One of the biggest challenges of moving to Germany for a year, obviously, is learning the language. I’ve never been good with languages, so moving here before becoming a good, or even mediocre, German speaker is feeling more daunting (and possibly stupid) every day. But I’m getting along surprisingly well communicating with my broken German and relying on everyone else’s far superior English. I have a new appreciation for what it means to be from America: Everyone knows at least a little bit of your language, and they don’t expect you to know theirs. Which is pretty weird. I’ll be writing more about that later.
So maybe it’s because I’m trying to learn a language that I am so sensitive to this, but…we talk too much. It’s incredible how much you can learn without relying on words; and it’s even more interesting to think about all the things that you actually can’t ever pick up through words alone.
We traveled from Hamm to Koeln (aka “Cologne”) to go do some sightseeing, and the big attraction in Koeln is der Dom (Cathedral). This particular Cathedral was built between 1245 and 1260, and they added on to it over the following centuries. It is huge, it is beautiful, and it is the oldest building I’ve ever been in. When you walk through the Dom, you are not just walking through a church, not just a place of worship; it is a living, breathing, still-being-renovated monument to 800 years of Christianity in Germany. During World War II, parts of the roof were caved in by bombs, a few of the stained glass windows were lost; but, overall, the entire structure survived largely untouched. I read a couple things that said the cathedral was probably undisturbed by the Americans because they relied on its tall steeples, visible from everywhere in the city, for orientation. It’s still the largest building in the city, it’s illegal to build anything tall enough to block it from sight.
When you see the icons, the stained glass windows, the crucifixes, the tombs, you remember that for the vast majority of Christian history, our faith has been taught and passed down in images more than words. For centuries, most people couldn’t read, and even if they could, before the printing press, there weren’t many copies of our holy texts available. You remember that back before it was common to profess, “ I am a Christian,” it was much more common to bow before The Lord on a daily basis, just grateful that you have been blessed with another day of life. As our faith has become more wordy, I fear it has become more fragile too. We think our ideas, concepts, or ways of speaking of God become God; rather than understanding God is always beyond our ability to comprehend or describe. There’s a particularly good book on this topic that I highly recommend
Back in the day, when no one could read, and most everyone looked to beautiful stained glass windows like The Bible Window to understand the story of God’s work in the world, probably every person had at least a slightly different conception of what they were seeing. And despite the nonconformity of their thoughts, they possessed more of a shared identity as a people of faith than any of us do today (probably). This window is actually remarkable for a couple reasons. Each panel pairs a story from the Hebrew Bible (or “Old Testament”) and a story from the New Testament. Worshippers were invited into a space where they can see how the story of Jesus was not really a new one, but rather a continuation of a story that had been unfolding since the dawn of time. The story of Jesus did not discredit or discount the stories of the Jewish faith, it simply opened the door for people from all cultures and walks of life to understand the One True God better. As worshippers viewed these images, they were able to see the faith of the Jews and the faith of the Christians as different ways of approaching the same God in praise and thanks.
Meanwhile, in the world of words, Christians had been fighting (sometimes physically, sometimes rhetorically) from their inception to distinguish themselves from the Jewish faith and Jewish people. As time wore on, the theological concepts became more complex, the words more harsh and demonizing, the attitudes more closed off, the whole process limiting their understanding of God to the concept that best supported their argument. God became less important than their ability to win an argument about why they were “right” about God. And in many ways, I feel like that’s a game we have been playing ever since.
Look at it this way: Can you explain why your best friend is your best friend? Are you able to articulate exactly why you share something with that person and no one else? Are you able to develop a completely systematic understanding for who that person is in relation to you, and how that developed over time…or do you find yourself thinking of specific stories, images, complicated emotions that are not easily explained or described? Now…if someone were to ask why God is your God? Do you have the vocabulary that you would use for your best friend, or a list of creeds and professorial-type statements? Neither is right or wrong, but I think without both we are not properly in tune with who God is and who God invites us to be.
It’s incredibly important that we are able to articulate an understanding of God. It’s incredibly important that we are able to identify who God is for us, and to be clear about how that requires us to live our lives. But I think it’s an understanding that can only be reached if we just stop talking for awhile. What little American news I have seen since coming to Germany is revolving around the whole “Ground Zero Mosque” debate. For the most part, I understand that this is a completely fabricated issue being used by certain political candidates to get their potential constituents needlessly hot and bothered for the November elections; and I’m incredibly glad to be removed (as much as one can be in a developed nation) from the 24 hour American news cycle. BUT…the other part of me sees this as yet another example of how Americans—particularly Americans in faith communities—could very well talk ourselves to death without ever coming to an agreed course of action. We talk a LOT, and it seems that our language is most often employed to cover up the truth, to misdirect, to divide. So far, what I appreciate most about the German language is that it is very direct and very honest; as opposed to our language which has innuendo, code words, and triple meanings built into the language. And I am starting to see all that confusion as a built in piece to the white American tendency to oppress and exclude others.
Building an Islamic cultural center ANYWHERE in America, but maybe especially several blocks away from “Ground Zero” will naturally lead to better relations between people of the Muslim faith and the wider American culture. Of course it will be a great thing and lead to more understanding between cultures. Of course it will. And maybe that’s why some people don’t want it built. We are at war, after all. It’s a lot harder to maintain a war against an entire people when the wider population starts seeing them as people. But..anyway…the point is, I stood in a Cathedral that is eight hundred years old, a monument to a time and culture that could not possibly be any farther removed from my own, and I learned about the missing pieces of my faith, the holes in my heart. It left me wondering, if this cultural center in New York does get built, what shadows of the American heart will that illuminate? What will be revealed to us about God in light of that monument? And if it doesn’t get built…what might that image tell us about our understanding of God, or ourselves? And in 800 years, if a student from another country comes to visit, what story do we hope to have told about who we are?