20 October, 2005

An intimate God

Having learned a little Russian, I sometimes think in Russian; so, when I ask God (or my wife) to forgive me, I sometimes murmur in Russian, Прости меня (prosti menya) just as I sometimes say, miserere mei (Latin), or perdonami (Italian), or forgive me.

I had occasion to say this yet again recently, and it occurred to me that Прости is the familiar form of the Russian word, not the formal (which would be Простите, prostitye). From here my thoughts passed to how many American Christians refer to God as "thou". This happens regardless of denomination. It is probably due to how religion seems to retain obsolete manners of speech (Latin mass and Old Slavonic, for example). In any case, "thou" has a sound of reverence, of respect, of admitting God's distance and lordship. To use "you" sounds a little disrespectful to the ears of some.

This wasn't always the case. I have read that the reason older Bible translations use "thou" instead of "you" is the same reason that Italian translations use "tu" instead of "lei", Spanish translations use "tu" instead of "usted", and Russian translations use ты (ti) instead of вы (vwi): at the time, "thou" was the familiar, intimate address, whereas "you" was the formal, respectful address. With God, Christians should be familiar, not formal. (See also this web page.)

I will illustrate this further. In Italian, when addressing someone with whom I am not on familiar terms, I should use the address lei ("she") even if the stranger be a man. I should not address him as tu; this is reserved for family and friends. I have observed long-time acquaintances address each other as "lei" if their relationship is strictly professional.

In Russian, the formality is drawn even closer. My wife has told me that when addressing her parents, aunts, etc., I should use вы (vwi) and not ты (ti). Yet the prayers and Scriptures I have seen always address God as ты, drawing him into the most intimate of circles.

I don't know much Hebrew or Greek, but now I wonder whether there is a formal-informal distinction such as thou/you, tu/lei, ты/вы. If so, the next natural question would be, which one do the human authors of Scripture use when they speak to God: the formal or the informal? I have a feeling it would be informal. I also wonder how this distinction carries over into other religions: Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. Maybe one of the religion professors will know; I need to ask.

At the very least, the Christian God is, or should be, an intimate God. I've always known that, but something about the language has really brought it home.


Twerpette said...

Thanks for this enjoyable rumination. I cited it on Twerpette and have linked to you since June. Most languages have an intimate and a formal you (second person singular and plural) as in Spanish Vuestra Merced.

jack perry said...

Thanks for the comment! I'll have to check out your blog. I thought I had mentioned Spanish, because I know that much Spanish (and a little more); I'm very embarassed for not pointing it out. Thanks!

I should mention that I asked a couple of Arabic speakers, one an Orthodox Christian, and one a Muslim. Both told me that Arabic does not distinguish an intimate from a formal second person. So, when they pray "You, God," they use the same word for "you" as when they say, "you, sir" to a stranger, or "you, mom".