To master a language, it’s important not only to know the words, but how to use them in context.
My wife, Laura, and I lived in Germany between my Master of Divinity and my doctorate. It was a glorious year in many ways, and one of the glories was learning German. But the subtleties of the complex German language can be tricky. I remember studying Karl Barth and Eberhard Jüngel with my Duden dictionary at my side, sometimes looking up 30 words per page and writing meanings in the margin. In addition to my academic reading, I also had to pick up household German. One particular aide to that process was the radio. I listened to European news and the local traffic reports, and the latter informed me about congestion, or ein Stau, on the autobahn.
One fall day, Laura developed a head cold and didn’t quite know the right word for her symptoms. I was so excited, “I know—I’ve got the perfect phrase!” We headed downtown, and she walked up the pharmacist (which in Germany is where some medical consultations happen) and exclaimed with utter confidence, “Ich habe einen Stau in der Nase.”
Essentially, “I have a traffic jam in my nose.”
The events of the first Pentecost—which we will celebrate on May 31—show us that the strategy of the Holy Spirit is for the church to speak sense to a listening world.
You probably know the story: all the followers of Jesus were together. “Then, like a wildfire, the Holy Spirit spread through their ranks, and they started speaking in a number of different languages as the Spirit prompted them… When [the crowd] heard, one after another, their own mother tongues being spoken, they were thunderstruck. They couldn’t for the life of them figure out what was going on, and kept saying, ‘Aren’t these all Galileans? How come we’re hearing them talk in our various mother tongues?’” (Acts 2: 4, 7-8, The Message).
At Pentecost, the Spirit gave the church two fluencies. The first is in the fundamentals of the Good News about God’s work in Jesus Christ. Read the book of Acts—you’ll quickly see this message is crucial. But the Spirit’s strategy is also for the church to speak to various people in their own “mother tongues.” The focus of this newsletter is on that second fluency with a particular accent: speaking the languages of technology and science. Indeed, previous posts have demonstrated the ways that the language of science and Christian faith can inform one another on how we form habits or how we’re created for relationships.
Besides science and faith learning to speak each others’ languages, there are other ways theologians bring the Spirit to science:
- Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, “Setting the Context for Spirit-Science Engagement.”
- Amos Yong, “Divine Action, Theodicy, and the Holy Spirit.”
- Wolfhart Pannenberg offers intricate analysis (at about 18:45) on the Spirit and field theory in physics.
- Kathryn Pritchard, “Religion and Science Can Have a True Dialogue.”
- Pentecostals’ respond to the COVID-19 outbreak.
- Speaking of COVID-19, I share this as a guide for local churches struggling with when and how to reopen.
In the Vernacular
It takes hard work to get things just right. Mark Twain once quipped that the difference between the right word and almost right word is the contrast between “lightening” and “lightening bug.” Similarly, as we learn to speak the languages of science and faith, we might need to know that “light year” is a measure, not of time, but distance.
The specifics of the Pentecost text help us here. The impressive biblical scholar I. Howard Marshall has commented, “It has been objected that probably most of the crowd would speak Aramaic or Greek, the two languages which the disciples would also speak, and that therefore the miracle of tongues was unnecessary. But this difficulty must surely have been obvious to Luke also. What was significant was the various vernacular languages of these peoples were being spoken.”
Most coming to Jerusalem would have known a generic common tongue, but here the strategy of the Spirit is to empower the church to speak in each person’s native language or vernacular. At Pentecost, God is saying that each of us isn’t simply a generic “person,” but Michelle, or Greg, or Melissa. And those particular persons may think, and even dream, in the languages of quantum physics, artificial intelligence, and anthropology.
In the links above, I’ve listed a few brilliant ways to grasp the meaning of the Spirit and science this Pentecost. My approach, like Kathryn Pritchard’s, is essentially practical. We need to come together and listen to one another. I’ve been to enough gatherings of scientists by themselves, and pastors by themselves, to know that their languages are quite different. Science for the Church is convinced that scientists and pastors can learn one another’s languages and thus to be able to translate their ideas for each other. Is Psalm 139:13 right when it says that “God knit me together in my mother’s womb”? Or is it the embryologist who uses a scientific description? We can celebrate that both are true. We can even become fluent enough to realize that these languages point to one reality, God’s reality, that ultimately transcends translation.
This is our task. What then does speaking the language of science and technology mean when you’re sharing the Gospel in Palo Alto, or Little Rock, or Boulder? Or witnessing to the integration of mainstream science and mere Christianity on Facebook or Instagram? What does it look like when you’re ministering to students and faculty at Chico State, NYU, and the University of Wisconsin?
I don’t entirely know because I’m not in all those linguistic contexts. But I believe the Spirit’s strategy is for us speak sense to a listening world that’s saturated in science and technology. Let’s come together and discover how the Spirit, who moved so powerfully at Pentecost, also leads us today.