Culture At Large

How grammar influences your faith

John Van Sloten

Recently I watched a TED talk by Yale researcher Keith Chen entitled, 'Could your language affect your ability to save money?' Halfway through his presentation it hit me: what he's saying is also very true for the spiritual life.

Chen's thesis is that there is a correlation between linguistics and economics when it comes to saving. People who speak a language that separates the future from the present save less. Those who don't differentiate this way save more.

“Every time you discuss the future [in English], grammatically you're forced to cleave that from the present and treat it as if it's something viscerally different,” Chen said. Growing up speaking both Chinese and English, Chen was intrigued by the differences between the two languages, especially in terms of the grammatical influence of time. In English we say, "it rained yesterday," "it is raining now" and "it will rain tomorrow." A Chinese speaker, on the other hand, can say, "yesterday it rained," "now it rained" and "tomorrow it rained."

Chen makes the point that the Chinese language does not force the speaker to divide up time the way English does, and this different way of speaking about the future affects how we save for the future. For the English speaker, now matters more, so go ahead and buy yourself that new outfit, car or smart phone. You can save for the “now more distant” future later.

If the future is now, if our future God is with us now, then everything changes doesn't it?

As an English-speaking person of faith, I've got to wonder: do my grammatical predispositions have the same impact on my spiritual saving patterns? Is my ability to store up treasures in heaven impeded by my trifurcating of the past, present and future? Yesterday, God so loved the world, today God is so loving the world and tomorrow God will so love the world. But God is timeless; the great I am. To God yesterday, today and tomorrow are all mysteriously part of the eternal now. While it's true that I now live within the finite confines of time, the Bible teaches me that I am also an infinite being - that an embodied me will go on forever. As will this world I'm living on. According to the Bible, heaven isn't going to be some future place that is wholly different from this place. It will be this world made new.

So then, does our language betray us when we're forced to parse time the way we do? Right now, we're made new in Christ. Before we were even born God had us in mind. For eternity He will have us in mind. There's something about stating these truths in the past, present and future that's good; that illumines and enlarges my view of God.

But now I wonder if my future tense is also subtly and subconsciously keeping my ultimate union with God at a distance. When I separate the future from the now (and the past) do I push it too far away, distance myself and then "treat it as if it's something viscerally different?” And in doing this, do my preparations for the future fall short? I'll get my act together when I get older. It’ll be a while before I meet God face to face. I need to see that guy about a property, buy that one last thing, work on my marriage. Then I'll get serious about all those God things.

But if the future is now, if our future God is with us now, then everything changes, doesn't it? Now is then. God is future present. Everything I do or don't do now is part of then, and the future is more present than it’s ever been.

How we speak about time influences how we prepare for our future with God. Makes me want to learn Mandarin.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Faith, Theology