Sunday, March 23, 2008

Behavioral Grammar

Erica and I went to the top of East Rock this Easter morning to attend an outdoor sunrise church service with some friends. It was a crisp, clear morning and the waning gibbous moon was setting to the west. As if on a cosmic seesaw, the sun was slowly rising as the moon fell. The service itself was led by pastors and preachers from several local congregations. It was cold and it was early, but I was very glad I had come. The service itself was short and vibrant and the setting lent an air of specialness. The people there were clearly happy to be there.

The actual moment of sunrise was pretty spectacular. The people around me were singing a song of joy as the first rays of red light hit my retina, ending their 93 million mile trip across cold, empty space. In that moment I had a mini-epiphany. It struck me right then that organized human religions and their beliefs are the spiritual equivalent of grammatical rules in languages.

When I teach grammar to my fifth and sixth grade students, I always start by having them imagine how a language comes into existence. I ask them to think about the process. I say, “Did a group of people sit down in a room and write the rules of proper English grammar BEFORE people began speaking English?” When put this way, the students begin to realize the organic nature of language. They can imagine how it grows naturally out of the needs of families and neighbors to talk to each other in a comprehensible manner.

Of course, there are exceptions to this process, but they are few and far between. Urdu was “invented” hundreds of years ago by an Islamic ruler in what is now Pakistan as a way to unify his kingdom. Esperanto was created in a vain attempt to give the world a single language. These exceptions are not unimportant. They serve to point out how natural and unplanned the creation of language generally is. The grammar of a particular language grows out of the needs of the people who speak that language to understand each other.

The point I make with my students is that grammar is not a set of prescriptive rules, but rather a set of descriptive observations. Proper grammar is simply a description of how a language is used by native speakers. It tells us how people speak when they are speaking properly, but it does not control how we actually speak.

My epiphany this morning was the realization that organized human religion is really a sort of behavioral grammar. And just as linguistic grammar gets mistaken for rules about how we must speak, these behavioral grammars sometimes get mistaken for rules about how we must live our lives.

Humans have felt the impulse to religion for as long as there have been people. It is a defining characteristic of our species that we look for causes, reasons, and explanations.

Over time and space, human societies have created religions around which they have organized their lives. Where I think people often “get it wrong” about religion is when they look at religion as a list of rules for how to live life. Just as linguistic grammars are descriptions of how people speak when they are speaking properly, religious systems are really just descriptions of how people would live if they were living properly. Organized religions describe our thoughts, dreams, aspirations, and hopes. We use religion to describe our best selves to ourselves.

In the same way that Arabic grammar and English grammar differ in their making of plurals and their placement of adjectives, religions differ in their descriptions of a good life. The faith of a particular region grows out of the needs of the people who live it and their search for daily understanding of each other and the world. It makes sense to me that people have come up with different religious systems in different places. While we all have the same wants and needs, the local expression of those wants and needs is bound to have a local flavor. For this same reason, people who push to have everyone in the world follow one religion ignore the lesson of Esperanto at their own risk.


  1. Hi Chris:
    I discovered your blog via Jenn's blog (being relatively new to blogging, I'm always interested in seeing what folks are doing on their sites). Earlier today I was writing/thinking about spirituality as well, so this posting piqued my curiosity. The analogy (grammar/religion)is appropriate--but even more interesting to me is a church that holds service at the top of East Rock! I could get behind such a service. I'll be sure to ask you about it next time I see you at a writer's group meetup.
    Happy Easter--Tricia

  2. Thanks for the comment, Tricia. So, where is your blog? I would love to check it out.