"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Calqued German Words and the Spiritual Life

If I had twenty lifetimes, or twenty times the amount of time I currently have in my life, I would probably attempt to learn most of the world’s major languages, and perhaps a few local dialects along the way.

But, alas, I’m given one lifetime, so it’s probably not meant to be. Three or four languages would be nice. I know a decent amount of Spanish, some Chinese (spoken not written). I’d like to eventually learn German and may have to given my ambitions toward further theological education.

English of course has a lot of borrowed words, many that I haven’t realized were borrowed until one of my students—typically European—tells me they have essentially the same world in their own language. I began to explain “angst” to a German student the other day, to which her response was essentially “well, yeah, of course.”

I was also reading Karl Barth’s Dogmatics in Outline—a sort of condensed version of his much-longer Church Dogmatics, which might take me twenty lifetimes to read. Barth is Swiss and writes in German, and though I’m reading an English translation, some of the more weighty words are left in German, I assume to retain a nuance and depth that might otherwise be lost in translation.

The word he used was weltanschauung. I suspect using weltanschauung instead of its English equivalentworldviewmight just be a reminder of the depths of the concept, that a welanschauung is not simply your opinion of the world but that it's less of a what than a how—how you interpret the world, the whole framework of beliefs and assumptions you hold that influences how you interpret new information.

In this way and in regard to religion, it seems like it’s not just the East Asian Buddhist and the American Christian who have differing weltanschauungs. I sometimes realize when trying to dialogue with a fellow Christian that it can feel like two people speaking two different languages—maybe the result of differing weltanschauungs.

Or Christians assume I share the same weltanschauung and so speak to me like I’m “on their side,” not realizing some of the fundamental differences that make it hard to dialogue.

It seems an important concept of which to be mindful, whether we’re talking with one of the same religion, a different religion, or no religion; especially when we feel like we’re having a hard time getting others to see it our way or failing ourselves to see it their way; it’s not simply a matter of making a compelling argument, but recognizing the differing weltanschauungs that might inhibit mutual understanding.

I’m intrigued by the philosophical, historical, and psychological words we’ve calqued (a word "calqued" from French) from German more than anything, probably because they seem more pertinent to matters of religion. Though, schnitzel and strudel are wunderbar (wonderful) words, and the best occasion for chatting about theology may be over a hamburger and a Hefeweizen.

Here are a few:

Gestalt. A psychological term that seems pretty similar to how we use “wholeness” or maybe the adjective “holistic.” I think the best kind of religious people, whatever the religion, are people whose faith is fully integrated into their lives. In other words, it’s not a hobby, but something that shapes what you value, how you act, how you spend your time, where your priorities lie.

Maybe a gestalt faith is a wholehearted faith, a demanding faith, a faith that requires work, even. And maybe a gestalt spirituality means one’s faith has to be seen as an interconnected entity, where your actions reflect what you actually believe, not simply what you say you believe (not a new idea).

Gemeinschaft and gessellschaft. These two sociological terms might be contrasted as “the priority of the community” and “the priority of the individual." Chinese culture probably falls more under the former, with American culture fitting more the latter.

Many would say western missionaries have often erred over the centuries in failing to recognize the particular, um, “schaft” that was present in more communitarian cultures, perhaps bringing too self-focused of a gospel message that failed to be sensitive and understanding of the context. Which seems like a damaging, myopic mistake, one that could easily encourage an unhealthy kind of Christianity and needlessly critique a legitimately good element of a culture (e.g., respect for family, playing one's part in a greater whole, etc).

Maybe you could say true Christianity is a balance of the two—God loves the individual, and God loves humankind as a whole. I suppose I’m in a season where I’m trying to prioritize gemeinschaft. Maybe that sounds like B.S., since I’m not deeply tied to a Church community right now.

But I do find myself preferring to worship in a setting that is more liturgical and designed to emphasize our oneness and solidarity with one another, rather than our individual expression in worship or “personal relationship with God.” I suppose a balanced approach is important when conveying the heart of our Christian experience to others: life isn’t about you, but you’re also not irrelevant.

Schadenfreude. This word has to do with finding joy in another person’s misery. It sounds pretty awful, something none of us really do. But it shows up in subtle ways, I think. I wonder if often our sense of “justice” leads to a bit of schadenfreude at times. I think the world, including Christians, rejoiced a little too extravagantly when Osama Bin Laden was killed. It seems a very human thing to be a bit happy when people we don’t like—maybe because they’re self-centered or jerks or obnoxious—suffer misfortune.

I also wonder if some within Christianity are resistant to the possibility that some/many/all non-Christians may experience the same eternal outcome as themselves because it threatens us in some way. In others words, do some of us need hell because it in some way affirms our own rightness, penalizes those who didn't do the hard work of Christian faith like we did?

True religious dialogue is maybe not impossible but does seem more difficult when we think others who don’t share are beliefs are going to hell. It seems like patient listening would be usurped by a kind of urgency in our conversation that would make us poor listeners.

Weltschmerz. This is similar to angst, a more commonly-used borrowed word from German. “Hope” is a central theme of Christianity, though Christians may disagree on the object of that hope. (Is it hope for a heaven for Christians? For a new, re-created world for some? For all? For those who live good lives?)

A danger of hope seems to be a certain sense of detachment, an indifference to the ways in which the world isn’t right. The problem of evil (how can God really exist or be loving when there’s so much pain around?) is not a problem I think needs to be fully resolved. We can feel hope, but we can also feel genuine frustration over the state of the world.

Buddhists seems to embody more than others this deep sympathy for the world’s sorrows and sufferings and would likely be good dialogue partners in learning how I as a Christian can live with this dual sense of weltschermz but also hopefulness.

Zeitgeist. This word means “the spirit of the times” and is meant to capture the thoughts, feelings, morals, and mood of a particular time. This seems a very relevant word especially for Biblical interpretation and for Biblical application.

The Bible was written in a particular zeitgeist; understanding that zeitgeist can be helpful in understanding what is being said in the Bible. Failing to understand that zeitgeist can result in a poor reading of the Bible, maybe if we assume something in the Bible warrants the exact same application for us today as it did then, when this might not be the right way to think about it. (Sitz im leben seems a similar expression to zeitgeist, which is used in theology to describe the social setting of the Biblical texts and might actually be more helpful here.)

I think we also have to be aware of our zeitgeist so that the heart of Christianity is not lost or mangled by whatever the current wave of thought may be. Yet there are right and wrong “spirits” to consider. I’d say the consumerism of our time is a spirit of which to be careful, especially when it morphs our Christianity into something that is all about “me” and my spiritual needs.

On the other hand, the empowerment of women to lead and shape the world is part of our late 20th century/early 21st century zeitgeist, and, unlike consumerism, is a trend that should be welcomed as we revisit Scriptural texts and realize that, while consumerism may not be consistent with the spirit of Christ, the equality of women and a less rigid view of gender identity, ability, and giftedness might be.

Kaffeeklatsch. This is not really a philosophical word, though we do it all the time. It basically means to gather for coffee and chatting. When you have a coffee date with someone, you’re having kaffeeklatsch. (Edit: See comments below for a better explanation of the actual, common use of the term...oops!)

There are probably some more uber good calqued German words I’ve missed, but I’ll stop there. Gesundheit! (Someone next to me just sneezed.)


EB said...

Weltanschauung dosen't mean Worldview,
it is the impression of your OWN worlview
Kaffeeklatsch is not coffee and chatting
it is a meeting between women, and they talk about (bad) about their neighbors
Greeting from Germany

Matt Boswell said...

Guten Tag!

Thanks for nuancing my understanding of "kaffeeklatsch"...my German students told me the same thing, that my literal understanding didn't capture the more common usage of it...they said they think of old ladies knitting and gossiping. What a funny image! I guess I don't kaffeeklatsch. :)

As for weltanschauung, I'm sorry to say I don't really understand what you're contesting. Maybe you've heard worldview explained differently, like it's what the whole world collectively thinks? That's not really how we use it, nor how I'm using it here...it's much more personal and unique than that, which I think maybe is what you're getting at. I think we agree! :)