“You sargin or commandant?” a young Afghan lieutenant asks as he points to the cross on my chest.
I try to explain what a chaplain is. In the end, he suggests Army mullah, and I agree. Not the most accurate description, but the most meaningful for him. Chaplain has little meaning for him. Mullah, on the other hand, is something he knows and understands. Together with Army, we have a term that means something to both of us.
As the night wears on, the Afghan lieutenant and I speak more, with the help of an interpreter, about our very different faiths. We both affirm that the ultimate character of the divine is love. We both believe that the task of religion is to help us live more whole lives. We both participate in a religious community of fellow travelers who give us strength.
Certainly, the words we use are very different. Yet as we do our best to translate our different faith languages into our native tongues, we discover more in common than we thought. We do not try to change each other, only to understand each other.
Whatever religious tradition you call your own, you will probably find religious diversity even within it. We can believe we mean the same things when we use highly charged theological terms like God, Christ, Bible, or church teachings. Yet these words convey layers of meaning, not discrete definitions. It is important to remember this and do our own mental translations as we communicate with each other.
That is what I call being religiously multilingual. You need not accept someone else’s language as your own. You do not even have to speak another religious language fluently, but you should try to understand enough that you can carry on a meaningful conversation, build mutual understanding, and forge lasting relationships across religious difference. Every such conversation is an opportunity to move the world toward peace.