You can’t say that here

I am sure that everyone has heard of Yolanda, the massive typhoon that struck the central Philippines in early Nov 2013. The storm not only brought a lot of high winds to the area, it also pushed a 6m-high storm surge into the city of Tacloban. Reports say that this storm surge reached up to 700m inland destroying most of what lay in its path. The result was immense destruction and heartache that will continue for years to come. 

Of course after a disaster of this magnitude assessments are made to find out what went wrong with the plans that were made and how can they be improved in the future. In this case, one of the issues appears to center around the warnings that were issued regarding the coming “storm surge.” Many apparently did not understand what a “storm surge” was and therefore did not take adequate precautions. Studies are now underway to find out what Filipino terms might be used in the future that would help people better understand the dangers that may be approaching. Current options include daluyong and humbak but the debate continues.

There is a similar issue in theology. The group I currently work with in the Philippines uses an Affirmation of Faith that is in English. This is because it was adopted from the Affirmation of Faith from the first missionaries to the area, who happened to be Americans. I recently had a discussion with one of my Filipino colleagues about this statement that seeks to express the faith of Filipinos in a language that is not entirely their own. Our discussion centered around making our faith understood. Of course, translating concepts between languages is fraught with danger. What if there are words that have no equivalents? What if concepts are not transferrable? Like the use of the word “storm surge” was not adequate to communication danger to those in Samar and Leyte, perhaps words like “grace,” “baptism” and “church,” which have no Filipino equivalents, are also inadequate to express God’s desire for Filipinos today. In fact the word “baptism” is itself not even adequately translated into English. Rather it is merely transliterated from the original Greek word.

It leaves us with the question: How do we make our beliefs understandable to those of other languages and cultures and how do those beliefs legitimately change when that translation occurs?

I had intended to end this post here until I was reminded of something. When I was a child in Canada, we had heard of tidal waves — massive surges of water that inundate the land. When I got older I found out that in fact “tidal wave” was not the correct term at all for that kind of wave. Rather it is “tsunami,” from the Japanese. I guess part of my misunderstanding lay in the fact that those kinds of events are quite far from Saskatchewan and therefore my frame of reference is skewed. In this case, a foreign word was needed to help me express a foreign experience.

I guess that leads to another question: How much of theology is a similar “foreign experience” that needs new words in order to be adequately expressed? Or must theology always be expressed in one’s heart language in order to be truly understood?

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