Learning a New Language

Learning a foreign language is hard, especially after we've lost the soft, squishy brains of our early childhood.

Religion can be usefully compared to a language not only because it also is made up of a particular vocabulary and can be found in books, but because each religion comes with its own grammar and patterns of use - an unspoken underlying structure that determines HOW the religion is put to use in our daily lives, and thus how our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions are ordered, put together, and made meaningful - something other than a jumble.

"Learning" a religious tradition takes much more than learning about its history, stories, or even its theological concepts. Like learning a language, it takes practice. Actually speaking to people, putting it to use in conversation. For anyone who's traveled abroad to a country where they know a little of the language but can't speak fluently, you know the specific flavor of the anxiety that hits right before you're about to give it a shot and try speaking to someone. Even if you use real French words, and not ones you invented that sound sort of French, and even if you pronounce them well enough for a Parisian only to spit on you once and not over and over until you run away sobbing, there's no way in hell that you'll have used the words an actual French person would have used in that situation. There's no way around the language-learning hazing period of sounding like a giant talking baby.

It could be asked whether it's worth it to spend all the effort and humiliation required just to have conversations with people who are, at the end of the day, still just people, who happen to be from another part of the world. Why not save all that time trying to learning Spanish, Chinese, or Canadian and just have conversations with U.S. Americans?

Similarly, why go to church, why try to go deeply into a religious text or tradition? Why put in all those hours, months, years, especially if stretches of it are spent in bafflement, incomprehension, boredom, or discomfort?

I can think of at least two reasons in the case of language: 1. To have conversations, and thus relationships, with people you wouldn't be able to otherwise. 2. To experience a perspective on the world (through immersion in a culture, literature, and way of life) that is new, different, important, and impossible to fully experience otherwise.

The same for religion. New encounters, new perspectives, new experiences - not just for the sake of novelty, but because we desperately need expansion like it was oxygen - is what we're after at Root and Branch. Christianity, the improbable message and strange ways of relating practiced by Jesus and his followers, is the language. Learning to speak it fluently is hard, even if there are moments of clarity, our hearts are brittle and set in their stiff, self-protective ways. At first it might seem like nonsense, noise. Or maybe it sounds exotic and intriguing; we're enticed to learn it but try as we might we can't seem to get beyond feeling like a giant talking baby.

Have I made it clear enough how often I feel like an enormous talking human baby?

This Sunday we're going to start a sermon series on some of the basic "vocab" of theology (which means, roughly, "God-speak") - the building blocks of the Christian "language," not for the purpose of being able to speak Christianese, but with the hope of opening ourselves, in an inevitably awkward and halting fashion, to new whole-hearted possibilities and relationships. And maybe even to an invisible continent of reality, whose name, if we could learn to recognize it, is something like our "love," only much, much, more so.