Must all our liturgy be quite un-Donne?
Rabbi Albert Friedlander, of the Westminster Synagogue, argues this week for the preservation of religious language. Profound thoughts demand words which have depth and history, he says.
Saturday 02 March 1996
I did not quarrel with them - I envied them! They were exercising their birthright of local language, new rap music and today's experiences in a triumphant (or triumphalist?) expansion of their web of communication. Jean Aitchison's Reith Lectures state their case brilliantly.
But I am an outsider, or at least on the margin. English grammar is not quite a Zimmer frame for me, but I do have to lean upon it if I want to communicate. I know that present time and space shape our sentences; and so do our partners in speech. When I'm at a football match the language will differ, although where I sit we communicate in silent, desperate prayer (I'm a QPR fan).
When I'm at our theological college I hear different sounds which have reverberated through the centuries. And when I engage in religious dialogue with Christian colleagues we can only communicate because we live within a shared ancient history and have a vast unfinished agenda. At night, I'm often swallowed up by the news media; and that is the time of suffering.
Our century has been filled with too much brutality and pain, and it has affected our language. Bosnia and Rwanda, Cambodia and Somalia have silenced our tongues, and our imagination has withered. After the Holocaust, Adorno suggested that poetry had lost its place in civilised discourse. He was right, for a limited time.
Today, I do not find our language richer. I find it weaker, filled with subterfuges and self-deceits. The noble dreams of the past have given way to the greed of the lottery, and even synagogue and church have placed hand upon mouth in a Jobean gesture. Nevertheless, I must declare my interest and state that the religious sanctuary has become a rare refuge of language. It was Wittgenstein who argued that speech has meaning where the rules governing their use are established and agreed upon among users.
It does not mean that there are no arguments in the house of worship - I've seen fist fights there! But there is a set liturgy, my Zimmer frame, which moves me and all at prayer into one direction. The philosopher Leszek Kolakowski starts with the premise that there is the language of worship which becomes ritual, prayer, and communication with God in the eyes of the worshippers. The religious symbols become doorways into new areas of existence. And I must confess that I feel at home in the ancient Hebrew language which does not permit a split infinitive and which has the myth and poetry of thousands of years incorporated into the texts of prayer and study.
Jean Aitchison has her 14th-century monk complaining about English with its "harrying and garrying grisbittying", its snarling and tooth-gnashing. But why decry power and passion? We find it in the Book of Job as well, in the speeches of the "friends" but also in Job's challenge of God. I love it. It gives me the passions of the past which live on in the synagogue but also in Israel.
Recently, I read an article by Amos Oz in the New Yorker where a majestic old/new language thundered in modern terms. And I would desire the intensity and depth of the English language preserved. I love English with a passion even when it is not requited, and long for at least echoes of of Milton and Donne and for a biblical text which at least remembers something of the King James version. I also want Latin back in the school curriculum and in Catholic worship, but would not give advice to Basil Hume.
In the end, caught in the web of language of our world, I would like it to shimmer with the luminosity which fills cathedrals and synagogues, where the structure of communication is built upon an awareness of a law which incurses upon us as a token of transcendence.
But perhaps that is too much to ask.
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