Religion today: Themes and issues
Religion today: Themes and issues

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Religion today: Themes and issues

1.7 Language

Language is frequently a knotty problem in religion. As religions and religious ideas move from their place of origin to other cultures, either the new recipients have to learn the language of origin (Hebrew, Japanese, Sanskrit) or it has to be translated, in the course of which new interpretations, nuances or simply mistakes creep in. The majority of the new audience are thus at the mercy of the translators and interpreters, being unable to read or understand the original for themselves. This is true for western adherents of different forms of Buddhism or Hindu-derived groups, but is also of significance in Celtic spirituality. Sometimes it is decided that a term, a name or a phrase just cannot be translated and must remain in the original language; this can lead to its having high status, but also to individuals arriving at their own culture-specific interpretation of precisely what is meant. Exclusive or excluding language can affect religious perceptions and practices, as we see, for example, in relation to the predominantly male-oriented language of the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

Language can also pose problems in the study of religion, as the same term turns up in various contexts with subtly, or indeed considerably, different meanings. Polysemy - the existence of several meanings in a single word – is something of an occupational hazard in religious studies, particularly in this pluralistic age. The western ‘New Age’ understanding of karma is one such example. Karma is based on the idea that every action has a reaction, and is linked with the idea of reincarnation. Thus, it is believed that what a person does in one life may influence what happens in another life. However, its everyday use does not always accord with centuries of Indian philosophical speculation; ‘magic’ is also used and understood in a variety of ways. A term like ‘evangelical’, which has a ‘technical’, theological meaning, can also be used by a particular Christian group as a means of self-identification, and is now also being employed generally in a third and much looser sense in connection with any type of proselytizing group, such as the Soka Gakkai Buddhist group. Similarly, ‘charisma’ is a term with multiple meanings. In Christianity, charisma is the gift of grace, which is said to possess certain people under particular circumstances (such as when a priest performs eucharistic rituals). In sociology, charisma refers to the kind of authority claimed by someone who is religiously gifted and who may challenge traditional forms of religion. A more common dictionary definition of the term, however, and the more popular understanding, is that charisma is the ability to inspire others with devotion or enthusiasm. Context is the key to identifying polysemy and understanding what is meant on a particular occasion.

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