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Vocabulary of Dialogue

In a sense a “vocabulary of dialogue” should be a fairly simple, if lengthy, task of gathering and listing terms that would be important in the Catholic-Muslim dialogue. To some extent this is true. However, there is a difference between an exercise in vocabulary and one in lexicography. Lexicography is concerned with more than merely compiling a list. The meanings and, perhaps more important, what is called the semantic field are the concerns of lexicography.

In the field of lexicography the notion of semantic field is very important. Except for words that have been created by scientists or scholars for a specific purpose, e.g. neutron, laser, quasar, etc., most words have a fairly broad range of meanings or semantic field. For example, learners of English find it very difficult to understand the English word get because it has such a huge semantic field: get better, get going, get up, get down (with a different meaning from get up) get out of, got to, to get it (understand), etc. Scientific scholarly words try to have as small a semantic field as possible to insure – as far as possible – that everyone understands the same thing with the same word.

Special problems arise when we are dealing with two or more languages and are attempting to translate from one language to another. To a great extent a word in one language will often have a “counterpart” in another language, although there are what linguists call “false friends.” A “false friend” is a word in one language that looks very much like a word in another language but in fact, has a very different meaning. A good example of this is the German word eventuel. It looks a lot like the English word eventually. Likewise, German wenn looks a lot like English when and sometimes functions a great deal like English when. However, if a German says, Wenn ich eventual telefoniere, it does not mean “when I eventually telephone you.” It means, “If I perhaps telephone you.” Semantic fields, however, are even more complicated because the semantic fields of words can have several relationships. Two words in two languages can have semantic fields that: entirely overlap; overlap to a very great extent; partially overlap and that overlap very little. As one moves to the extremes of total overlapping and overlapping very little, the cases become increasingly rare.

One of the more interesting areas for the study of semantic fields is in words for color. Every language I know of has words for color. The healthy human eye sees the colors of the spectrum and names them. Nothing seems more natural or self-evident – the sky is blue and the grass is green. So there. What is interesting is that it is not so self-evident, especially at the “boundaries” of colors, where the semantic field of the word for a color in one language is broader or more constricted than the corresponding word in another language.

Two examples: When asked the color of dried, dead grass most English speakers will say that it is brown. Germans will say that it is gelb, yellow. When asked the color of a frost-covered field, most Germans will say that it is grau, grey, while most English speakers will say the field is white. It is clear that both the German and English speaker are looking at the same phenomenon. It is not that one sees one thing and the other sees something else. It is the case, however, that the semantic field of the English word yellow does not usually cover dead grass and the English word grey has a semantic field that does not cover the color of a frost covered field. The semantic fields of the German gelb and grau, however, do not cover this phenomenon, despite the fact that we often translate them as “yellow” and “grey” respectively.

This may seem like an interesting, but basically useless, piece of information, scarcely relevant, if at all, for the Catholic-Muslim Dialogue. However, I do not think that is the case at all. Roman Catholic Christianity, Protestant Christianity and a good part of Orthodox Christianity developed their vocabulary over centuries in Greek. After six or more centuries the Western Church began to use Latin to express the vocabulary from the Greek of the great councils. Although the so-called Old Testament was written for the most part in Hebrew with some sections in Aramaic, Christians were familiar with it in the Greek translation of Septuagint.

Muslims, on the other hand, have it slightly easier. The Qur’an is in Arabic and although it is considerably different from fusha or Modern Standard Arabic, it is still the same language. The language of the great Muslim religious thinkers over the centuries has been Arabic. Even those thinkers whose native language was Persian realized that the religious sciences had to be done in Arabic. Thus Islamic religious thought has a different relationship to the Qur’an since it basically uses the same language whereas Christian thought is linguistically one stepped removed from the Old Testament since the former is in and the latter in Hebrew and Aramaic. Likewise in Western Christianity, Latin came to be the dominant language of the religious sciences despite the fact that the New Testament was written in Greek.

In the Catholic-Muslim Dialogue here in the Archdiocese of New York the language of the dialogue is – as it is in many places of the world – English. This can be a seductive situation. Since we are all speaking English, we can all too easily come to the conclusion we are using words whose semantic fields overlap entirely. Since we are all “speaking the same language,” it is easy to assume that we understand each other perfectly. This is doubly seductive. It is seductive because it can be very misleading. It can also be seductive because it is easier to begin a dialogue when one begins with commonalities, with “what we have in common.” Do not misunderstand me here. It is good to start with what we have in common. However, it is a mistake to believe we understand what we have in common in exactly the same way. When a Muslim and a Christian use the same word there is often a great deal of semantic overlapping. Rarely, however, is that overlapping total. Given one word, e.g. faith, Muslims and Christians will share a great deal of understanding of the word in common. However, part of the semantic field for the word faith will be specifically Muslim and not correspond to the Christian concept and vice versa. Thus fides/ πίστιs and أمان are translated as “faith.” Muslims and Christians will share a great deal of agreement on what the word “faith” means. However, Christian fides/πίστιs has a whole series of meanings and connotations that are not shared by أمان and vice versa. When, for example, Christians speak of fides quae creditur, “the faith that is believed,” we mean those propositions which Christians believe and can articulate, e.g. the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed. It is a faith that can be articulated, analyzed and developed. When we speak of fides qua creditur, “the faith by which one believes,” we are talking about the mysterious gift, that theological virtue that is a freely given gift of God. Although there are some points of contact between fides qua creditur and أمان, the differences in detail are greater than the similarities.

Another good example is the word fasting/صوم. On the surface, the term fasting in Christianity and Islam seems to be similar. What could be the difference between fasting and fasting? In point of fact, the semantic field of fasting for Christians is fairly narrow. It involves curtailing or stopping the intake of nourishment. Fasting for the Christian has nothing to do with consuming water, water does not break the fast, nor does smoking or sexual activity. Clearly the semantic field of the word صوم especially as it refers to the Fast of Ramadan would be considerably broader. Likewise the Christian notion of fasting is not connected with the time of day. Although Christians do not fast on Sundays when they fast, they fast for the entire twenty-four hour day. In addition, Christian fasting has the connotation of repentance strongly connected to it. Lent, the forty days before Easter during which Christians fast, is a penitential season in which one confesses sins and makes reparation for those sins. While the New Testament exhorts Christians to keep a joyful countenance while fasting that is merely to prevent self-righteousness. When the Christian fasts, he/she should not make a public display of it. Nonetheless, fasting is not looked upon as a joyous thing. It is basically a penitential act. The Fast of Ramadan is, however, basically a joyful experience and has little of the penitential to it. While the semantic field of the Christian fasting includes a good deal of the penitential, the semantic field of صوم has considerably less.

The two instances are not meant to show that Muslims and Christians have no understanding of each other when we use words like faith or fasting. However, it is a warning that we have to be very careful. When we both use the same word we must not assume that we both mean exactly the same thing. Indeed the odds are overwhelming that we both do not mean exactly the same thing. I also strongly suspect that it is precisely those words that refer to those areas that are most important to us that semantic fields are the most different. If one thinks about it, that should not surprise us, much less discourage us. After all Islam is Islam and Christianity is Christianity. Islam is not a part of Christianity and Christianity is not a part of Islam. Each religion has what I refer to as its irreducible particularity or that which makes that religion what it is and not another religion. If Islam and Christianity had a totally identical understanding of those central things that we believe, there would not be two religions but one.

Some examples are important. Both Christians and Muslims believe in the one God/ الله. This is very important and is the basis for our dialogue together. However, the understandings that the two religions have about those two words are different. Similar things can be said about words like prophecy, scripture, revelation/inspiration, etc. As I indicated earlier, at the beginning of a dialogue it is very important to underline points of contact between Islam and Christianity. This is important. We are both monotheistic religions in the tradition of Abraham. We must stress that in the face of those who would promote divisions and hostility between Islam and Christianity. However, as a dialogue matures, it is the differences between the two faiths that become important. The differences between Islam and Christianity are important not to underline the divisions between us. They are important because we can never understand or appreciate each others’ faiths until we understand them for what they are. Simply put, if at the beginning of the Catholic-Muslim dialogue a great deal of energy was spent– and rightly so – on “how you are like me,” the mature dialogue must eventually spend a great deal of energy on understanding “how you are you and not like me.” We need to understand how we are not alike not to change each other or to convince the other that he/she is wrong. We need to understand how we are not alike in order to understand truly who we are in and for ourselves in our own unique communal encounters with God.

Cf. Judges 12:1-6; Matthew 26:69-75

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