Ludwig Wittgenstein once said that “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world”, thus summing up his own contribution to the problem of the relationship between consciousness and reality.
Language is indeed our very link to the world: the world takes on meaning through language and language only has meaning in relation to the world. But what happens when his “world” is the Church? What should we assume of the relationship between the Church and the world at large? how the language of and in the Church relates to this world? If the horizon, the limits of the world I inhabit are drawn by language, say Greek or English, then how are we facilitated or prevented from entering into a relationship with our English or Greek world, respectively? Simply put, there is a major problem when my ecclesiastical language is Greek and my everyday world is English, or when my ecclesiastical language is English and my “world” is Greek. In these cases, it seems that my conscience – both personal and ecclesial – as well as the reality to which I relate are somewhat “schizophrenic”; and imagine what it looks like when even more languages are involved…
To further complicate the problem, I would like to add that the language of the Church is historical in a very pronounced way: it constitutes an incarnate historicity, which means that it is the bearer of historical memory or, perhaps more correctly, of a privileged space of historical belonging. This implies that these liturgical languages such as Greek, Slavonic, Arabic, Georgian, Romanian, Albanian, etc., are all an integral part of the historicity of the various local Orthodox Churches. In other words, these liturgical languages essentially constitute the historical horizon of the vision of the world of the various Orthodox faithful and, on the contrary, the latter would find it very difficult to dissociate themselves from the spatio-temporal connotations and links that convey their languages - as well as the emotion they generate so powerfully. Therefore, it is not difficult to imagine not only the “schizophrenic” but even more so the “multiple personality disorder” that the limits on the limits of languages on languages create for the ecclesial consciousness of the Orthodox. Basically, the various Orthodox worshipers tend to keep to themselves, within the confines of their own language-based lifeworlds, becoming increasingly parochial in an age of global interconnections and multicultural transactions. .
But the problems and challenges regarding the language of and in the Church is not limited to the present or the past; they are certainly exacerbated much more in view of the future. In the ethnic diasporas of the Orthodox faithful, English seems to be taking hold more and more – and if nothing else presents itself as a better alternative – it will soon reign supreme. Is it bad? No it is not. Is this the best option? It depends on everyone’s point of view. Is this theologically the right way to go? I don’t think so, and that’s what I’m trying to justify in this article. Having likened the current situation of the liturgical languages used in the Orthodox Church to a somewhat “schizophrenic” state, and the persistence of their past to “multiple personality disorder”, one wonders what the coming. However, I believe that a possible absorption of the liturgical languages by English would have devastating effects on the horizon of the “worlds” that these languages accompany. This would virtually disrupt the congregants’ experiential connection to their respective pasts, and it would severely limit the breadth and depth of their presents. And that, to be frank, looks rather “catatonic”…
Ok, if this is a fair description of the sociolinguistic status of orthodox liturgical languages especially in ethnic diasporas, what should we do? How are the Orthodox supposed to navigate through and beyond this predicament? Is it possible to preserve the linguistic worlds of the past in our current lifeworlds and, in turn, allow these to evolve into a unified and integral language/world/horizon for future generations? I think so, and I also think the best way to do this – first and foremost theologically speaking – is to use them all at once in the liturgical life of the Church, especially the Divine Liturgy. But how will we be able to speak all these languages at the same time? Wouldn’t that require some kind of speaking in tongues? Yes and no; yes, because it would indeed be a new outpouring of the Spirit, and no, because there would be no synchronic translatability. Prayers, hymns, benedictions, the Creed and other fixed parts of the Divine Liturgy may be in different languages - and in different versions and/or combinations from place to place – thus honoring the past, respecting the present and paving the way for the future. What is needed is only one thing: a congregation truly educated in unity in diversity, and willing to follow the commandment of mutual love by taking each other’s voice…
But let’s get more practical through a few examples. What all of the above would mean in Greece, for example, is not so dramatic but certainly quite significant; because it’s the little changes that make all the difference. So the Orthodox Church in Greece could keep the liturgical language as it is – making allowances here and there for Modern Greek as well – and at the same time have Slavonic, Romanian, Albanian, Arabic , Georgian and even a bit of English – for the young really communicate through it – sprinkled throughout the liturgical life of the faithful. In South America, the Orthodox Church in turn could use primarily Spanish or Portuguese and supplement it, so to speak, with Greek and other “traditional” Orthodox languages, as well as many Indian linguistic materials. As for Australia, the Church could mainly create a textual base in English with, here again, additions of all the “traditional” liturgical languages - having of course a privileged place for Greek – and allowing a preponderant place for languages native – these, needless to say, would take the place of English once and wherever native Orthodox congregations came to be. Obviously, there are lots of combinations that can take place, but it should always be done according to the logic of multilingual liturgical coexistence.
I believe that from a theological point of view and, moreover, an ecclesiological one, what I propose has extremely important merits. First, it enriches the multi-vocality of the Orthodox tradition, both horizontally and vertically; horizontally, because it expands the spectrum of liturgical languages - not only in space but above all in time – and vertically, because it makes the multilingual liturgical condition an aspect not only of the megastructures of the worldwide Orthodox Church but also of the local microstructure. -structures and especially of the individual himself. Second, the merits of my proposal can still be seen in relation to the much-desired and much-needed jurisdictional integration of the diasporas: if the Orthodox faithful are justified in considering such an ecclesiological overstepping of the limits imposed by the predominantly anti- canonical Orthodox Microcosmos, then they would certainly be right to put in place the conditions for the possibility of such an overcoming, namely the liturgical co-heritage of traditional and modern Orthodox languages. Finally, all this aspiration implies and presupposes the development and consolidation of a much higher ecclesial consciousness – and not just of ethnic or cultural belonging.
One way or another, it all boils down to the urgency of liturgical renewal; which requires great boldness from Church leaders, patience from the faithful, and time from everyone in order to see tangible results. Certainly, some, perhaps even many, will declare that this liturgical Esperanto project is simply impractical, impossible and utopian. To them I think we must answer categorically: Yes, that’s it! But then the Church is the Utopia, the wild dream of God, partly realized here and now and aspiring to its future outcome. So, precisely because it’s impractical, impossible and utopian, I say, let’s go. This is our role; God’s part is to say, let it be!
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“A Glimpse of World Orthodoxy” is a weekly column that features opinion pieces that, on the one hand, capture the pulse of global Orthodoxy from the perspective of local sensitivities, needs and/or limitations, and on the other hand, delve into local pragmatics and the importance of Orthodoxy in light of global Orthodoxy. tendencies and prerogatives.
Dr. Vassilis Adrahtas holds a PhD in Religious Studies (USyd) and a PhD in Sociology of Religion (Panteion). He has taught at several universities in Australia and overseas. Since 2015, he has been teaching religion and ancient Greek myths at the University of New South Wales and Islamic Studies at Western Sydney University He has published ten books He has extensive experience in the print media as an editor and columnist, and for a For some time he worked as a radio producer and lives in Sydney, Australia, his hometown.