Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Inagoddada Godself

"For God so loved the world, that God gave God's only Child that whosoever should believe in God should not perish but have Inagoddadavidababy Godspell Godself."
This perversion of John 3:16 sometimes comes to mind when I hear the gender-bender utterances that sometimes pass for politically correct theological language these days. The ugliness of it is enough to make one's head explode: "Enough already!" That is precisely what seems to have happened to Gilbert Meilaender in an article last year entitled "Enough of God" (Touchstone, May 2007). The article, which is not available online, carries the subtitle: "Gilbert Meilaender on Losing Him in Translation." Losing HIM indeed. Here are some excerpts:
Recently I had occasion to read again portions of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Discipleship. It is known to many English readers as The Cost of Discipleship, the title of an earlier English translation published by Macmillan. But as volume four of the English Edition of Bonhoeffer's Works now being published by Fortress Press, it is simply Discipleship (translating Bonhoeffer's German title, Nachfolge).

That is all well and good, and the English edition of the Works contains useful introductions, footnotes, and bibliographies -- each of which helps readers more fully to understand the text. In this way the scholarly life makes progress.

The Progressive Limit

For human beings, though, progress seldom moves in a straight line and is seldom divorced from the unfortunate limits of a particular age. And, as I read along in Discipleship, I was struck by a certain kind of limit -- indeed, a limit that appears precisely where the editors and translators no doubt assume themselves to be most progressive. Moreover, this particular defect results in ugliness. Let me illustrate.

Here are just a few sentences from the new translation in the English edition of the Works:
God once created Adam in God's own image. In Adam, God sought to observe this image with joy, as the culmination of God's creation, "and indeed, it was very good." In Adam, God recognized the divine self.
Here are those sentences in the earlier translation, published by Macmillan in 1963:
When the world began, God created Adam in his own image, as the climax of his creation. He wanted to have the joy of beholding in Adam the reflection of himself. "And behold, it was very good." God saw himself in Adam.
Now, imagine reading page after page of Discipleship, translated in the style of the first of these translations. After a while one just wants to say, "Enough of God -- nbo more please." To be clear, the issue I raise here is not accuracy of translation. The issue is, first of all, ugliness.

Suppose we talked and wrote this way not just about God but also about others. "Ugly" would be too weak a word to describe the product. Consider the following sentences from a scholar who is a master of English prose. In his biography of St. Augustine, Peter Brown writes:
The emotional tone of the Confessions strikes any modern reader. The book owes its lasting appeal to the way in which Augustine, in his middle-=age, had dared to open himself up to the feelings of his youth. Yet, such a tone was not inevitable. Augustine's intense awareness of the vital role of 'feeling' in his past life had come to grown upon him.
Suppose we wrote of Augustine the way Bonhoeffer's translators write of God.
The emotional tone of the Confessions strikes any modern reader. The book owes its lasting appeal to the way in which Augustine, in Augustine's middle-age, had dared to open up Augstine's self to the feelings of Augustine's youth. Yet, such a tone was not inevitable. Augustine's intense awareness of the vital role of 'feeling' in Augustine's past life had come to grow upon Augustine.
And then imagine reading Peter Brown's entire biography written in such a style. Few would want to endure it. Yet, theologians and preachers now routinely subject us to such prose when speaking of God. If they are not read, who shall we blame?
Meilaender goes on to discuss the argument that such language not be extended horizontally to our fellow creatures, but be reserved for God. However, he describes the nearly lost capacity of contemporaries to distinguish between characterizing God as male and speaking of God as masculine -- making a hash of the Lord's relation to Israel as the lover who woos her and the husband who remains faithful to her, not to mention Christ's relationship to the Church as her Bridegroom.

The idiocy of this Gnostic attempt to get behind the revealed language and images for God and get at some deeper reality is that it ends up offering a repulsive, grotesquely etiolated, hideous deformity instead.

Meilander concludes that our best hope may lie where he began -- in aesthetics: "The sheer unnatural ugliness of gender-free language about God means that considerable effort is needed to socialize us into such patterns of speech. Perhaps Beauty may come to the aid of Truth."

Well, I see what he means; but I'm not counting on it. Whether one considers clothing fashions, church architecture, popular music, cinema, or what passes for art these days, the signs seem to point in the other direction: the love affair of post-modernity with ugliness. Still, that doesn't prevent traditional forms from retaining their objective qualities of beauty or prevent us, who can, from enjoying them.
"For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever should believe in Him should not perish but have everlasting life." (John 3:16)
[Acknowledgement: Gilbert Meilaender, "Enough of God," is published in the print edition of Touchstone (May 2007), pp. 12-14. Hat tip to E.E.]

No comments: