My first year of college at Cornell University, I took an elective course in ancient Greek — an odd choice for an engineering student. I did it because, as a newly converted Christian, I was tired of pastors using the phrase “in the Greek” during their sermons as a way to add validity to their conclusions. I wanted to learn some Greek so I could examine their claims. For it seemed that the meta-message in their “in the Greek it says” sales pitch was something like:
- “I am closer to God — I know the language he used.”
- “I am smarter than you, so don’t doubt me.”
- “You can’t really understand the Bible with out the Greek, so I will teach you.”
But I was impressed with the preacher’s knowledge of Greek. I actually did horrible in that class, it was tough for me. It was only later my language skills would blossom. But diving into Greek did help me to start to see behind the original language smokescreen used by religious folks.
Since then I have seen Hindu Sadhus (native language being Hindi) do the same with Sanskrit (a dead language) , Zen Japanese Buddhists Priests do the same with ancient Chinese, and Pakistani Muslims (who speak Urdu) do the same with Arabic. The power of claiming to be in touch with the original language of your holy text is huge. And it often brings the listening audience into a state of easily manipulatable state of admiration or intimidation.
Sure, knowing the original language of a text can help a preacher understand the text better. But obviously the preacher will then translate and interpret using his/her own perspective and add his own errors. Translations are tricky things (I once made a living of it with Japanese). So sure, scholarly speaking, there is something valuable in studying the original text which I will not deny. But what I want to briefly explore here are the dark sides of “Original Source Mystique”.
It is not only religious folks that use the original language smokescreen. A philosopher, for instance, in discussing Kant may try to add credibility to their understanding by quoting Kant in German and then translating for the listener. This is the “I-am-smarter-than-you” move which gives much power to the smokescreen.
Quoting the original also has that quality of “essentialism” that Bruce Hood writes about in his book “Supersense” and which Dawkins writes about in his book “The Greatest Show on Earth”. Essentialism is the belief that a person or thing has an essence. A common accompanying belief is that this essence can be passed on from the original object — a spirit to heaven, karma into objects, etc. So, for instance, in Martial Arts, and in many oriental practices, a big deal is made of being in the lineage of a famous teacher — as if the essence of that famous teacher somehow is thus more available to any teacher in that direct lineage.
Wrestling with the original text, likewise, gives the image of being there right next to the founder of the religion or philosophy. Quoting original texts gives the feeling of ancient wisdom. This is another cognitive temptation — to feel that if something is ancient, it must be good.
There is so many cognitive tricks that can be tapped into by quoting original texts, it is no wonder it is common.
Alle Sachen, unterliegen der Auslegung je nachdem, welche Interpretation aus einem bestimmten Zeitpunkt auf eine Funktion der Macht und nicht die Wahrheit.
— Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900)
Ooops, sorry, that was in the German, the translation would be, “All things are subject to interpretation whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.”