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Interpreting Pentecost

Today is Pfingstmontag in Germany (Whit Monday; Pentecost Monday to Americans). For most people it’s the end of a long weekend; for the Eastern Orthodox Church, it’s the second day of a three-day feast, and fasting is not allowed for the entire week. In Erlangen a beer festival, Bergkirchweih, is in full swing. But what does this period mean for the scientific-minded believer?

Of all the feasts in the liturgical year, I must admit that Pentecost is the one that traditionally causes me the greatest discomfort. I’m very uncomfortable with the Pentecostals’ practice of speaking in tongues, and interpreting the speech. It felt too undignified, a crass parody of a divine mystery that could be interpreted in many different ways, of which speaking a “divine” language on a regular basis is but one interpretation. Not to mention that it is unheard of for someone to speak in a multitude of languages during a Pentecostal service, as the Bible records happening on that first Pentecost.

A symbolic reading would consider Pentecost to be the anti-Babel event. Just as pride leads to the fall of humankind, to people misunderstanding each other, to enmity and hatred and destruction, so does the Divine Love of God, through Christ and the Spirit, for us, is a healing power that should encourage us to see the Christ in each other, whatever our denominations, languages, race or religion (or lack thereof). We are all God’s creation, and as the pinnacle of such creation (until evidence shows otherwise) we are entrusted to behave responsibly in our dealings with each other, and in our stewardship of the earth and its resources — mineral, vegetable and animal.

We do not have a single language, have not had one ever since we spread out of Africa, though at one time or another a particular language gains prominence over others — whether Latin, Sanskrit, French, English or Mandarin. There is not even a single liturgical language for all Christendom — Latin, Greek, and Old Slavonic are but a few examples. Yet people have invariably managed to communicate, when they really make an effort.

Languages carry historical baggages with them. It is convenient for us Christians that, in many cases, the liturgical language is either a dead language or the vernacular, and thus it carries no colonial connotations. It is more problematic in some other religions. And there is invariably something lost in translation: from biblical Hebrew to Greek, from Aramaic and Greek to Latin, from Latin to modern languages, and even from the original sources directly to our vernaculars. Historical circumstances change as well, so even if we could recapture the exact meaning of our scriptural texts, we would still have to reconstruct the historical context. Reading a text involves having a conversation with it, and as in conversations between human beings, even those nominally speaking the same language, misunderstandings often ensues.

Some people, myself included, find the idea of auxiliary languages — such as Esperanto — to be a potential solution to communication problems due to our language soup. Rather than requiring everyone to learn a second natural language to communicate across linguistic barriers — a language that is native to some people, and therefore put the rest at a disadvantage, one instead encourage the use of a language that is native to nobody (there actually are native Esperanto speakers, but it’s a very recent development) and therefore put everyone at an equal footing (though, even in this case, one is more equal than others if one starts out speaking an Indo-European language). But all the wars humankind has fought between belligerents that are co-linguists — the American War of Independence, the Civil War, the War of Roses, the wars of Yugoslav partitions, and many others — certainly should discourage us from thinking that language division alone is the issue dividing us.

The message of Pentecost is one of unity. Language is the example used in the story, but we should not narrowly interpret it to be the key issue. For such misinterpretation, despite reading the text in the vernacular, is itself a self-illustrating example.

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