Fidelity Without Fundamentalism: A Dialogue with Tradition

Posted on: 18th March 2011  |
Author: Gerard J. Hughes SJ
Publication details: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2010 176 pages
ISBN: 9780232528008

Misunderstandings can cause real trouble. My MP colleague, Derek Fatchett, as a new Foreign Minister in 1997, came close to invoking a fatwa for what he thought was a casual remark at a meeting with his Iranian counterparts: ‘I know you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’, he commented, without realising that comparing anyone to a dog was the worst form of insult in Iran, and was widely reported as such. Any sense of it being an English proverbial saying got lost in translation.

Gerard Hughes’ Fidelity Without Fundamentalism: A Dialogue with Tradition challenges us, as religious believers in an increasingly complex world, to resist the siren calls of fundamentalism in our attempts to remain faithful to our tradition. He argues that true fidelity lies not in the fundamentalist’s rigorous observance of the exact rituals or translations of a different time or culture, but in a creative yet sensitive engagement with contemporary culture, which will allow us to bring the truth of our faith to the world in which we live. Hughes’ approach is carefully philosophical and his clarity is combined with an engaging accessibility as he takes his reader into difficult theological, philosophical and ethical matters without leaving them frustrated with jargon or over-intensity. This is philosophy at its readable best, at the service of theology and of Christian liturgy and practice.

Rather than tackle fundamentalists head on, Hughes’ approach is more imaginative. The Bible, itself a library of books of different literary genres, is discussed as a difficult question of translation in the literary sense. The issue of whether it is possible to translate a poem, for example, from one language into another and capture its ‘essence’, whilst remaining faithful not just to the variable interpretations of its words but also to its rhythm and form, has engaged poets for centuries. The modern Irish poet, Ciaran Carson translated Dante’s ‘Inferno’ brilliantly into modern Belfast street speech, and the Yorkshire poet, Simon Armitage presented the medieval poem, ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ in contemporary Yorkshire consonants and vowels. But nor is translation simply a question of whether the translated poem is a faithful rendering of the original or a ‘new’ poem: translation across cultural and historical terrains can be a difficult business. Even within a single language, words can come to have a meaning opposite to that intended by their original usage – think, for example, of the way in which the word ‘wicked’ is used by young people today.

This is far from an erudite academic debate. So often in our opinionated world, ‘a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest’ (as Simon and Garfunkel’s lyric proposed). Reaching common understanding and finding common ground is increasingly difficult in a world of myriad opinions, which are often all assumed to be of equal weight.

Gerard Hughes refuses to abandon the effort to communicate. He leads us through a fascinating analysis of fifteen proverbs from different languages, pointing out the dangers of attempting to translate them into their literal, word-for-word equivalents and stressing that translation is an ongoing, iterative ‘art’. As Hughes puts it, ‘there are more possibilities to be considered’ (p. 156) and this applies not only to our reading of Scripture (in the light of historical scholarship) but also to contemporary ethical questions such as those of stem cell research, switching off life support machines, ‘assisted suicide’ and declaring war. He resists reductionist simplifications and takes seriously the ‘ambiguities’ that are so often at the heart of ‘the structure of complex words’ as the brilliant critic, William Empson explored in his work. Rejecting ‘the specious clarity the fundamentalists wish to rely upon’, he argues that ‘their mistake is not in believing that clarity is desirable nor in trying to derive clear conclusions from their Christian principles. It lies in their reliance on methods of deriving that truth which take it as given that apparently complex issues are in the light of Christian faith not complex at all’ (p. 153). They assume ‘that translation is comparatively easy’.

Fidelity Without Fundamentalism is Hughes’ encouraging response to this assumption. He strengthens by the example of his argument our capacity to cope with complexity while remaining believers, reminding us that ‘the need for security which fundamentalism seeks to satisfy is better and more creatively met if we have confidence in the continuing guidance of the Spirit’ as we try to use the intelligence and imagination God gave us ‘to translate his Word into the many languages of our world’.

So the arrival of our new translation of the liturgy perhaps ought to provoke a wider conversation about how we now communicate the ‘good news’ of Jesus Christ to our contemporaries. Hughes’ Fidelity Without Fundamentalism is a timely handbook.

The reviewer, John Battle MP, is former Member of Parliament for Leeds West.

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