Unscrambling the Bad Dialogue

Miscommunication-Cartoon“Lost in translation” is a sometimes nightmare in the art of diplomacy.  Either a message is incomplete or, even worse, fear or hostility emerges from the recipient. In dialogue across the religious spectrum there is the matter of wide gaps on some concepts in the languages as well as cultural nuances. 

One case of this can be found in the last 500 years between Catholics and Protestants.  As I have written before, Catholics are misunderstood on when they are speaking in definitive theological intent on wording and those times that are metaphorically spoken.  An example is when the metaphorical wording is implying how Mary has a distinct holiness but means it as extrinsically obtained. 

Ironically, the modern Protestants may even misunderstand the original Reformer fathers.  For instance, when I was evangelizing recently in a Catholic ministry a fiery Protestant emphasized sola gratia (grace alone).   That does tie back to Martin Luther.  However, he maintained a work of grace to be baptismal regeneration which the modern, zealous Reformed Christian would not ascribe to. 

More specifically on the translation is the Latin to English post-Reformation divide with an example like “holy”.  When a Protestant hears of a pope being referred to as “his Holiness”,they may perceive that Catholics see the pope as internally based in his holiness.  This is not true as one can see with an example of when Pope Francis was asked, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergolio?”   He answered that he is a sinner. 

To see this linguistically one can see the Latin root word santus.  It morphed into cognates that sound similar in the more blatant Latin based languages like Spanish and Portuguese for both holy as in Holy Spirit as well as saints.  While the former, holiness is intrinsic but for the latter, it is because they know they are sinners at the same time and wanted sanctification. 

Next is how “prayer” is used as an operative term in casual or fully theological conversation.   When Shakespeare writes, “Make haste, I pray then” we give him the benefit of the doubt that one mortal is not worshiping another mortal.  In modern language in a petition to a court undergirded by English common law the petitioner says they “pray this court…..” would do such and such.  Again, the judge is not being worshipped. 

So to with how Catholics or Eastern Orthodox pray to the saints.  They ask their intercession and the context is Christ centered.  The dilemma is that Catholics and Protestants in English have their wording quirks and in at least one direction there is a lack of benefit of the doubt in examining the written or spoken word.  When one is biased towards a person or group in examining their characteristics, the traits that confirm what is expected will be seen and the traits that counter what is expected are dismissed.  This is called confirmation bias. 

Another word that blurs the communication is “merit”.  Protestants often have taught that Catholics believe they get merit for salvation through their works.  The confusion is fueled in part about the Catholic Church due to the etymology of the word. 

In the second century, the Latin word meritum (“merit”) was introduced as a translation for the Greek word for “reward”, and so entered the theological vocabulary.  The doctrine of merit [Catholics] and the doctrine of reward [Protestants] are two ways of expressing the same concept (The Fathers Know Best, Jimmy Akin). 

In the 5th and 6th centuries the Catholic Church condemned Plagiarism and Semi-Plagianism which was a heresy that taught one could earn salvation with works absent of grace.  Later the Catholic Church stated “none of those things which precede justification, whether faith or works, merit the grace of justification; for if it is by grace, it is not now by works; otherwise, as the apostle says, grace is no more grace” (Decree on Justification 8, Council of Trent). 

But sometimes, a good translation happens.   In 1999 there was the Catholic-Lutheran Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification which included Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later known as Pope Benedict VI).  They collaborated, looked through the history with cooler heads than some of the hotheads of both sides 500 years ago and said ,“By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part,” its key passage said, “we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping us and calling us to good works.” We are called to a life where faith is working through love (Galatians 6:5). 

For Jesus’ prayer of unity in the Body of Christ (John 17:21) to be realized, we owe it to our Lord to listen better and pray more.  As brothers and sisters redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ, we owe it to each other too.

At the time I write this, I went to an event in the John 17 movement last night.  It is a touchstone for good dialogue and prayer for each other.  That is not all of the work, but honoring what unites us is a start. 

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