Sharing a Language of Faith

by Charles W. Swain

Dr. Swain is professor of religion and director of the Asian studies program at Florida State University.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, December 9, 1981, pp. 1282-1285. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


We must continue gently to insist that those who feel that a saving truth can be grasped only in Christian categories are mistaken. Jesus was not a Christian, or were his first disciples; Jesus’ faith, and his disciples’ allegiance to his cause, were, for them, a way of being Jewish.

"Isn’t that a bit unfair?" I replied. "You too are an educated man. Couldn’t I ask you the same kind of question about the myths and legends of the Buddhist tradition?"

He lowered his gaze, then looked up again with a gentle smile. "Quite so . . . but I am not required to believe anything, in order to be a Buddhist, that I do not find to be true in my own experience." Then he quoted the famous aphorism: "The dharma is a come-and-see thing; it is self-realized; its fruits are immediate."

This conversation occurred on my first trip abroad, during my first exposure to Asian culture, and as part of my first encounter with the Buddhist tradition outside the classroom and the study. I had already experienced my students’ fascination with the Buddhist tradition, including the great interest of one very bright student who dropped out of the university to enter a Zen Buddhist training institute, from which he emerged, almost a year later, a transformed person. What had, up to that point, been for me an intellectual problem -- the problem of "comparative religion" -- became, on that evening, a spiritual problem. How are we to affirm our own traditions in the presence of those of other traditions? How was I, a Christian, to understand and interpret the faith of a Buddhist, or my own faith in relation to that of a Buddhist? Can we experience the liberating power of another tradition, or make accessible to another the liberating power of our own traditions?

Yet somehow I felt then -- and I still feel -- that the communication of one’s own faith to another must be more than a repetition of statements referring to some external truth and one’s "belief" in it, whatever that might mean. It seems to me that what is required is a translation from the categories of one tradition into those of another, to communicate with the person whose faith has been formed by that other tradition.

The analogy with translation from one language to another has helped my understanding of this process of transtraditional dialogue. When I first meet someone who speaks a language foreign to me, what I hear will be unintelligible gibberish. If communicating is important, and I persist, I may come gradually to recognize patterns in what was once unintelligible noise; eventually it may happen that the language is no longer foreign to me, and I am able to communicate with another person in that person’s language. Always, however, I will be confronted with the problem of translating from my native tongue into that of another -- consciously or unconsciously -- in order to maintain the lines of communication between us.

How will I know if I understand, or am understood? This is not an easy question to answer. Imagine a conversation between a native speaker of English and a native speaker of, say, Japanese, both of whom know the other’s language, about the meaning of a poem in Japanese. The speaker of English might convince the speaker of Japanese that she understood the poem. She might then present the Japanese with a translation of the poem into English. They might agree on the accuracy of the translation. But if they happen to disagree, how will they resolve the disagreement? We can imagine them arguing, in a friendly way, of course; the English-speaker insists that a certain phrase in the translation is adequate, even though the Japanese-speaker insists that it is not. Who is right: the one whose native language is Japanese, or the English-speaker? And where could we find a third party to judge between them?

To press the analogy a bit further: the English-speaker might realize that there can be no fully adequate translation of the poem -- as an aesthetic whole -- into English. A fully adequate response to the poem would require not a translation, but an English poem which embodied the aesthetic whole first manifested in the Japanese poem. Imagine the consternation of the Japanese-speaker now, when confronted by a new poem, supposed by the English-speaker to embody the same reality first apprehended in the Japanese poem. How can the adequacy of this effort be judged?

Conversations between people of different religious traditions have a great deal in common with this situation, I think. The Buddhist and the non-Buddhist "speak different languages," in a sense. The non-Buddhist may convince the Buddhist that he understands some aspect of the dharma; yet an attempt to respond to a particular insight in non-Buddhist terms may not please the Buddhist, and once disagreement arises, there seems to be no way to resolve it.

Speaking historically, one becomes a Buddhist by "taking refuge"; that is, by a public acknowledgment of this truth, both as an act of commitment and a determination to enter into the discipline. On the basis of our initial impression of the truth of the dharma, we resolve to begin testing its precepts against our own experience -- to "taste and see that the dharma is good, well-pleasing, and leads to enlightenment."

There are outward, visible signs of this resolution, principles by which we measure our progress: rules, if you please. We resolve that we shall not deliberately cause harm or bring suffering to other living creatures; that we shall not benefit ourselves dishonestly or unfairly at the expense of others; that we shall be truthful and serious in our conversation; that we shall not indulge our impulses to sexual misbehavior; and that we shall not abuse our own bodies. We resolve that we shall gain our livelihood in a manner consistent with these principles. Finally, we resolve that we shall train our minds and emotions to conform to our experience of truth, however distasteful it may at first seem to do this. We adopt these principles not on some higher authority but because they appear to us to reflect the truth about our human situation, because our experience confirms this truth, and because we see that this truth is indeed liberating and ultimately leads to our highest happiness.

It seems obvious that such a resolution, while it may demand a radical reorientation of our lives, need not require that the non-Buddhist "convert" from another religious tradition to that of Buddhism. In that sense, "being a Buddhist" might be compatible with affirmation of some other religious tradition, or even membership in some other religious community. From its beginnings, the Buddhist tradition has acknowledged this possibility, although it has not always been explicit in proclamation of the dharma.

The problem of an adequate response to the liberating truth of the dharma in a non-Buddhist context is the non-Buddhist’s, not the Buddhist’s, even when the Buddhist is willing to help in the process of "translation," or consider such assistance an important aspect of responsibility to the non-Buddhist. And, for the most part, I have found my Buddhist peers remarkably open to attempts at appropriating the truth of the Buddhist tradition in non-Buddhist contexts. My friends seem to feel that an adequate, if minimal, non-Buddhist response to the dharma in a non-Buddhist context would require simply that the non-Buddhist strive to grasp the vision of the world, and our place in it, presented in the dharma, and, concomitantly, strive to embody the truth of that vision in daily living.

Christians must learn to affirm the possibility of non-Christian responses to the gospel which are appropriate to the situation of the non-Christian. I profoundly hope that Christians become as open to this possibility as are, in general, Buddhists. Just as I have met some Japanese who have great difficulty entertaining the idea that a foreigner can really speak and understand the Japanese language, most Christians find it very difficult to accept that anyone who is not a "native speaker of Christian" could ever grasp or appropriate the reality to which the Christian tradition points. Needless to say, such persons have even greater difficulty conceiving of a non-Christian mode of being in the world which might really embody the liberating power of the gospel. Just as we should gently continue to insist that it is not a priori impossible to communicate something by translating from one language to another, so we must continue gently to insist that those who feel that a saving truth can be grasped only in Christian categories are mistaken.

Jesus, of course, was not a Christian, nor were his first disciples; Jesus’ faith, and his disciples’ allegiance to his cause, were, for them, a way of being Jewish. To put it another way, the "religious" faith of Jesus and his disciples was informed by the Jewish tradition.

Very early in the movement which began from Jesus’ career, the issue of a non-Jewish response to the gospel arose. How was the gentile to identify with the movement? It was very difficult for the earliest followers of Jesus to conceive of an adequate non-Jewish response to the gospel. Many assumed that it would be necessary for the non-Jew to participate in the Jewish tradition, to learn to "speak Jewish," in order to become a follower of the way of Jesus. Jesus’ career was understood in the categories of Jewish messianic hope and apocalyptic expectation, and the place of the non-Jew in this frame was determined by the "opening" of Israel to the nations -- the inclusion of all humanity in the final culmination toward which all history pointed. It is understandable that people whose faith was informed by such definitions would see little possibility of expressing their truths in other forms.

Partly because of the vicissitudes of history (the increasing separation of the movement from normative Jewish life, the tragic war of 68-70 AD., the emergence of forceful advocates like the Apostle Paul, the rise of strong non-Jewish leadership in the movement) and partly because of the inner dynamic of the preaching itself, the view that non-Jews could respond to the gospel in ways not determined by the norms of Jewish tradition slowly gained strength in the movement.

It is easy to mistake the meaning of this change. Could Jesus and his first followers have been made to understand our question -- What is your religion? -- (which is doubtful), they would surely have answered: I am a Jew. From our perspective, it appears that the issue was whether one who would respond to the gospel must first "become a Jew" in order to become a Christian. But the transformation was more subtle. A better way of putting it might be to ask (again in our terms, not theirs): must the hearer of the gospel accept the religion of the preacher in order to respond adequately? To this question, the tradition answers emphatically: By no means!

This resolution was not without its ambivalence; it produced tension and animosity between Jewish and gentile followers of the way of Jesus that could easily deepen into mistrust and even hatred, as the movement spread into the cities of the Greco-Roman world, where the synagogues of the diaspora constituted a strong and highly visible presence. And the problem was further complicated by the emergence of a new tradition, bearing the name "Christian," with its own integrity, its own symbols of participation, its own structure. It is rather like the emergence of a "new" language from an already existing one. At what point does the new language have its own integrity, apart from its relation to the language from which it emerges? At what point can the new language stand on its own, as a self-contained means of expression?

In this instance, the figure of Jesus had remained an attractive center of the emerging Christian tradition. Allegiance to his cause became the hallmark of a specifically Christian faith. The meaning of his career -- his life, death and final triumph -- was the focus of celebration in the emerging community. As the term "Christian" itself suggests, the formative experience of this community was the opening of modes of Jewish experience -- messianic hope, apocalyptic expectation -- which had been taken as content within Jewish tradition, so that these modes of experience became forms within which new content could be apprehended and expressed. The crystallization of the new tradition, the new language of faith, the embodiment of the liberating power of the gospel, was the result of this process. The older question about an adequate non-Jewish response to the gospel was thus translated into a question about an adequate non-Christian response to the gospel.

If, by our reflection on the emergence of a self-consciously Christian tradition, we can recapture the meaning of this transformation, we will have gained an important resource in our present situation. We can learn to ask ourselves: Must the hearer of the Christian gospel accept the religion of the preacher, in order to respond adequately? Must the bearer of the Christian gospel become a Christian in order to respond adequately? And we can raise an analogous question: Must one who would grasp the truth embodied in a given language learn that language as the only means for expressing this truth?

Like those first followers of the way of Jesus, we will be tempted to reply: Of course, how else will they understand and respond? But perhaps, like they did, we will learn to see our language of faith as one way, but not the only way, to express the truth to which we are witnesses. Perhaps we will learn that there is indeed a liberating power in the gospel that transcends any form in which it can be expressed. In learning this, we will begin also to learn how to be Christian in our world.