Spanish Section / Spring 2019

Department Chapel Recap

Led by the Spanish section on November 28, 2018. The following is condensed from the talk given by Gerardo Corpeño, Ph.D. student in Systematic Theology.

What happened at Pentecost reminds us of the story of Babel, in which humans used their linguistic unity to unleash their pride, attempting to build a tower so high that it would reach heaven. In response, God produced a multiplicity of tongues that led to confusion. At Pentecost, God produced a multiplicity of tongues, too, but this led to mutual understanding. According to theologian Justo González, in order for the multitude to understand the disciples, the Holy Spirit had two options: to make everyone understand Aramaic (the language spoken by the disciples), or to make each person understand in his or her own tongue. Significantly, the Spirit chose the latter.

The lesson here is that Pentecost is the miracle of mutual understanding, not for the sake of uniformity but for the sake of diversity.

In light of both this passage and my own experience as a non-English speaking student from Latin America, I want to share three lessons that can be helpful when learning to speak another language. Let me be clear: my only credentials are that I am so bad at learning languages that it seems that if the Holy Spirit can work with someone as unskilled as me, He can do so with anyone.

Listen. Like most of us, I like to speak rather than listen. However, to survive my Ph.D. studies [at Wheaton College], I had to learn to listen carefully to my teachers and colleagues. During this process, I realized that listening is a scarce skill not only in academia but also in the church, in politics, and in life.

Recently I was reading an interview with a sociologist who made a distinction between two type of thinkers: an abstract thinker and a speaking thinker. To explain the difference he said: “The abstract thinker knows his truth in advance; he thinks and speaks only for himself, while the speaking thinker cannot foresee anything and must wait for the word of the other. He speaks to someone who has not only ears but also [a] mouth.” After reading this, I thought that this not only applies to sociology, but also to theology and all academic disciplines. It made me think that in our polarized world, the most important difference is not between liberals and conservatives, or between left and right, but simply between people who know how to listen and those who don’t. Between those who want to engage in a genuine dialogue with the other, and those who prefer to preserve a perpetual monologue with themselves.

Learn. Good listeners truly want to learn. But learning can be a humbling experience. When you learn a new language you are constantly making mistakes, getting corrected, and misunderstanding/being misunderstood by others. Hopefully through this process, God is making me more humble.

“Humble” is a key word, because if you really want to learn not only a language, but the culture, the customs, the heart, and sensibilities of the people of any country, you need to listen to the vulnerable, the poor, the voiceless. Wherever you go, don’t go only to the big places, but go also to the small places; don’t listen only to the winners of history but listen carefully to the unheard voices of the forgotten.

In order to really listen and really learn from people from other countries we need Love. Love is not only my final word, it is the final Word! Love is also maybe the ultimate test for anyone learning a new language. According to Willie Jennings in his commentary of Acts: “Some people learn a language out of gut-wrenching determination born of necessity. Most, however, who enter a lifetime of fluency, do so because at some point they learn to love it… The language sounds beautiful to them. And if that love is complete… they come to love the people… God speaks people, fluently. And God… wants [His] disciples to speak people fluently too.”

One of the things that I admire about jazz musicians that they are great listeners. In an interview, I recently heard jazz musician Herbie Hancock share this wonderful anecdote: 

“In a middle of a concert with Miles Davis, I played this chord that was so wrong. I thought that I just destroyed everything. Miles took a breath and he played some notes. And somehow, he made my chord right… It took me years to figure out what actually happened. Here’s what happened. I judged what I had played… Miles just accepted it as something new that happened. And he did what any jazz musician should always try to do, and that is try to make anything that happens into something of value.”

I think that what God did at Pentecost was something similar but even greater: God didn’t judge our mistakes in communication or try to fix them. God played His notes and miraculously our “misunderstandings” became a mutual understanding and our miscommunication became full communication. We must listen to that Wind of the Spirit that also leads us to listen, to learn, and to love each other despite our differences.