The Dialectic of Renewal, Tradition and Translation
By Cardinal Louis Rafael Sako
Translated by Dr. Subhi Zora
RenewalThe renewal of thought and sciences is a necessary natural and vital state that is the consequence of the changing nature of humans, their time, mentality, culture and circumstances, as well as of the appearance of new scientific discoveries. Renewal encompasses a complete set of factors and a comprehensive process that should strictly be adhered to. In the field of religion, which we are concerned with here, renewal should be one of the priority concerns of religious authorities, because many references, terms and factors have changed overtime due to the new culture and the effects of the social media. Consequently, the renewal of religious discourse has become an urgent demand in accordance with the historical and spatial contexts. With all due affection, I would like to state that the renewal of religious discourse should include Christians, Muslims and Jews, if the aim of these faiths is not to lose their young believers. Our world is less spiritual and the new generation of young people is quite different from the older generations whose youth had been more religiously and morally committed and who had been far more loyal and obedient! Contemporary culture needs a deeper religious discourse, one that can accommodate all people’s concerns and queries, and is based on truth in finding sound solutions to their problems; otherwise young people would end up doubting religion. People need a simple language that is capable of transmitting religious Message effectively, one that can attract them to religion, especially since they realise that the focus of the message of religions is the human being, and that religion should guide people and strengthen them with hope and anticipation and which can assist them to live through their own circumstances. Christ says: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).
Renewal is a heritage term originally, contested by different intellectual and cultural currents that are bound with personal, ideological and political interests. In our society and Church, one can find the renewed, the liberal, the conservative, and the anti-modernization fundamentalist who spreads hatred. Unfortunately, much of what the ultra-Orthodox say about heritage is in itself bidding against heritage and a serious manipulation of matters of religion. Their criticisms clearly express a psychological and epistemic crisis.
Authenticity is related to the origin, that is, the excellent genesis from which the idea and first text were launched, and not the additions that were accumulated regarding them over time. What we have today is different from the original. Authenticity requires knowledge of : who the writer of the texts were, and for whom they were written; what the words meant when they were written; the idea(s) the writer wanted to communicate and the religious culture and social practices that were prevalent at the time of writing. Then the question arises of how we update these and pass them over to our faithful!
The Church is not a captive of ancient traditions
The Church is not a captive of ancient traditions and frozen rigid heritage which is based on memorisation and indoctrination, but the Church actually carries the good news of the Gospel for every time and place according to the current culture of the people, their language and surroundings. The Church is open to the world in a far more realistic and comprehensive spirit. The main characteristic of the Church is ecumenism, that is it is not for a specific people, a specific gender, and for a specific language or geography. The Church is for all people: “Go to the whole world and proclaim the good news to all creation” (Mark 16/15). The message of Christianity is that of renewal, and the Church must learn from history and should advance in sustainable research. The Church must be filled with wisdom and knowledge, in order to be able to speak boldly about the challenges that people face, and about the theological, moral, social, and legislative issues that have to do with their lives; issues that have accumulated over the centuries, but which the Church has to actualise and regenerate to fit in with the contemporary culture, to make them a blessing. What the contemporary man needs is enlightenment and awareness which would give value and meaning to his religious practices, and which stem from knowledge and freedom, and not from ignorance or inherited mechanical tradition.
Nowadays, the Church must find an understandable language that can be used with the faithful about issues to do with the faith in a different way, especially when dealing with young people. The faith needs to be communicated through a language that is relevant and appreciated by the young so that they can understand it and radiate it around with love, life and hope. The Church moves where “the Spirit blows” (John 3:8), and it ‘renews, wanders, and does not stop’, as Pope Francis often mentions in his speeches.
Renewal is the Charisma of Christianity
The process of renewal (aggiornamento) and updating is the Charisma of Christianity. The Church has embraced the topic of enculturation throughout its history. How can you preach to a nation without adopting its language? How do you pray with people in a language they do not know? The strictness that some claimants have regarding ‘heritage’ and ‘language’ is an extreme, non-Christian position! Christ has come for all people, carrying God’s Fatherhood and His love and mercy. His call was: “You are all brothers” (Matthew 23: 8), so live your life as brothers and sisters, aiming for love and joy: Christ never established a national religion, but rather directed his disciples to go to the whole world to transfer his mission (Mark 15:16).
The renewal starts from the bottom up, because there are inherited erroneous religious concepts and traditions that have now become unaccepted. Renewal is never a threat to religion. Rather, it is part of its nature. The danger, however, is militancy which distorts religion. Renewal is not done by patching the old inherited legacy, but by actualising it using new means and methods that can be understood and accepted in our present time. Quite frankly, I say that classical speculative theology does not help people today to understand the principles of their faith, but rather it disperses them. Is that not the reason for the Church’s divisions?
Renewal definitely depends on the Holy Bible and on the early Church Fathers as well as on the official consecutive teachings of Church. Theology, like all the other scientific disciplines, is liable to renewal. So are the rituals and laws (jurisprudence), all of which are societal, i.e. in the service and advancement of society. Christianity is based on the message of Christ. The true Christian has an open heart, and an open, renewable mind. We must constantly return to this spirit, using reason and heart, and we must not stop growing and interacting with the dynamism of the Gospel. Christ is with modernity: “Saturday is for man” (Mark 27:2), “I want mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 12: 7), “You were told, but I say to you” (Matthew 5: 38-48).
Renewal is not fashion, but rather a pastoral faith necessity that takes its legitimacy from the Bible, and from the new cultural and social reality that we live in. Here then is the question: Why stick to the inherited which is actually no more than the norms and traditions that have taken on the character of holiness and disregard our serious efforts towards actualisation? Concerning the issue of the renewal of the Liturgy (rituals), the Second Vatican Council which is a binding document for the whole Church, says:
“In order for the Christian people to surely obtain abundant blessings from the rituals, Our Mother, the Holy Church wants to seriously renew the general rituals in particular … This renewal requires the organisation of new texts and rituals that can express more clearly the sacred truths that concern the Christian people and which can enable them, as much as possible, to understand them easily and be fully and collectively engaged with them” (Constitution in the Holy Liturgy No. 21).
The dialectic of Translation (Arabisation)
I am not against our beautiful language, and I cherish and speak it, because it is the language of my ancestors, parents and grand-parents, and I consider it a treasure. But what can one do when an important part of our people do not know it let alone speak it? We are a Church that is responsible for transporting joy of the Gospel, and not museum attendants. The Christian message is for all peoples and languages, and not for ‘one chosen people that is the best nation’! Is it not to this openness that the text of the Acts of the Apostles refers to when talking about the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles in the form of ‘tongues’: “and there appeared to them tongues as of fire; these separated and came to rest on the head of each of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak different languages as he Spirit gave them power to express themselves. “(Acts 2:3-4)
Arabisation (translation) has nothing to do with politics as some clowns falsely claim, but it is rather a necessary pastoral requirement. The Christian message came in Hebrew and Greek, and early in the Christian history, the Holy Bible was translated into Syriac, which was the Aramaic dialect of the then Kingdom of Edessa. When the Muslim Arabs came to the lands, our ancestors dealt with them positively, and so they learned their language, Arabic, and used it to write in such fields as Theology and Jurisprudence, which they called “the Science of Speech.” For example, I recite here the Theologian Yahya bin Audai (+974))1), and Timotheus the Great (+823), with the Caliph al-Mahdi (2), and his secretary Abu al-Faraj, Abdullah Ibn Al-Tayyib al-Baghdadi, in the Jurisprudence of Christianity (3), and Bishop Iliya Barishinaya (+ 1046) (4), Bishop Abdishua al-Sobawy (+1318) The Rhymed Gospel(5), and Patriarch Iilya III Al-Hadeethi, nicknamed Babee Halim (+ 1190) in his book The Sunni Translations of the Holy Festivals (6), in which he had followed the style of the harmonic scales of Al-Hariri.
These scholars have found alternative terms for the Greek and Syriac theological terms used at the time, so they said, for example: ‘the attribute instead Hypostasis’, and ‘the face for a person’. Also the tunes that we have adopted until recently in Mosul come from the priest Khidir Al-Mawsili (+ 1755): “Glory to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit: ‘O Virgin Mary, ask Christ so by your prayers the world rests…’ and ‘I am the only heavenly bread’ … and ‘on the day of Resurrection You Come and Judge’.
Society has changed, and our people have spread all over the corners of the world, and our prayers must not only be translated, but they must be renewed in accordance with to the countries in which the Chaldean faithful presently reside. This is what other churches have done! And if we keep on using the old forms, as the hard-liners demand, we would put ourselves outside of time and eventually lose our young people.
1 Essay on Tawheed by Sheikh Yahya bin Audai, Arab Christian Heritage Series, Beirut 1980.
2 Al-Jathaleeq Timathaus the Great, Louis Saco, Beirut Darr Al-Mashreq, 2009.
3 Ibn Al- Tami, Figh An-Nasraniya 2 volumes. in CSCO 1957
4 Elia Al-Nusaybini, Louis Saco, Beirut, Dar Al-Mashreq, 2009
5 The Rhymed Gospels of Bishop Abdishua al-Sobawy, two volumes, Arab Christian Heritage, Beirut 2007
6 The Book of Sunni Tarajeems of the Holy Festivals, Dominican Fathers Press, Mosul 1873