Living in another culture and attempting, however poorly, to understand and be understood another language makes you pretty philosophical. I've written before about how the very existence or absence of a word in a language can be a window to that culture or even a window to the human condition. Of course the language I'm speaking of is Kiswahili and the culture is East African.
Except it's not.
The culture I'm thinking about is the one that includes people whose Christian faith is central to their identity, and the language I'm referring to is English, but with subtle and illuminating differences. I'm embarrassed to say that at my ripe age, I'm really meeting and befriending people who have a strong Christian faith, for among the first times in my life.
I grew up in the outskirts of a city in a suburb that consisted largely of my people (Jews), whose religious identity is defined more by tradition than faith, and people who describe themselves as "lapsed Catholics" or "Christmas mass Christians." No one in our neighborhood described themselves as a "strong Christian man/woman/boy" or talked about openly about their "love of the Lord." No one ever comforted me with "I'll pray for you" or included "God's plan" in any philosophical discussions or ever uttered "the Lord Jesus Christ" in my presence. I probably would have found it strange if they did.
In college, that quintessential time of questioning and rebellion, this was only accelerated. I went to an east coast University, which probably took itself too seriously. Discussions, among people of all faith backgrounds, was of pulling back the blinders that religion had hung and of all the devastation and conflict caused in the name of competing gods. There was an implication that leaving the future to faith and attributing the past a deity's plan was unthinking. Unintellectual. Even harmful. And the strongest proponents of this line of thinking tended to be those who grew up in more religious homes.
But even then it seemed a bit like cultural prejudice to me. I didn't fully buy it. I knew, somewhere inside, faith could be a comfort. A saving grace.
But the point is, I really didn't have exposure to Christians of strong faith, and now that I do I'm surprised at the subtle differences in the use of the English language. Two examples come to mind:
(1) Grace. When I conjure up images of grace, I think of elegance, fluid movement, and good posture. But then I started hearing people say, "I wanted to treat him with grace" or "he showed me grace." I have to admit I didn't entirely get the meaning. I mean, I consider myself a pretty advanced user of the English language, but I was missing out on something that seemed to be pretty important to a lot of people.
I asked a missionary friend to explain the concept to me an she took the task to heart, providing a bunch of thoughtful examples. "It's when you show someone a kindness that that don't really 'deserve.'" she offered. She talked about how at times she has a short fuse with her husband and probably doesn't deserve the kindness he shows her in response, but he "acts with grace." The most profound example, in Christian thinking, is Jesus dying for the sins of others. It's not exactly compassion or kindness or turning the other cheek, but maybe something in between or all of those all wrapped up together. Lord knows (euphemism when I say it), I could use some more of it. And maybe now that I have a word for it, I'll actually have a behavior for it. Maybe.
(2) Season. OK. I know what a season is, and I definitely understand it's use in the metaphorical sense, but I don't go around using it that way. But more and more I hear people saying things like, "She was probably just going through a season in which she had difficulty/struggles/changes... " Us agnostics probably say "time" or "period," but there's something nice about referring to it as a season. Season implies it's only a natural (even inevitable) course of events, that there will be a waning out of it into something different but also beautiful and useful in its own right. There's something to look forward to and cherish about all seasons. You don't get that with "time period."
Don't worry mom, I'm still Jewish. I'm just finding it interesting that I have to go all the way to Kenya to meet different American cultures and learn something new and beautiful from our subtle differences.
Can think of any other words in the English language that different traditions use differently that has helped you see things differently?