Thursday, January 25, 2007

What kind of web shall we weave?

I identify myself as an atheist, but I find a lot of value in the ideas of Unitarian Univeralism, and I've been active in my local congregation in Fremont, CA for nearly five years now. I've recently begun an initiative to address the lack of racial diversity in my congregation, and as part of my research and networking process I visited the San Jose church last Sunday, which is unique in offering a ministry entirely in the Spanish language. The sermon I attended was entitled "Diversidad Y Prejuicio" (Diversity and Prejudice) and it was interesting and encouraging to discover that the nearly 100% Latino population that attends the Spanish-speaking services also feels a need for increased outreach.

Unitarian Universalists "covenant to affirm and promote" seven guiding principles. In my work to improve awareness of racial issues, I most frequently quote the third and sixth principles, which include phrases such as "acceptance of one another" and "the goal of world community". Last Sunday's sermon, however, focused on the seventh principle, which reads "Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part". It was surprising because to me and most other UUs I've encountered, this particular principle evokes images of nature---the "web of life"---and is most frequently employed when encouraging UUs to speak out and act on behalf of environmental concerns.

Here's the thing: The Spanish version of the principle is "El respeto por el tejido interdependiente de toda la existencia de la cual somos parte"; the word "web" is translated not as tela (used, for example, in tela de araƱa, "spider web") or even red ("net"), but as tejido, which has more the connotation of "fabric". In fact, the speaker used as a visual aid a brightly-colored weaving with a Native American design on it. When I thought about the Spanish words, I thought not of insects and animals and trees, but of a tapestry made rich by the number of different-colored threads running through it, working together to form a beautiful work of art. From there, the analogy to the value in having a racially diverse congregation was apparent.

I'm constantly amazed by how much our thoughts can be influenced by language, particularly with regard to interpretations of religious material. I'm only half kidding when I claim that fundamentalist Christians should all learn Greek and Hebrew if they want to adhere so closely to the words of the Bible. Divinely inspired or not, everything changes at least a little in translation.

3 comments:

ellie said...

I'm only half kidding when I claim that fundamentalist Christians should all learn Greek and Hebrew if they want to adhere so closely to the words of the Bible. Divinely inspired or not, everything changes at least a little in translation.

Well, as an Evangelical Christian, which is a close cousin to a fundamentalist, I gotta ask...Do you think you could deliver that slap just a little bit harder next
time? I live on the opposite coast from you and it loses a bit of it's sting after it travels so many miles. I've attempted to study a number of languages, including Hebrew, and I'm just not that good at, it not everyone is.

Language Lover said...

Ellie, I'm sorry if I offended you with that comment. It was not actually intended as a slap, but a statement on the importance of subtleties in language and in translation. I provided only one example of how one word can completely change how a person interprets something. I've heard endless arguments about whether God could or could not create the universe in six 24-hour periods, when the word "day" isn't even a very accurate translation of the original. If you believe in adhering to every letter of holy scripture, I don't see how you can do that while depending on versions of it that necessarily---due to the different capabilities of various languages, ancient and modern---differ from what is supposed to be the word of God. I'm happy to engage in a conversation about how you resolve this issue, as I admit I'm not particularly familiar with fundamental (or evangelical) Christian practices.

ellie said...

The conversation would be interesting, but very cumbersome in this format.