03 January 2006

Conception

So, have you ever been talking away to someone about a subject and suddenly discovered that while you thought you were both talking about the same thing, in reality you were both talking about something completely different? Usually you come to this realization as the result of an embarassing faux pas on the part of one or the other of you. Depending on the relative importance of the subject matter, you might laugh. Hilariously, if you've really made some big mistakes.

On the other hand, I was thinking the other day about how this can really impact our communication. I've come into a lot of contact lately with people from other countries; not just other countries, but markedly different cultures. And I began to think about how we use words to describe concepts that do not necessarily have direct one to one translations. This leads to conversations where the conversants are both think they are talking about the same thing, but they are talking about very different things.

Let's take the idea or concept of marriage. To those who come out of western European culture, the word "marriage" conjures up a fairly specific paradigm which involves a man and a woman meeting, courting, having a period of engagement and then going through a ritual which sometimes involves a Christian church or sometimes just a ritual with a clerk of the state. In any case, when speaking with people of recent western European decent you may be relatively certain that you are both on the "same page," so to speak.

There are cultures in the world, however, where marriage is viewed somewhat differently. Where the rituals that surround it are different. In some cultures the decisions are made entirely by the parents of the so-called "bride" and "groom." They are then brought together for the first time (sometimes) on the wedding day. The rituals have nothing to do with a Judeo-Christian-Muslim ethic. The rituals are much more (what we would consider) tribal or primitive (which sounds pejorative, but I have no other words to use) in nature. Once those rituals are completed, the couple is then married.

Now, let us consider what might happen if someone from this culture were to find themselves suddenly in our culture, without any of their family here. They meet another person of the opposite gender also from their culture and they complete (as best they are able) the rituals of "marriage." Certainly we all would agree that in the eyes of the state they are not married because that requires a marriage certificate and we understand that. But that is not what I'm talking about here. When these people refer to themselves as being "married," are they? In their understanding, they are, in fact, married. They have completed the rituals just as surely as LightHusband and I did when we got married 17 years ago in the Old West Church. The only missing ingredient is the stamp of permission from the state, I'm talking about the idea or concept here. So (minus the state issue), are they married? Or not? What is it in fact that makes this couple "married?" Do we look at them and see a married couple or two people just shacking up?

I'm asking that question for an important reason. Because as you can see, ideas about marriage don't always translate one for one across cultural boundaries. We think they do, but they really don't. Neither do ideas about sexual mores within and without marriage; even among Christians from different cultures and different times. And these ideas have changed dramatically throughout history, even during the years when the texts of the Bible were being written. So my point is this, if we can get this confused about just one simple idea like marriage, it's just possible that we've gotten a lot of other ideas from the Bible muddled up as well. I'm not saying that it's all nonsense, but I am saying that when we hear someone spouting "absolute Truth," we need to start asking ourselves a lot of questions about what they are saying.

6 Comments:

Blogger kate said...

*whew*
I thought you were going in another direction with this. And that would not be a bad thing, per se, but it is too late in the evening to start thinking about that very hot issue... thank you for keeping the ending a little bit open for individual interpretation.

1/03/2006 11:16:00 PM  
Blogger Mike Croghan said...

I think we as a society desperately need to separate the legal concept of marriage and the religious and/or cultural concept of marriage. There should be a legal life partnership that the state recognizes and which confers certain legal rights and privileges between the partners (and which, IMHO, should be granted to any two consenting, cohabitating adults of whatever gender if they're willing to apply for a license and get it signed). There should probably be a required class, offered by the state, educating the couple on the rights and priveleges they're granting each other and that the state is granting them, as well as the costs and consequences of dissolving the partnership. Call them civil unions if you want, and grant them the full priveleges granted to married couples now. This legal partnership would never be referred to as "marriage" and should never be confused with any religio-cultural idea of marriage in the Bible or any other religious document or cultural tradition. This should replace marriage licenses, and there should be no special legal status attached to the state of marriage conferred by any religious or cultural ritual(s). However, on a social, cultural, and religious level, we should honor as "married" any who consider themselves married on the basis of a union entered in via their own cultural and/or religious traditions.

I'm not sure I really believe all that, but I throw it out there for discussion (and controversy?) because it's now a new day and hopefully Kate has rested. ;-)

1/04/2006 10:27:00 AM  
Blogger aBhantiarna Solas said...

Oh, wow, I really was talking about people from other cultures and not the gay marriage issue.

When I read back over this I can see how it might be mis-read. But ... really ... I'm talking about people from other lands and tribal cultures. And while I don't want to stifle conversation, I'm not sure I'm ready for that discussion here.

What I'm really thinking about and probably should have used another example, one less loaded with baggage, is how we think words translate one for one. Numbers are a good example.

The number 3 (three in English, tres in Spanish, trois in French, tres in Latin), different words but they all amount to the same number. So in that case, the translation is direct; one for one. But then there are words for which there are no one for one translations. Another example is that the Inuit have more than 20 different words describing snow, but when we translate all of those words into English they all translate as, "snow." But they are really so much more than that. Some mean soft powder. Some mean hard crystals. Some mean slush.

It's the same with the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek that our Bible texts were written in. Some words have direct one to one translations. But many do not. So when we read an English version of the Bible and then hear someone else talk to us about it, I think we just have to remember that we're getting it with so many filters and it's not bad to ask questions about those filters every once in a while.

1/04/2006 11:31:00 AM  
Blogger aBhantiarna Solas said...

And might I also add that it's interesting how this turn in the conversation nicely makes my original point about how people can think they are talking about the same thing when they are talking about different things all along ;-) !!

1/04/2006 11:38:00 AM  
Blogger kate said...

It's interesting to see I wasn't the only one who went that way!
I'm really fascinated by cross-cultural marriages, especially those between people of different countries. For just these reasons. And all the little things you don't share -- the stupid commercials or Brady Bunch episodes or toys you internalized or played with as a child, for example. Not that they're wildly important, but little and big stuff has to crop up all the time. And then there's social and relational expectations, etc.!

1/04/2006 02:27:00 PM  
Blogger Mike Croghan said...

Sorry! Didn't mean to go all powder-keggy in an unwelcome way. But your original example does raise an other interesting dimension to this: not only might there be issues of translation between different languages/cultures, but the same thing might be regarded very differently when viewed through different lenses by the same person (who's obviously within a single culture). Marriage, for example, can mean very different things on religious, cultural, social, and legal levels. Hence (and I'm sorry for continuing to bring it up, but it's such a good example) there are folks who strongly disapprove of their own religious organization performing gay marriages, but just as strongly feel that there's no reason why they shouldn't be legally recognized. This sort of thing can happen with other things, too, most especially the Bible. So it's just another dimension to the complexity of our concepts.

(And, I personally feel that on the legal level, it's a big mistake to blur these distinctions. But I'll leave off that line of argument.) :-)

1/06/2006 05:27:00 PM  

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