Religion in Translation: The Role of Scholarship in Fostering Understanding

Widespread respect is usually hard won in the realm of religion. [1] In the Greco-Roman world, the religion that was most esteemed was the religion of the ancient city-state, or polis. As a member of a polis community, one participated in the worship of polis gods. Although there was no such thing as heresy, one could offend the community’s sense of the sacredness of its cults, rites, and the prestige of its gods such that one could land in court or on the wrong end of a magisterial decree. Even without a system of orthodoxy, religion was deeply implicated in community identity. Participation was an expression of one’s loyalty and belonging. Profaning acts and fringe cults were viewed as undermining the state by compromising its good relationship with the gods.

 Since Greco-Roman polytheism was, in a sense, practical, focused as it was on seeking out whichever tools for dealing with the gods that could bring the greatest advantage, Greeks and Romans were open to the deities of other communities. They translated them, however, into their own cultural lingo as they welcomed them in. The Romans had a ritual (evocatio) to invite the gods of enemy cities to Rome. They then worshiped these gods in Roman-style cult.

The Successors of Alexander the Great tolerated and adapted local cults in their kingdoms in order to gain whatever divine or PR advantage they could. These deities, such as the Greco-Egyptian Sarapis, were constructed in order to agree with Hellenic standards for divine identity.  Originally the divinized Apis bull, or “Osiris-Apis,” the Hellenistic Sarapis was given an anthropomorphic image in the style of a seated Zeus and Greek cult constructed in part by Timotheus, an authority on the Eleusinian Mysteries. [2]

The translation of this Egyptian bull-god into an anthropomorphic Hellenic deity was vital to its acceptance and proliferation throughout the Mediterranean. Romans in particular were prejudiced against the theriomorphic gods of ancient Egypt.[3] It was distasteful to a Roman, who held himself as superior to beasts like the jackal and the crocodile, to worship such creatures as gods. After the Roman emperor Augustus took Egypt from the Ptolemaic queen Cleopatra, he refused to worship the Apis bull, but commended the worship of Sarapis. [4] This is a testimony to the power of cultural translation in religion for fostering respect, but it was a translation that changed the original to the point that native worshipers of Osiris-Apis had little affinity for the translated version. Although quite popular as a god of the Greco-Roman oecumene, Sarapis was a flop among native Egyptians.

However, unlike Sarapic cult, Judaism and Christianity represent feats of religio-cultural translation that were successful among the native populations whence they sprang. In spite of clear examples of anti-Semitism and persecution of Jews in the empire, Judaism attracted a fair amount of Gentile interest. Judaism also enjoyed special privileges within the empire thanks in no small part to the respect that Romans traditionally accorded to ethnic and civic cults of great antiquity. This may have provided greater social space for the emergence of a growing number of non-Jewish “God-fearers” (theosebes) who, although declining full conversion with its requirement of painful and dangerous adult circumcision, nevertheless attended synagogue and provided local Jewish communities vital support.

 [5]

Another important factor was the effort of Jews to explain themselves to others in terms of the predominating Hellenic philosophical and philological learned culture.  This perhaps began with the translation of important Jewish texts into Greek to accommodate Greek-speaking Jews in the Diaspora, but also resulted in a mixing of Hellenic and Jewish civilization that engendered greater Gentile respect for Judaism. Writers like Philo and Josephus generously imbibed and exploited Hellenic thought and literary forms, a fact that is increasingly apparent to scholars of both Hellenistic Judaism and the Classics. [6] By the late first century AD, there may have even been God-fearers in Rome’s imperial court. [7]

Christianity, though, lacked the apparent antiquity and strong ethnic association that provided a limited shield to Judaism. It was initially viewed with hostility. Nevertheless, it won over literate converts in its early decades; the apostle Paul is a prime example. Paul was clearly conversant in Greco-Roman ethical philosophy, Hellenistic civic ceremonies, and other aspects of the surrounding Greco-Roman milieu. [8] Evidence of his use of such knowledge to appeal to Greek and Roman listeners and readers is to be found throughout his corpus.

By the second century CE, educated Christian writers engaged in apologetics sought not only to defend the faith, but also to explain it to those who were either unfamiliar with or hostile to it. Part of the exercise of apologetics was an act of cultural translation. By describing Christian beliefs and practices in terms that were intelligible and attractive to educated non-Christians, apologists sought to achieve tolerance for Christianity and perhaps even win some converts. Over time, Christianity was expressed in terms that were sufficiently attractive to the empire’s educated elites to win an increasing number of prestigious converts. In fact, in his Confessions, St. Augustine claims that he was converted to Christianity through Plato. [9]

In antiquity, those cultures that interfaced well with the predominant Greco-Roman intellectual culture had more impact, because communicating across cultural boundaries in Greek and Latin provided greater exposure and thus eventually generated greater respect and acceptance. The results speak for themselves. Christianity became a titan among world religions; acceptance by imperial elites was not a negligible factor in its success. Judaism survived in vitality, whereas many of its competitors died out centuries ago; and Islam was born and spread thanks in no small part to the reach of both of the former faiths.

The Academy of today, like its ancient forebears of Greco-Roman philosophy and philology, has its own intellectual language. Modern academic discourse seeks to understand, explore, and interrogate global cultural phenomena. Respectful scholarly attention also constitutes a process of translation that renders religions intelligible to outsiders on the global stage. Even more than other, older faiths, Mormonism has much to gain from exposure to scholarly interest and investigation. Hostility to such interest may conversely lead to further misunderstanding and alienation. So too may rigidity. That is why a demand to address outsiders and believers in exactly the same way may result in lost opportunities, insularity, and, at worst, demographic death (in the long term).

The recent upsurge in interest in Mormon Studies has met with some unease within the LDS community, even among certain of its scholars, concerning the value of an exploration of Mormonism in secular terms to outsiders and Mormons alike. Naturally, there are risks in reaching beyond the comfortable boundaries of devotional expression in order to raise awareness among outsiders. Ideally, secular religious studies exist independent of such devotional discourse and are not designed either to forward the agenda of a particular sect or to undermine it.

This is not to say that critical study of religious texts and revisionist histories do not challenge believers’ assumptions; the risks are there and not to be denied. The tools of modern scholarship, however, are not the enemy. By failing to meet the challenges presented by such scholarship on its own terms, and instead choosing insularity, the faithful will consign themselves to intellectual irrelevancy, when they might have risen to the occasion, pioneering new paths into the Academy, and thus a greater global profile. Not only does such an act of translation hold the promise of breeding a positive familiarity and an increasing measure of respect among non-believers, but it will also provide tools to believers for grappling with the challenges secularism presents to faith.

A lingering sense of Mormon insularity, whether well deserved or unfair, has fed political opposition against the presidential nominee of one of America’s two major parties. To this LDS observer, the sustained and unquestioned level of insult and prejudice expressed against Mitt Romney’s faith is disturbing. I am too young to remember religious opposition to the candidacy of John F. Kennedy, but Kennedy was able to overcome religious prejudice in order to become the country’s first Catholic president.

Romney’s case, though, is not exactly the same as Kennedy’s. The possibility of rapprochement between Protestants and Catholics in America’s pluralistic environment was facilitated by a shared theological tradition and the nation’s growing sense of strength and independence from Europe. Mormonism’s history is much different. Fleeing conflict within the US, the Mormon People and its political power first found room to grow outside the nation of its birth; and thus it did, but with a real sense of separateness, tension, and even conflict with that nation. The effects of that separation linger in the psyche of both Mormon and non-Mormon Americans. Only when Mormonism is sufficiently intelligible and familiar to non-Mormon Americans to find a comfortable place in their psyche will it no longer be so widely acceptable to denigrate the LDS faith in the public forum.

Mormon Studies has an important role to play in making that happen. You might think of the scholar of Mormon Studies as a kind of museum docent. There is a place for the missionary, and a place for the docent. By providing thoughtful discourse on Mormonism, scholars of Mormon Studies can serve as cultural docents, who will raise awareness concerning the Mormon People in terms of its history, culture, and religion, thus removing some of the air of mystery that keeps Mormonism at a psychological and cultural distance from other Americans. The potential of Mormon Studies to promote an understanding of what has been a misunderstood, if not missing part of American history will have benefits not only for the scholarly study of religion, but also for Mormonism itself. Orson F. Whitney once predicted that Mormonism would have its own Miltons and Shakespeares; [10] at this time, we might hope for our own Augustine, but he may only come if the right intellectual discourse exists to attract his attention.


[1] Special thanks go to Mina Estévez for reading and editing earlier versions of this post, as well as finding excellent graphics.

[3] A classsic expression of this prejudice can be found in Vergil’s description of the Battle of Actium. See http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/VirgilAeneidVIII.htm#_Toc3637710.

[4] Dio Cassius 51.15.3-4. Of Apis Augustus said that, “he was accustomed to worship gods, not cattle.”

[6] On Philo and Hellenism, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philo#Influence_of_Hellenism; on Josephus and Greek historiography, see Gottfried Mader, Josephus and the Politics of Historiography: Apologetic and Impression Management in the Bellum Judaicum (Brill, 2000).

[7] Scholars have speculated about the Jewish sympathies of both Poppaea, the wife of Nero, and Flavius Clemens, the grand-nephew of the emperor Vespasian.

[8] For recent discussion and bibliography of Paul and Stoicism, see Michelle V. Lee, Paul, the Stoics, and the Body of Christ (Cambridge, 2006).

[9] 8.2; see also James J. O’Donnell, “Augustine the African,” at http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/jod/twayne/aug1.html.

Comments

Religion in Translation: The Role of Scholarship in Fostering Understanding — 14 Comments

  1. Trevor,

    This is a very fun post to read. I love your reasoning and think you develop some excellent points on the direction Mormon Studies can develop.

    I love the history of religion, so you had me at “In the Greco-Roman world, the religion that was most esteemed was the religion of the ancient city-state, or polis.” 🙂

  2. I should also have added:

    Mina is a real treasure. We are very lucky to have her in Mormon Studies.

  3. It’s worth pointing out, though, Trevor, that acts of translation are also acts of transformation and synthesis. When we make ourselves intelligible to others, we frequently internalize our own explanations, and in doing so, we run a very real risk of losing our distinctiveness. I think you could explain the very origin and essence of Christianity as a cultural translation of Judaism, and look at how different the child was from its parent! Literally a different religion! Similarly, look how much Mormons have already given up as they’ve sought to make themselves intelligible to their fellow Americans. Pre-1890 Mormonism was a different religion from post-1890 Mormonism. Mormon neo-orthodoxy is quite different from traditional Mormon finitism. Not that these changes were necessarily bad, mind you. But I think Mormons should be careful. If non-engagement is a recipe for irrelevancy, so is loss of distinctiveness. Moderation in all things, would be my advice. 🙂

  4. Thanks for raising that issue, Chris. I think that what you say is true: acts of translation are acts of transformation. Translations internalized become doctrines transformed. In my view, however, this is where Mormon Studies scholarship has an advantage over an Augustine. There is a greater distance between the academician and the religious authorities who ultimately decide what constitutes established doctrine and what does not. As long as the LDS apostles exercise their role as gatekeepers, so to speak, then ideally revelation will guide decisions on what will be internalized and what will remain at arm’s length. Conversely, there is a real advantage to having Mormon Studies scholars sift through the Mormon past; they can “excavate” (to borrow Maxine Hanks’ recent usage) aspects of the Mormon tradition that have been forgotten. This presents the exciting possibility that Mormonism could, with the approval of its inspired gatekeepers, realize parts of the tradition that were effectively lost at one point.

    Although I am unable to discuss the details, one sees in the revision of the LDS endowment of the early ’90s a complex engagement with the historical tradition of this ritual, which involved both editing out some parts and also adding elements to increase its intelligibility. Although the wealth of documentation Mormon history enjoys can be in some senses a liability, it can also provide for exciting developments in which the tradition can develop in directions that are informed by that knowledge of the past.

    Thanks Joe and Gary for the kind comments.

  5. Ha! Thanks Joe, but the extent to which I am “in” Mormon Studies is the topic of a blog post I am still trying to work out.

    Chris’s question on translation is a good one and takes us back to Sarapis: a deity with, as Trevor notes, mixed success. I think that making Mormonism more intelligible to the American public, though, is part of making the American public more intelligible to itself. And hopefully the end result of that educational miracle would be to make us see ourselves as “stranger” than we knew, but not strangers.

  6. Beautifully and succinctly put, Mina. I hope that you take the opportunity to expand on that idea in future contributions to the blog. I have a friend in Religious Studies to whom I spoke some years ago about the academic study of Mormonism in his field. At the time, he told me that Mormonism was excluded on the grounds of its outré nature. It shared too many of the exotic characteristics of so-called “primitive religions,” which could not be acknowledged as existing in an advanced civilization like our own. To this day, I am not totally sure what to make of that explanation, but I do like the idea of America grappling with Mormonism as an American phenomenon, and that his might be part of the nation’s awakening to its own strangeness. One could only hope that a deflation of some of its arrogance would occur as well.

  7. Well, Catholicism has had the Pope and Bishops to guide it just like Mormonism has the Prophet and the other church leaders to guide it. So neither is going to end up like the Protestants which splinter all the time, regardless of how much scholarship is done on them.

    I don’t think that it is necessary to translate Mormonism so that the scholars can understand. The scholars can learn about Mormonism. There is no reason why a scholarly study of the church alone would change the church. However, I do think objectivity is important in scholarship, regardless of whether you are studying a religion or a political idea or anything, so far as it can be done. If the church views itself as correct, why would it fear objectivity? Each church should be able to provide backing for its beliefs if it is to be taken as true. The problem is that the Mormons have the “burning in the bosom” and the Protestants have the “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” and so each is convinced they are right on that alone. So if that is all you go on, then you will never be able to prove it to anyone. You can tell people to pray to God, but people have prayed to God for thousands of years and religious thought just keeps diversifying.

  8. Hello, Hibernia86-

    Thanks for your comments. To clarify my position, I wasn’t advocating that Mormons translate Mormonism so that scholars can understand it. I was instead suggesting that scholarly discourse, which has its own intellectual “language,” so to speak, could help make Mormonism more intelligible and familiar as an object of investigation.

    I agree with you that there is little reason to think that scholarship would take the lead in substantively changing Mormonism. As mentioned earlier in the comments, scholars do not determine LDS doctrine and practice; the leaders of the LDS Church do.

    Your other comments I am not sure how to respond to, since they go beyond the purpose of my piece.

  9. Thank you, Trevor. I thoroughly enjoyed this important essay. It raised an interesting question in my mind. I wonder, to what extent most Mormons, (many of whom define themselves religiously as a peculiar, persecuted people) would actually want to find a comfortable place in the non-Mormon American psyche?

  10. Thank you for the kind compliment, David!

    You raise an interesting question. One wonders why public anti-Semitism is unacceptable, but public anti-Mormonism is. Of course, the two cases aren’t exactly identical, but, if anything, the widespread and just stigma attached to anti-Semitism should serve as a model for all similar prejudices against religious and ethnic groups (whether or not they rise to the level of anti-Semitism). The stigma attached to anti-Semitism does not negate the reality of past and present persecution of Jews. Similarly, a hypothetical stigma against public expressions of bias against Mormonism would not erase the history of Mormon persecution and anti-Mormon prejudice.

    So, I suppose I would turn the question around in this way: do you think an increased stigma attached to public expressions of anti-Mormon sentiment would actually rob Mormons of the place that a history of persecution and anti-Mormon prejudice has in LDS identity? I’m inclined to say that it would not, but I would be interested to know what you think about it.

  11. Dr. Luke,

    Great essay! When you referred to Mormon studies scholars as docents, I couldn’t help but think of caged Mormons in some type of zoo with the zookeeper leading a tour group. “The Mormon will typically become annoyed if you tap the glass.” I am sure you didn’t mean it that way, and I really did like the essay.

  12. Thanks for the comment, Wedge. I am not sure exactly what to make of the ‘zoo’ bit, but I appreciate the compliment. My preference would not be to imagine Mormons exactly as you did during your reading of the post. The docent metaphor was prompted, rather, by my experience in the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City (http://www.lds.org/churchhistory/museum), where one is treated to exhibits and artifacts that give us some kind of access to the wonderful history of the Mormon people. Anything that helps us connect and identify with a certain people tends to humanize them for us. That’s my opinion, anyway.