Jared Witt - August 6, 2018
Growing up monolingual, I tended to assume that every English word had some sister word in every other language which basically meant the same thing. So translation, I figured, was a simple matter of figuring out the one to one correspondence from one language to the next.
This may be more or less true for words that are simple, literal, and conceptually concrete.
“Tree” basically exists in every known language with a possible but unlikely exception if there is a tongue which developed somewhere that trees don’t grow. Beyond that, we might argue about the definition of a tree versus, say, a shrub. But everyone basically knows what you’re talking about conceptually.
I’m bold enough to say that even “The tree is red” can be translated into any known language with very little inconsistency. Even though the phenomenon itself is unlikely to ever occur in ecosystems which don’t experience a dramatic temperature transition during autumn or deciduous tree species, it’s easy enough. Traditional Amazonian tribal communities, even if they’ve never seen such a thing, can still easily wrap their languages around the image because they have seen “trees,” and they’ve seen “red” before.
But what happens when we get into words that are more abstract or conceptually challenging? We English speakers can come pretty close to understanding the German word gestalt (a unified whole or a system which is qualitatively more than and cannot be understood by the summation of its component parts) or the French joie de vivre (a delight in living life itself—usually contrasted with mere enjoyment of only the pleasurable aspects of life) by talking around them with several simpler words. Hence, why dictionaries work.
But any self-respecting German or French speaking person would likely tell us that we’ve lost something in the process, and the only way to truly get at the heart of those meanings would be to just say “gestalt” or “joie de vivre.” Fair enough. But not being a German or a French thinker, just mimicking the sounds doesn’t quite mean that I am using the words.
This is what makes translating the Bible so difficult. For instance, if I say “Holy Spirit” what do you think of? If you’re like most of us, probably not much. You might think of some creedal words about the “Holy Spirit,” but the words themselves may not conjure much to grasp onto. But in terms of putting an image to the word, that’s not so helpful, certainly not at the subconscious level, where words really have most of their power.
That’s too bad. We should expect that most words which have to do with God are going to be well above our head. But that’s not just to say that the third person of the Trinity should be a perennial blank. A word which we can barely put any content to, is unlikely to mean much to us. And few biblical words should mean more to us than that one.
I suspect that the Hebrew-fluent Jewish Christians, who made up the early church, had more to go on. They would’ve remembered that the Greek word pneuma, from which we get “spirit” in the Christian (or “new”) testament, was originally how they had translated the Hebrew word ruach, when they had made the Greek translation of the Hebrew (or “old”) Testament called the Septuagint two centuries earlier. That was the closest they could come.
Pneuma isn’t a terrible choice insofar as both words can mean breath or wind. The problem is that Greek speakers, influenced by Plato and his schools of philosophy, had long been using pneuma to mean that which is above or even the antithesis of matter or body. Notoriously, Plato and his disciples weren’t huge fans of physical stuff, the so-called corruptible part of the reality.
Hopefully, I haven’t lost you here, and you see what’s at stake. If you’ve ever scratched your head after meeting someone who identifies as a Christian but who seems to be indifferent to the well-being of the Earth or afraid of sex or what have you, that attitude had its root here in Plato, not in Christ.
No wonder that, by the time pneuma was translated into spiritus in Latin, we now have Christians who are skeptical of the human body and unsure even how to metaphorize the third person of the Trinity, let alone describe what she does or why she matters (pun intended). God help us by the time the Germans and English come around and they’re describing the Holy geist or Ghost. Spooky and fun sounding, but fully off the rails at this point in one long game of “Telephone.”
Ruach on the other hand is not an anti-matter word. Among the images that this one word might’ve conjured up: a tempest, a storm, a gale, a force that moves a body.
Such forceful and image rich pictures would this word have conjured that some linguists have suggested it originally started as an onomatopoeic description of the winds of a large storm. Say it to yourself out loud—‘roo-agkhh. Now imagine that that is how the writer of Exodus describes the massive gale which blows open the walls of the Red Sea to deliver the slaves into freedom in Ex. 14:21.
Think about that. When some cobwebby old cleric talks about the “Holy Ghost,” he is conjuring an image for God whose Bible-y-ness is pretty dubious. But if you ask a little kid to mimic a hurricane, that pretty much hits the nail on the head.
What does this change—if we know the Spirit of God not as that which is anti-matter but the vitality of matter itself? Well, a lot if all the windy images for Spirit are, by definition, change itself. What if we knew the Spirit not as that which is skeptical of the body but as she who gives it life? Not as that which is invisible but as she who gives movement and purpose to everything that is visible?
The “Spirit” is not that which hovers above the fray safely, indifferent to our earthly lives. The Spirit brings change, shakes things up, blows through this world like a mighty tempest just as much as a tiny breadth. The Spirit makes things happen. In fact, we know it only when it moves matter, never in stagnation, rigidity, status quo.
Cheers and Peace,
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