Inheriting More Than Language

When the architects and craftsmen of medieval Europe built their churches—stone, wood, and stained glass—they designed them with names for the various areas and parts and structures. The area that was reserved for the congregation to gather in worship was called the ship. They didn’t think it a strange name. For centuries, Christian writers had used the image to describe the Church, reaching from the small fishing boat in which Jesus and His disciples crossed the Sea of Galilee, and the ark built by Noah, to their own lives and times; the Church was a vessel of safety, an ordered world in a chaotic storm. And when the laity came to worship God, they gathered in what they called the ship.

The Church called it this in Latin, which was still surviving as the language of worship and theology. The Latin word for a ship is navis. In English, however, when describing these same medieval churches and naming their parts, we call the ship a nave. Nave does not really mean anything except “the central area of a medieval-style church”. It is a word transplanted, and in the transplanting becomes a technical term which some might even think is meant to be traditional. But when our faith ancestors built their places of worship and gave a name to this space, they did not use a technical term or a specialized term or a traditional term. They used a metaphor.

There’s nothing very sinister in this, nor is there any avoiding it; transplanting words from other languages, after all, is how English grew into what it is today. And the process no doubt began when the ordinary worshippers forgot Latin while the clergy (the ‘professional’ worshippers) kept using it. I’m not a linguist and therefore unqualified to comment on the process (I know I’ve oversimplified and likely gotten things very wrong), but I can at least recognize what we’ve been left with. When you refer to a church’s nave in Latin, you are saying something different than when you refer to it in English. English uses a term, Latin uses a metaphor. And there is a world of difference between a term and a metaphor, because the latter teaches truth to whomever uses it while the former tends to mean nothing except to people already trained; even then the meaning is too specific to mean very much at all.

Peter Wayne Moe, in his book Touching This Leviathan—about whales, but also about knowing the unknowable, and even more importantly about language—reminds us who deal in words that we are heirs to an inheritance: “That is, a writer inherits words and then must compose them, must ask them to do certain kinds of work, work the writer knows these words can do based on how they’ve been used in the past and, too, work the writer knows may stretch the capabilities of these words.” We did not create our language and there is very little, if anything, that we can say which is original. But he also acknowledges that there are ways we can at least try to stretch what we’ve inherited. We may not get to choose our words, but we do have to struggle with them in order to even know them and in order to make them do what we would have them do.

Such is tradition. It is handed down, but it is not entirely unchanged—first of all, it changes hands. The hands which hold it now are not the hands that held it formerly and that is no small change. We speak a different language, we have made a different culture, we know things that they did not know. So when we receive what they give us, we immediately begin the work of sifting and struggling and coming to terms with what we’re holding.

When, as with nave, we inherit a word but not what that word meant, then what are we inheriting?

Perhaps some will disagree, but I think that when we take a metaphor so steeped in truth and make of it a technical term, we’ve lost something that we would have done better to keep and hold precious. No doubt we meant well. Perhaps we thought that was the right and proper name for the thing, that by holding onto the word itself (or indeed the whole language of Latin) we were also holding onto tradition. But tradition called it a ship, and we no longer do.

I believe instinctually that tradition is not a dead thing, or at least it shouldn’t be. Tradition is not simply words or ideas or practices that survive unchanged; even if you don’t change it, it changes its place in the world. Tradition is a story that is still being written—or, if you like, a road that is still the same road even though it runs through different terrains and may even widen or narrow depending on those terrains.

J.R.R. Tolkien tapped into this metaphor for one of the more well-known poems in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It’s formally known as “A Walking Song”:

The Road goes ever on and on,
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

He uses the Road as a picture of adventure, and also of life. But even quoting this song is an adventure in itself and an example of changing tradition because there are multiple versions of it, each one affected by the circumstances in which the characters find themselves thinking of it and singing it. Sometimes it’s about heading out and all the wonderful things that could happen to you when you step out of your door. Sometimes it’s about coming home after all the things have happened to you, and they seem both wonderful and terrible at the same time.

Tradition, like the Road, continues on and on from where it began, takes many turnings, and even connects with other roads. We must recognize that it is bigger than any of us, and that it sometimes asks us to let go of things as much as it asks us to hold onto others. We don’t always get to choose the words we use, but we also inherit more than words. We inherit truth and must carry it in whatever words will hold it.

One thought on “Inheriting More Than Language

  1. You’ve hit on some truth here in a beautiful way. When we receive something, we have to sift, wrestle with it….and I would say discover its essence, the truth it holds, so that we can carry it forward. Its a beautiful rendering of what we do with God, even, and what He speaks to us. And with anything we do thoughtfully and intentionally.

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