Getting Found in Translation: Reflecting on Issues of Theological Translation

Flickr Credit Kuba Bożanowski

Whenever Quakers from various streams get together, similarities and differences quickly arise. This is the current state of our tradition; it’s not something we should fight against. Instead, we need to learn how to move within it by being clear about who we are while “moving towards sympathy,” as Howard Thurman says, with another. This work of being clear about who I am while embracing someone else is part-and-parcel of what it means to translate.

In looking at the definition of the word “translate,” I believe the work Quakers need to focus on is the fourth: “to bear, carry, or move from one place to another.” When we listen to one another speak about our spiritual convictions, it’s not simply to take what others say and put it into our own words. The problem isn’t typically that we don’t know what they are talking about, the problem is more that we don’t like what they are saying. Either that or we do not see ourselves in their experience, or we assume that when they say the believe X, Y or Z, we know exactly what they mean based on some previous experience or assumptions we’ve made. No. The work for those who are translating in a faith community is to be moved by the other, to not just hear what we already know, but to expect to find the Light in a new and different way. In the very act of listening – and translating – we can be be moved, transformed, and changed.

Trapped in Single-Stories

One of the initial difficulties we face in this work is what Chimanmanda Ngozi Adichie calls the “Danger of the ‘single-story’” approach. If I can only see you as Liberal, or a Fundamentalist, or Non-Theist, or Conservative, then I see you as a “single-story.” I have a particular script based on a couple negative experiences I’ve had in my past and now that script runs in the background whenever I meet someone of that particular storyline.

A single-story is a story we tell about someone or a group of people that collapses that person’s experience, history, feelings, his or her uniqueness down into a flat stereotype. It allows us to “understand” them without knowing them, and often works as a justification for mistreating of other human beings.

What are the ways in which you have collapsed another person’s – Quaker or not – faith and life experiences down to a single-story? Or when have you been subject to this kind of treatment by others?

Recently I came across a TED Talk given by Adichie, who is from Nigeria. Her talk is profound and well worth watching, but it also feels salient to the discussion at hand.

The main point of her talk is that, because we are so “impressionable in the face of a story,” we need to be aware that:

Single stories create stereotypes. The problem isn’t that stereotypes are not true, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

Think of some of the prevalent single-stories in our society:

We have a bad experience with a poor person and every poor person after that is subjected to that one story we tell ourselves. Our country has a negative encounter with one group of extremist Muslims, and now all Muslims are represented by that one instance. And what about immigrants? Black people? Women? People who are gay? Rich folks? Christians? Atheists? Maybe the single-story we are prone to using is all “The people in my meeting” or “the pastor is (or says)…”

For Adichie:

to insist on only the negative stories is to flatten my experience and overlook the many other stories that have formed me.”

Are we aware of the single-stories that we have assumed about our fellow Quakers? Are we willing to have those stories challenged, made more complex, filled with humility and grace?

Everything is Contextual

So, how might we go about the work of moving beyond single-stories and really engage in translation? Translation not only stretches us, but it can lead to our own transformation – if we allow it.

The scientist Ian Barbour wrote, “we do not simply see, we only ‘see as.'” Which is a nice way of saying that we each have our own filters. We come from different backgrounds and experiences that shape our lives, understandings of the world, human relationships, and theology. Our contexts are inescapable. They play essential roles in who we are becoming. When we sit together with a group of people from varied backgrounds we are given the opportunity to practice contextual theology. We have the opportunity to experience the history and tradition that this person has been influenced by — Gurneyite, Hicksite, Wilburite, or something altogether different — and how that historical perspective is being contextualized within that person’s present experience.

When we encounter a person with this in mind, then we recognize that they are more than any single-story we have laid on them. No one is simply a “Gurneyite” or a “Liberal” or a “Feminist,” there is always more to the story. A Christ-centered Quaker is more than what I think I know about “all Christians.” An unprogrammed Quaker’s faith becomes something I can learn from and be changed by.

So when you are doing the work of translation within context here are a few things to listen for (Cf. Bevans 5-6):

What are this person’s individual and communal experiences? This includes work, family, faith experiences, successes, physical abilities, orientation, deaths, births, education. Anything that either enabled to have experiences or disabled them from experiencing things the way others have.

What was this person’s cultural background or “that system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which people communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about attitudes toward life” (Bevans 6). That’s a mouthful, but consider this question: what images, symbols, and other cultural artifacts show up with this person that seem to be important to her or him? How have those things become important? What do they symbolize to them (not you)?

What social location or systems have shaped this person? This is a question about privilege, gender,and ethnicity. Power makes a difference, and your ethnicity, gender, orientation, class and geographical location all play into who we are. This is essential not only to understand where others are coming from, but our own social location and how that determines and “filters” our interactions with others.

Uniformity vs. Friendship

Beyond the question of context, another issue that is essential to be aware of when participating in the act of translation is seen in the difference between uniformity and friendship. When I think about translating theological language between groups, the primary task isn’t to find uniformity. I have the hardest time accepting another person’s beliefs when I am convinced my view is right and therefore the other person should ultimately move towards my view. But given what we’ve just said about context, we now know that this is, if not an impossible task, a lot to ask of someone whose story is completely different from ours. If uniformity – enlightening others that my view is right, or at the least, their view is wrong so that we might come to some standardized agreement – is at the center of our work, there will be unnecessarily high stakes and stress involved in the process.

So if that isn’t it, what is our primary task?

It is to create a space that is safe enough that each person’s soul can show up, and is allowed to just be present.

This is harder than it may sound at first.

With the work that convergent Friends has done, and Multwood, and other “inter-faith” groups, the goal has never been bringing people to some kind of decision point, as though we wanted them to write a statement about this or that topic. The Quaker use of the word “convergent” is misunderstood if it is taken to mean bringing people together to some uniform horizon up ahead.* Instead, the work is rooted in storytelling and drawing out the strengths that we each bring. It is meant to build a participatory experience where everyone who wants to be there can show up and contribute.

When we tell our stories within a space that is safe and honors one another’s souls, then we are doing work that is not only very powerful, but very countercultural to what often happens in our society.

I think most people find it very challenging to be in places where their soul is welcome, rather than being forced to conform. To be in a group where we can stand on our own two feet and say, “This is what I believe.” Or “This is who I am and I don’t need you to agree or even disagree, I just need you to accept that this is who I am.” Or even, “I disagree and here’s why, here is how I have experienced that for myself.” To be able to do this kind of work within community is a gift to everyone involved.

Flickr Credit Kuba Bożanowski

A Single-Story Broken

Having spent my teenage years in the conservative evangelical wing of the church, I didn’t know anyone, Christian or otherwise, who had come out as being gay. However, while I was in seminary I made friends with a gay Christian Quaker who lived near me. He was, at the time, someone I’d gotten to know through his blog. I enjoyed reading and commenting on his work. Over time, I felt like I knew him and trusted him because the space he created on his website for dialogue.

Eventually, I got up the nerve to ask him to coffee. I wasn’t sure where I stood on same-sex attraction and lifestyle, but I was in a place where I wanted to hear his story and meet him. I was curious about what seemed to be a genuine faith because I had been taught that you couldn’t have a genuine faith and be “living in sin” at the same time. I did my best to suspend my opinions, my judgements, and the experiences I carried into that coffee shop that afternoon. And my friend was brave enough to sit down with someone who he knew came from a different, far more “conservative” perspective. Maybe he saw – or wanted to see – beyond my “single-story” just as I was trying to do the same with him. Around the communion of freshly roasted coffee we started the conversation off with the typical niceties, but quickly moved into deeper waters. I asked him about how he became a person of faith and a Quaker.

What followed changed my life.

I heard someone who was supposed to be “other” (to me, an evangelical Christian) share from his heart, and I learned his story was far more beautiful, complex, challenging, and faithful than I could have ever imagined.

There, in a little coffee house in sunny Southern California, a safe space was created where at least one (my own)  single-story was broken that day.

I heard about the story of a gay man who wanted to be a part of a faith community where he could just be himself. Unfortunately, the Quaker meetings in his area was very welcoming of him being gay, but far less so of his Christian faith. Similarly, the evangelical churches around him were very welcoming of his christian faith, but judgmental of him being queer. He taught me that day of the wrong-headedness of meetings and churches that identify with one particular label, inclusive, evangelical, pacifist, etc. because when someone shows up who defies that label, or pushes its boundaries, they are often rejected for their, rather than received as a gift.

Translating theological language can mean life or death for people. Just as finding AA is life-saving for those who need it, knowing that one is able to walk into a Quaker meeting and trust that he or she will be welcomed for who they are, for the words they use, and the stories they share, can be the difference between survival and complete despair. Do we believe that enough to put ourselves out there? To be associated with people whose stories are radically different from our own?

Zacchaeus in the Present Tense

Speaking of which, one of my favorite bible stories is the story of Zaccheaus which is found in Luke 19. If you don’t know the story, begin in the preceding chapter where the main heroes of each story consist of a persistent widow, a pharisee and tax collector, children, a rich young ruler and a blind beggar. Truly a winning line-up! All of them, minus the rich young ruler, “get it,” and welcome the kingdom of God. It’s the rich person who is unable to receive Jesus’ teachings and sell all he has and give to the poor as Jesus instructed him.

This sets the stage for Zacchaeus, because he is a “sinner” and “tax collector,” is someone of low honor and status in his community. He’s considered unclean, rejected by his religious community for choices he’s made. This makes him an obvious candidate for Jesus’ community. Jesus tends to favor the misfits and outcasts in society.

But there’s a twist to the story. He’s also rich. And rich in the Gospel accounts pretty much always means, not a candidate for Jesus’ community. In Jesus’ poor people’s campaign, the rich are often the ones who corroborate with the empire, and who have power to change the circumstances of the poor but instead sell them off at a profit.

Sound familiar?

Zacchaeus’ story is meant to keep us from giving too easily into the temptation of assigning him a single-story, where we say, “Okay, now we have this guy figure out.” He’s kind of like the Quaker friend I met with at the coffee shop that day. Someone who is caught in a tension between two communities.

What’s more, the story of Zacchaeus has been often mistranslated to maintain the single-story: Zacchaeus is a bad, rich, tax collector. Typically, once Jesus shows up at Zacchaeus’ house, he is translated as having said this:

“Lord, I will give to the poor…I will pay back four times as much.” (Luke 19:8 NRSV)

This gives us a picture of a repentant sinner, a way-ward tax collector, and a wall-street tycoon who has finally seen the light! This translation reinforces the perspective that “salvation” comes only after repentance.

However, the story is far more interesting than this mundane and expected outcome!

Jesus does not find someone with a repentant heart; rather he finds someone who has already oriented his life around the kinds of practices Jesus was calling for.

A more accurate translation of this text is to take the verb being mistranslated as the future tense “I will” and render it in the present participle “I am already doing.” Here it is again:

“Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I pay back four times as much.”

Do you see how this completely changes the story?

Jesus doesn’t find a repentant sinner, who fits a classic single storyline, Jesus discovers Zacchaeus is actually one of the good guys.

Zacchaeus already gives his money to those in need. Reading this story up against Luke 18′s “rich Young ruler” we see that the single-story “rich=bad” no longer holds water as a simple stereotype in the Gospel.

When Jesus said, “Salvation has come to this house, because he is a son of Abraham,” what I think he is saying is that Zacchaeus and everyone who lived under his roof were being welcomed back into the community of God’s people of which they’d been excluded (Joel Green,  673).

And that’s how I see the work of convergent Friends: to welcome back those who have been excluded from the larger community, which means we are going to be welcoming back one another. Because no matter where you find yourself within Quaker communities someone, somewhere is getting excluded. It could be because you’re gay, it could be because you are someone who reads the bible, it could be because you are both!, it could be because you were in the military or you’re a police officer, it could be because you’re an atheist, or it could be because you’re a war protestor. Either we reject the single-stories we tell about each of these and welcome the rich complexities of others lives, or we continue to live in our illusions of pristine bubble-wrapped community of uniformity.

Conclusion: Moving Towards Insecurity

Anthony de Mello, a Jesuit priest in India, once wrote, “Belief is security, faith is insecurity.” The idea is that the more we move out of what we know, what we are certain about – whether it is other other people, God, and especially ourselves – the more we are moving into true faith. So rather than hoping the other person moves toward our particular views we see that to be a Quaker is to be a part of a faith tradition, which invites us to be constantly moving towards insecurity, towards destabilizing single-stories, towards friendship with the other, and a loving community where souls are welcome to show up.

Now that you have had a chance to listen and to be heard, build on what you have. Allow the deeper stories that have arisen to be like a powerful symphony that arises with many different instruments and skills being brought together for a common purpose. Love empowers us to be who we are while living together within community. In doing so, we have the opportunity to create and live into what Vincent Harding calls, “a community that does not yet exist.” A community where the kind of world we hope to be a part of is the very thing we actively work to create. And then, we will be “found in translation.”


  • Convergent, in the way it is used in Quaker contexts, is a “neologism” or a made up word that has a particular usage. It is the combining of two words: conservative (as in to the tradition) and emergent (as in innovative). It is born out of desire to find renewal within the church that refuses the false option between antiquarianism and anti-tradtionalism. It signals a move within Quakerism with a very distinct mission, to bring about innovation and creativity by drawing on the resources already present within the Quaker tradition. The work is collaborative among all streams of Friends who are interested in this particular work of creative renewal. Another word for this is “remix,” where the original artwork of the Quaker tradition is being combined with today’s “participatory culture,” and something new is being born.