Case study: A word for God

Bible translators face a difficult choice

     Frank threw up his hands. "What is more important?" he asked his colleague, "Is it that people think of God as 'ultimate reality,' or is it that they think of him as a 'person' with whom they can communicate? Each of these, by itself, is only half of the truth. Yet, if we're going to express the word god' in Telugu, it looks like we are going to have to choose between those two concepts. What shall we do?"

     Frank was a Bible Society translator in India working on a new translation of the Bible into Telugu. His co-worker was Padu, a high-caste convert from Hinduism to Christianity.
     Together, the two men had worked out many difficult problems faced in translating the Bible into this South Indian language. They had not, however, solved one very thorny issue. That question was: What word should be used for "God"? The decision they faced was critical, for the nature of God lies at the very heart of the biblical message. Using a wrong term for "God" could seriously distort the Christian message.
     "Let's use the term deva," Frank had suggested at first. "That is the word I hear people using when they speak of 'god' in general terms."
     "It is true," said Padu, "that the devas are the highest form of personal beings, but they are not the ultimate reality. Like all things in the universe, they are maya, or passing phenomena. In the end, the devas will be absorbed into the ultimate reality or brahman. Moreover, they do both good and evil. They fight wars with each other and with the demons. They commit adultery and tell lies. Not only that, but Hinduism says 'all life is one.' In other words, the gods, human beings, animals, and even plants all have the same kind of life. Thus, devas are not fundamentally different from humans. They are more powerful and live in the heavens. However, they can sin. When they do, they are reborn as humans, or animals, or even ants."
     Padu added, "Hindus claim that devas often come to earth as avatars to help humans in need, but because there is no difference between them it is very much like kings helping their commoners or saints helping their disciples. I don't think we can use deva or avatar because either one would obscure or subvert the biblical meaning of the 'incarnation."'
     "If that is the case, let's use the term parameshwara." Frank suggested. "Doesn't that mean 'highest of the deities?'"
     "Yes it does," said Padu. "It does, however, carry some of the same connotations as deva. In fact, all Telugu words for 'god' implicitly transmit Hindu beliefs. The language currently has no word that means a supreme being who is also understood as the ultimate reality. Moreover, within Hinduism there is no concept of 'creation' as found in the Bible. The world itself is an illusion that does not really exist."
     "Well, then," said Frank, "why not use the concept of brahman? After all, brahman is ultimate reality -- that which existed before all else and will exist when all else has ceased to be."
To top of page     Padu shook his head. "Brahman," he said, "may be ultimate reality, but brahman is a force, not a person. So, it will not convey the Christian idea of incarnation. It is true that some Hindu philosophers speak of sarguna brahman, of brahman in a personal form. However, even he is seen only as a manifestation of nirguna brahman, which is an insular, impersonal force. It makes no sense to say that nirguna brahman reveals itself to gods and humans. That would be like saying that a dreamer speaks as a real person in his dream. Similarly, humans have no way of knowing about or communicating with nirguna brahman. Moreover, nothing really exists outside of brahman. The heavens and earth are not creations that exist apart from it. They are projections of brahman in much the same way that a dream is a projection of the dreamer. In this way of thinking we are all simply manifestations of the same ultimate reality. This negates the biblical idea of a creator and the existence of a real but contingent creation."
 
A Comparison of World Views
 Biblical
World View
Hindu
World View
Ultimate reality:God: being & creatorBrahman: force
Temporal reality:spirits
humans
animals
plants
matter
gods
spirits
humans
animals
plants
matter
     "So, what do we do?" asked Frank. "What about using the English word God or even the Greek word theos? Why not introduce one of those as a new word into the Telugu language? In time, that word would become a familiar import, and it will not be carrying the Hindu baggage of the Telugu words."
     "The problem is that, early on," said Padu, "no one will understand those foreign words. We must use words the people understand. Isn't that what the early church did when it took the Greek words for 'god' and gave them new Christian meanings?"
     Frank countered, "But if we use deva or brahman and try to give them a Christian meaning, won't the Hindus understand them with the Hindu meanings? Since Hindus make up ninety percent of the population, can the small Christian community maintain different definitions of these words against the overwhelming linguistic pressures for accepting the Hindu connotations?"
     "Well," said Padu, "that puts us back at square one. Should we use deva, or brahman, or 'God'?."
     The discussion went on for a long time. They knew that this one decision would shape the church's concept of God for the next few generations. They knew that their choice would also determine the evangelistic effectiveness of the church. Finally they decided to . . . .

Originally written by Paul G. Hiebert, this case study appeared in Case Studies in Missions, Baker Book House, © 1987. Edited and used by permission. It may be reproduced only upon payment of a 35-cent royalty per copy to Baker Book House, P.O. Box 6787, Grand Rapids, MI 49516 USA

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