Lesson 12: Religious Language During the Pandemic

theological dialog on ZoomJust a few quick words on religious language. Barbara Taylor Brown repeatedly speaks about the difficulty of understanding the religious language used by other world religions. Conversely, she observes once you do, you discover a lot about your own.

My own experiences bear this out. Often when working on Lutheran Roman Catholic ecumenical activities in the mid-1960s, I found myself telling priests who had become close friends that I had no idea what they were saying. The ensuing conversation usually revealed this had more to do with the theological framework in which the thought was expressed than the thought itself.

Then just a couple years ago, I attended a conference where the Roman Catholic scholar, Dorothy Wood, reflected that the first obstacle that had to be overcome in ecumenical discussions was learning to understand each other’s theological languages. I think she also described this as the hardest task.

I imagine it is similar experience that prompts Taylor’s call for carefully discussing with one another what we mean when we use the words God and humanity. And, I think the current COVID-19 pandemic has shown how difficult this remains.

For many years, my son and I have studied what was primarily anomalous religious activity on electronic media, such as televangelism. Now, we find every local congregation forced to operate online. Suddenly, like it or not, religious language must conform to electronic limitations.

My struggle to transfer the symposium that meets in my home to conferences on Zoom reveals the problem and probably points to what might lie ahead for religious and academic language. After a few weeks, it became evident we could not form a group engaged in profound conversation. Instead, we had individuals and couples separated in their own boxes offering information to one another. You could accumulate data but hardly share deep thoughts, because it is hard to build on each other’s comments. Everything is quantity, not quality.

It is pretty easy to see why this is, if you step back to observe the proceedings. It is not so much that it is harder to detect body language, but that participants feel no need to use it. They readily mute themselves and speak with their spouses, they get up and leave the camera without any explanation, they eat in front of one another. None of this is intentional discourtesy; it is simply electronic separation. And significantly, humor no longer binds the group together, because it is too easily misunderstood. It is time we acknowledge that violent language plays better on electronic media than compassion. Donald Trump has taught us that lesson too well.

Hopefully, we can return soon to gatherings where we can share on a deeper level what we mean when we speak of God and humanity. In the meantime, we do well to consider what we are learning about religious language. For starters, I would contend that Zoom is useful for expressing concern for one another and sharing limited religious insights. However, if you want to engage online in more profound theological conversations in which you can build on each other’s thoughts, you should turn to other platforms on which you can build threads via text over longer periods of time. That sounds counter intuitive, but I think our experiences during the pandemic bear it out.

However, as we all probably know, the best vehicle for profound reasoning remains in-person conversations. One of the conclusions my son and I drew from our studies was that there is nothing wrong with online theological discussions if you realize they are necessarily narrowband. However, they are much more effective and sustainable if they are extensions of ongoing person-to-person communities.

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  1. Fritz Foltz says:

    I received many more emails than usual in response to this lesson. Most were teachers who expressed frustration trying to end the semester teaching on electronic platforms. Some report they have pupils who have simply disappeared.

    I decided to post Lupe’s comments as they inspire me to think about starting a new series based on thinking about what the new society might be like after the pandemic.

    Dear Fritz,
    I am not surprised nor saddened by the cheapening of language in the Internet… Zoom, Whatsapp, FB, etc. It may be, in a decade or so, seen as the birth of a new language, even, with so many terms changed in meaning, so many new terms (bitmoji for example) that are so difficult for us, a different generation, to get used to. I still think language in an expanded and not impoverished version will survive, and maybe become stronger. I was pleasantly pleased, and my grandchildren were surprised, at the new TV series Picard, with Patrick Stewart playing his part at his unapologetic age, and quoting Shakespeare (without attribution, as if it were a normal thing to do) in nearly every installment. We are witnessing major changes everywhere, dear Fritz and Faith and Mike and everyone else on your site: priorities will change, spending habits will change, fortunes will be lost, and perhaps some new ones made, though I think the emphasis on billionaire as a plus will decay in life and in politics. We have seen billions serve very little, if at all, compared to ordinary human survivalism.

    This deserves a deeper analysis, with being (or refusing to be) a “brother’s keeper” taking on a different tone and nuance. Simple human generosity has taken on a new role, as well as simple human ignorance or indifference (promoted, even glorified by the Trumpites) showing itself more dangerous in these times of danger from a completely unexpected and unseen enemy. Let us think and talk about this! With love, Lupe

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