Conversation on Law and Religion

The 2014-2015 inquiry on Law and Religious Freedom at CTI is underway, and in the weeks since we began our work together I’ve been thinking about the nature of interdisciplinary conversation. As scholars in theology and law collaborate on the topic of religious freedom, they approach the issue with differing assumptions, methods, theories, and vocabularies. In a very real sense we might say that the two groups of scholars enter the discussion speaking completely different languages.

Anyone who has spent time abroad knows that a language barrier, while not without its challenges, provides unique opportunities for learning, reflection, and a kind of broadening of one’s imagination. Even in cases when there is absolutely no shared language between two individuals, some level of communication remains possible through the use of gestures and facial expressions, evidence of the mimetic origins of human communication, as Robert Bellah has argued.

But those who have traveled abroad also recognize the value of a knowledgeable and trustworthy interpreter. I am fascinated by the act of translation and interpretation, especially in the case of spoken language. The interpreter simultaneously stands in multiple linguistic worlds; she hears the words spoken in one world and imagines how they can be understood in another. When I encounter acts of translation in lectures or tours or dinner conversations I often imagine the interpreter as a kind of messenger traveling between worlds, transforming messages between disparate speakers so that they can be understood by hearers in another land. Of course every act of translation is an interpretation, as they say, so the act of translation calls for a certain level of moral responsibility. The person who can cross borders of understanding has a great advantage over those locked in a single linguistic world, who must rely on the interpreter to engage or understand the world beyond the linguistic community.

While all of the resident members at CTI are familiar with both law and religion, several have achieved a kind of fluency in both fields such that their presence in our inquiry can be likened to the presence of a good interpreter between multiple languages. These interpreters help the inquiry immensely by saying things like, “When legal scholars say the word X, they mean P, but when theologians say X, they mean Z.” The scholars who are able most easily to stand in both worlds, law and theology, help the rest of us move forward in the inquiry. Perhaps more important, they help us learn how to become proficient in the other language, and thus begin to develop the ability to ourselves become knowledgeable and trustworthy interpreters.

In this light, we might say that the purpose of interdisciplinary study is not to transcend our various disciplines and arrive at some kind of meta-discipline, a kind of disciplinary Esperanto that can be immediately understood by anyone in any academic field. Instead, the goal of interdisciplinary work is to acquire conversational proficiency in another field, perhaps even eventually to become fluent in the ways that knowledge and understanding are pursued in that area of scholarship. For what end? Not only to understand the other field, but perhaps more important, to understand our own. Goethe famously said, “Wer fremde Sprachen nicht kennt, weiss nichts von seiner eigenen.” Given the difference between kennen and wissen, we might translate that as, “He who is not acquainted with foreign languages has no understanding of his own language.” Happily, Goethe suggests, just becoming acquainted with that other language, even if we never reach native fluency, enriches our understanding of our own language.

So it is with interdisciplinary conversation. We all know how to use the various buzzwords and jargon of our own disciplinary silos. But when we become acquainted (kennen) with a foreign language we are challenged to dig deeper into the meanings of the terms of our own academic language (wissen). We move from a kind of unreflective use of our native tongue to a deeper understanding of the uniqueness, contingent nature, and even the oddity of our own way of understanding the world.

Throughout the year this blog will present reflections by resident members at CTI regarding our interdisciplinary conversation on law and religious freedom. As a Junior Research Fellow at CTI, I will be the editor of the Blog for the 2014-2015 academic year. I welcome email responses at

Joshua Mauldin, Junior Research Fellow.

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