is a culture in its own right, the Church must insist on its own way of speaking. There must be translation into the Lord’s style of language, bringing alien language into the orbit of Christian belief and practice and giving it a different meaning. More frequently, however, the task of handing on the faith is understood to mean rendering Christian language into the patois of modernity—even in liturgy, an area where one would expect the uniqueness and idiosyncrasy of the Church’s way of speaking to be preserved.
Here, for example, is the prayer for Pentecost XI prior to the reforms of Vatican II: “Look mercifully upon our service, O Lord, I beseech you, that what we offer may be a gift acceptable to you and a support to our frailty” (nostrae fragilitatis subsidium). In the new version, it reads: “Look mercifully upon our service, O Lord, we beseech you, that what we offer may be a gift acceptable to you and an increase of our charity” (nostrae caritatis augmentum).
The alteration seems innocuous, and the reason given by the compilers reasonable: They wished to render the petition positive rather than negative, thereby making the Latin prayer more dynamic. But the result was the elimination of “frailty,” a vivid word found in early liturgical texts and used for centuries. In its place comes “love,” obviously a good Christian word, but one that focuses the prayer on the goal while ignoring what stands in the way—our “frailty.” An important theological nuance is lost as a common expression replaces the more profound formulation.
Another example is the collect for the first Sunday of Easter: “O God, who unlocked for us the gate of eternity through your only begotten Son who conquered death, grant, we beseech you, that we who celebrate the solemnity of his resurrection may through renewal of the Holy Spirit, rise from the death of the soul” (a morte animae). The revised version reads: “through renewal of the Holy Spirit, rise in the light of life” (in lumine vitae).
The new version is not simply vacuous, but incoherent. What does it mean to “rise in the light of life”? The faithful are deprived of two precious Christian words, “soul” and “death,” both biblical and central to Christian faith. More, the new version ignores a fundamental truth about Easter—for Easter is not only a celebration of Christ’s Resurrection, but a time of interior renewal for the Christian, a truth that is expressed metaphorically in the phrase “rise from the death of the soul.” The original version plunges the faithful into the deeper caverns of the spiritual life, where they struggle against the forces that hold them in bondage. The revision injects the fatuous language of new-age religion into the Church’s worship.
Such changes are deliberate, an attempt to accommodate the words of the liturgy to “the modern mentality” (in the words of one of the revisers). The translators display an embarrassing lack of confidence in what Christians believe and practice. Some texts were judged “shocking for the man of today” and “difficult to understand” and for that reason were “frankly corrected.” What we have here is a kind of inculturation in Western modernity. “Liturgy,” insists Anscar Chapungco, one of the leading exponents of inculturation, “must not impose on culture a meaning or bearing that is intrinsically alien to its nature.” What this represents, to borrow a phrase from John Milbank, is a kind of “policing of the sublime.”
The unique gift of liturgy, Roman Guardini wrote in his Spirit of the Liturgy, is to “create a universe brimming with fruitful spiritual life.” Liturgy does not “exist for the sake of humanity, but for the sake of God.” If the Bible is the lexicon of Christian speech, then the liturgy is its grammar, a place to come to know and practice the Christian idiom and to be formed by it. For Augustine, the reciting of the Psalms was a way of making the words of the psalmist his own, and he talked about what the words of the Psalms “had done to me.”
Paul Griffiths recently observed that one does not have to believe to make use of Christian language and ideas. In the last decades four European philosophers, all atheists, have written major works that draw on Christian thinkers: Terry Eagleton on Thomas Aquinas, Jean-François Lyotard on Augustine’s Confessions, Alain Badiou on St. Paul, and Slavoj Zizek on Christ’s willing acceptance of suffering and death. None of these writers embraces the Church’s theological views, but they exhibit a yearning for something more than modernity has to offer—and the only place to turn, finally, is Christianity, with its language, its mode of thinking, and its texts. “This should not surprise Christians,” writes Griffiths. “Our intellectual tradition is long-lived, rich, and subtle, and any attempt by European thinkers to do without it is not likely to last.”
The Bible and Christian ritual have always been alluring to outsiders. Think for example of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Great Russian Easter. Rimsky-Korsakov was not a Christian believer (he was probably a pantheist), but his Great Russian Easter, one of his most popular and stirring works, draws deeply on the liturgy and the Scriptures. Subtitled “Overture on Liturgical Themes,” it is based on the Obikhod, a collection of Russian Orthodox canticles, biblical texts, and hymns. The piece is ablaze with colors and lights as well as brooding darkness, at once awesome, majestic, austere and carnival-like, and it would not be possible without the Orthodox Liturgy.
Rimsky-Korsakov lived in nineteenth-century Russia, but even in our secular society and present music culture, contemporary composers draw inspiration from the Bible. An example is the new work by Jefferson Friedman, a young American composer, that received its world premier by the National Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Leonard Slatkin in the fall of 2004. With the improbable title “The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly,” the orchestral piece is based on an unusual sculpture in Washington, D.C., created by James Hampton.
The sculpture depicts a throne chair flanked by an altar table, pulpit, offertory tables—in other words, by church appointments. To the left are objects referring to the New Testament, to the right objects referring to the Old Testament. Some are labeled with names from the Bible and Christian history—Adam and Eve, the Virgin Mary, even Pope Pius XII. Drawing on the Book of Revelation, Hampton wished to depict the Second Coming of Christ. In his brief work Friedman tries to conveys not only the aesthetic power of the sculpture but also Hampton’s religious vision and a feeling of awe before the throne.
For too long Christianity has relinquished its role as teacher to society. Instead of inspiring the culture, it capitulates to the ethos of the world. The Church must rediscover herself, learn to savor her speech, delight in telling her stories, and confidently pass on what she has received. Only then can she draw people away from the coarse and superficial culture surrounding us into the abundance of life in Christ. “Walk about Zion,” sings the psalmist, “go round about her, number her towers, consider well her ramparts, go through her citadels; that you may tell the next generation that this is God, our God for ever and ever.”
This is not a new strategy but one that has marked Christianity from the beginning. Origen of Alexandria was the most brilliant Christian apologist during the first three centuries of the Church’s history. His most famous work is a debate with Celsus, a Greek philosopher who had lived seventy years earlier. In his book entitled True Doctrine Celsus had written: “Greeks are better able to judge the value of what the barbarians [meaning the Christians] have discovered.” Celsus believed that the truth of Christianity should be measured “by the criterion of a Greek proof.”
Origen, too, had been trained in the Greek intellectual tradition. But he rejected Celsus’ assumption that the Church’s faith should be measured by an alien standard. The truth of the gospel, Origen insisted, is to be judged by a “proof that is peculiar to itself, and this is more divine than Greek argument.” This, said Origen, is what St. Paul was describing when he spoke of a “demonstration of the Spirit and of power.”
This is a strategy to be commended in our own time. Let the Church call attention to what is peculiar to herself, not to presumed notions about what is meaningful or intelligible or relevant to contemporary society. A robust Christian witness can only be forged by drawing on the fullness of Christ, as known through the Spirit in the Church.
Robert Louis Wilken is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of History at the University of Virginia.
* Sermo 310, in Natali Cypriani Martyris. “Spiritus sanctus doceat nos in hac hora quae oporteat dicere: dicturi enim sumus aliquid de laude Cypriani gloriosissimi martyris, cuius Natalem hodie, sicut nostis, celebramus. Quod nomen sic frequentat Ecclesia, id est, Natales, ut Natales vocet pretiosas martyrum mortes. Sic, inquam, hoc nomen frequentat Ecclesia, ut etiam qui non sunt in illa, hoc dicant cum illa. Quis enim hodie, non dicam in hac nostra civitate, sed plane per Africam totam transmarinasque regiones, non Christianus solum, sed Paganus, aut Iudaeus, aut etiam haereticus poterit inveniri, qui non nobiscum dicat Natalem martyris Cypriani? Quid est hoc, fratres? Quando natus sit, ignoramus; et quia hodie passus est, Natalem eius hodie celebramus. Sed illum diem non celebraremus, etsi nossemus. Illo enim die traxit originale peccatum: isto autem die vicit omne peccatum. Illo die ex fastidioso matris utero istam processit in lucem, quae oculos carnis illecebrat: isto autem die ex occultissimo naturae sinu illam discessit ad lucem, quae visum mentis feliciter et beate illustrat.”
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