“Language is not only a part of human activity, it is the most characteristic feature of human behavior…perhaps the best evidence of the essential function of language as a transmitting mechanism is seen in the almost total failure of meaningful cultural contact when effective communication is lacking” –Eugene Nida, Customs & Cultures
As I sat watching the new sci-fi movie, “Arrival” I was almost brought to tears. This was one of the most remarkable films I have ever seen – precisely because it may be telling us precious truths about how to navigate this incredibly divisive time we currently live in – all by using the image of human communication with aliens from another planet.
In Genesis 11 we read about the Tower of Babel. Up unto this point humans spoke one language and together, in this moment, they began to build a tower to heaven to “be like God” with their new technology: the brick. Now, we must assume that God wasn’t just upset about their idolatry – but also the inherent oppression that would be involved in building such a spectacle (enslaved workers, etc). So God comes down and “confuses their language so they cannot understand each other.”
While there is not indication from the text we have traditionally seen this as God cursing humanity by giving us different languages. But what if we have this all wrong?
What if different language are not a curse, but one of the greatest blessings God has ever given us?
Stay with me.
In my anthropological studies for missions we constantly talked about the importance of language. I, like you, live in the matrix of language barriers – both within the vast cultural diversity of the English language and across language barriers. What is remarkable is that language reveals and reflects how we think. Languages are not formed in a vacuum – they are formed by real people, living in real circumstances and play a huge role in our how we think and process thoughts and see the world. We know what we know only because our language has within its capacity a way for us to receive and express certain thoughts.
The availability of words impacts how people in any culture form thoughts. When translating across languages it becomes apparent that some languages do not have any equivalent translations. Apparently French does not have the word “entrepreneur,” Chinese does not have the word, “romance,” you can’t say that you “miss” something in Japanese and English has no singular word for “open minded.”
All of these examples, and the thousands more we could come up with, all affect how we think, how we see the world, how we interact with each other.
The problem we have is simple: We think that the way that “we think” is the way that “everyone thinks.” We think that the meaning we are attaching to a certain thought through language is the meaning that everyone else is attaching to the thought.
This is inevitable but incorrect.
Usually, communication works fine as long as we are interacting with people who are incredibly similar to us and have been taught to think, speak, and use the same word association as we do. This probably explains why we, as humans, are highly drawn to befriend people “just like us.”
But…you can see where the problems come in…life in our highly connected world demands we spend our days interacting and communicating with people who are not “just like us.” This is hard and can be frustrating and often causes misunderstanding.
But maybe it is one of the greatest blessings God has ever given to humanity.
Maybe we should take more seriously a Theology of Language.
I won’t spoil the movie for you, but Arrival thrusts us into the emotions and fears of the first arrival of aliens from outer space, arriving in 12 pod-like space ships “landing” in different spots around the globe. Of course, our first instinct as humans is to declare war, but within this incredible stew of fear, curiosity and survival we attempt the courageous task of communication.
Specifically, we need to ask our visitors the question: “What are your intentions?”
Simple question, right? Wrong. In order to answer this question the main character, a PhD in linguistics, walks us through the thought process needed to understand each other when asking and answering this “simple” question. Do they understand what we mean by the formation of a question? “Intention” is a difficult word to understand that conveys future consequences – do they have an equivalent in their language? Do they understand the difference between “you” (singular) and “your” (collective)? Do they even think as individuals? Or do they always think collectively? She goes on further…
And so the linguist goes to work. Teaching and learning and listening and trying to understand the meaning behind a completely alien communication. It takes time. She has to decipher. She has to ask question after question to try to establish how the aliens process thoughts to understand the meaning of the words they are conveying.
One of my thoughts in the movies was: Ok – these aliens are obviously far beyond our technology – can’t they just use some sort of language translator? But then I thought – what if they could, but choose not to. What if they were forcing humanity to try to understand – try to listen – try to decipher. What if the aliens knew our future survival depended upon us investing the hard work of learning to listen and understand one another.
Then I realized. Babel is not a curse – its one of the greatest blessing we’ve ever been given. We are now being forced by God to listen with such intensity to one another, to invest ourselves in each other cultures so deeply – all in an effort to understand what the other person is truly meaning with their words.
Language and culture can divide if we are unwilling to listen. But if we are willing to put in the hard work then our differences can bring us together in ways that we never thought possible because it forces us to listen, to try to understand, to let go of our fear, to receive, to be blessed, to learn from each other.
Language barriers can bring us together as humans and allow us to get so deep into each others lives that we cannot help but become friends.
As we navigate the difficulty of politics, race, religion, sexuality and so many more issues we have to be willing to put in the difficult work to try understand what the other person is saying. Otherwise, we’ll never get anywhere.
There is an incredible scene in the movie. For a while, the whole world is talking to each other and sharing information about what they are learning. Then, in a pivotal moment…one nation gets spooked and cuts off communication and every other nation responds in turn by cutting their communication as well.
Because that’s what we do, isn’t it? When the moment gets difficult – we shut down, we cut off, we stop listening and stop trying to understand. When times get hard we “hear what we fear” as my colleague Althea often says.
Maybe language and cultural barriers are a blessing. Maybe they uniquely force us to know each other in deep, deep ways.
When the Holy Spirit came in Acts 2 and gave the disciples the ability to speak other languages and gave the audience the ability to hear their own language – this became one of the identifying markers of the early Christians – they have been empowered by the Spirit to hear each other. The Spirit is empowering them to cross any cultural barrier in such a way that they can speak, listen, hear, understand and be reconciled with each other. The Spirit empowered the early church specifically and primarily for the purposes of reconciliation across divides.
But yet – today, the Church is as divided as ever.
I wonder if our division and inability to truly listen and understand each other reveal our lack of reliance upon the Holy Spirit?
I think the Bible gives us a compelling Theology of Language. Each language and culture is beautiful and valuable and good and we need to do the hard work of learning each others words, meanings, thoughts and intentions so that we can be reconciled to one another.
This is the hard work of being a Christian. But it’s what we’ve been empowered to do!
As for the movie. I sat there and almost cried. Arrival reminded me of something I had almost forgotten. The importance of seeking to truly learn one another’s thoughts, one another’s words, one another’s meanings. I cannot think of a better message that a movie could convey in this most divisive time. Maybe it takes communicating with aliens for us to understand that our future depends upon us all thoroughly listening to one another right now.
Yes, I think Babel is a profound blessing.