Bruno Latour on Religious Language
by Eric Daryl Meyer
At its best, religious language does not mystify and blur, but focuses the attention with absolute precision upon some expansive reality. The ongoing use of language tends to render once-crisp metaphors stale and cliche. Given that religion tends to deal in so many intangibles and has a strong inclination to preserve and pass on particular formulations, its language is especially susceptible to codification into strange esoteric systems in which very many words are employed to say very little. This whole article is worth reading, but I was particularly struck by the description (more of an exhortation, really) given to religious language.
Uncomprehending outsiders will assume that the transformative truths of religion are about getting yourself teleported to some other, better world, but for insiders the opposite will be the case: religious truths serve to remove distractions, enabling us to focus on what is taking place in our space and in our time – to attend to incarnation, to the flesh, to a face, a stone, a child, a fly, a tomato or a piece of wood – and to find them replete with significance, and calling for no response except gratitude, reverence and love.
Religious language can be risky “it requires great care,” Latour says – “it might save those who utter it” but it is never mysterious: it contains “nothing hidden, nothing encrypted, nothing esoteric, nothing odd”. It has its own robust wisdom, and does not need to beg for “tolerance”, or to plead with tough-minded sceptics to concede that the facts of science are too dry for some tastes, and that a spoonful of “wonder” or “quaint religious feelings” might make them much more palatable. Contrary to what we have been brought up to think, the daring heroes of intellectual escapology are not the religious believers but the practising scientists, going boldly into the unfathomable mysteries of eternity; while religion, properly speaking, is a set of exercises in “breaking the will to go away, ignore, be indifferent, blasé, or bored”, and focusing our minds on the intimate textures of what lies close.