Sheep Cheese Dumplings: The Key to Ecumenical Understanding

Posted on Posted in Theology

OK! So through the ecumenical movement churches have come to a new understanding about the Scriptures, their traditions, their theology, each other’s traditions and theology, what it means to be the church… And yet Lutherans remain Lutherans, Catholics remain Catholics, Reformed remain Reformed.

Lutherans talk about theology in a Lutheran way, while Catholics talk about theology in a Catholic way. You might look at this situation and wonder: has anything really changed? How can we say there has been ecumenical progress, when each church’s way of talking about theology remains the same?

The best way to explain the co-existence of ecumenical consensus with traditional theology is through the metaphor of language. Catholics speak the Catholic language. Lutherans speak the Lutheran language. This is their first language, the language most comfortable and natural to them. Ecumenism does not ask them to give it up.

But ecumenism does ask them to start learning other languages, too. This is not an easy process. If you’ve ever tried to speak in a foreign language yourself, you know that there is not a one-to-one correspondence between every word in every language. Often, if you look up a word in a dictionary, you will accidentally make a bad choice—entire websites are devoted to the hilarious mistakes made in translation.

Allow me to explain by way of dumplings.

When I was a teenager my family moved to Slovakia, and part of our cultural induction there was to taste many samples of the national dish, bryndzové halušky.

I could translate the words bryndzové halušky into English as “sheep cheese dumplings.” But unless you are already an adept in all things Slovak, these words in English will not put the correct image of bryndzové halušky into your mind. You can only use images from your own culture and experience to try to understand “sheep cheese dumplings.”

The one way truly to understand bryndzové halušky is to visit Slovakia and eat them here, maybe in a chata in the Tatra Mountains. It is certainly possible for a non-Slovak to understand bryndzové halušky, but only if you experience them in their proper Slovak setting. Afterwards, the translation “sheep cheese dumplings” will become accurate for you, because you’ll know exactly what the words refer to. Though chances are you will keep referring to them as bryndzové halušky after you go back home, because the term in Slovak just fits better than any translation can manage.

Ecumenical dialogue works like this too. Theology lives and grows inside particular churches, in specific locations, with unique histories. Theology does not float above the surface of life and faith, but is an expression of life and faith. Sometimes the particularity of a theology can’t be translated directly into another theological language without losing something very important.

More tomorrow! (And if, in the meanwhile, you’re dreadfully curious about bryndzové halušky, Wikipedia has a very brief article on the subject with a photo.)

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