Einstein, Imagination and the New Translation


December 8, 2011

I’m always wary of using an Albert Einstein quotation because it seems somehow sort of well, sophomoric. There’s always that poster of the German genius with the googly eyes and goofy hair sticking out his tongue. Nevertheless, Einstein came up with some good ones about God not playing dice, and science being lame without religion and religion being blind without science – or one of my favorites: “When the solution is simple God is answering.”

So after a weekend of introducing the new translation of the Mass to my parish, I’m left pondering on the real worth of what we’ve got and why we’ve got it. After all, why did we go to all that trouble, all those committee meetings, all the arguments, and the quibbling about this word or that word, this comma or that semicolon? Surely, one might argue, “The former translation was good enough. It was workable. Sure, it was not elegant or eloquent, but who needs all that high falutin’ stuff. The people understood what was going on. Isn’t that what it’s all about?”

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Of course it’s good that everyone understands what’s going on, but the good is the enemy of the best, and mere intelligibility is not really what the liturgy is all about. If intelligibility were the only good then we ought to get to work on the classics and have Hamlet say, “Gee whiz, I can’t decide whether to kill myself or not!” instead of “To be or not to be? That is the question.” Then in the midst of my meanderings a quotation by Einstein reminded me that the words of worship are about more than mundane intelligibility. Einstein wrote, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

Bingo! Imagination is more important than knowledge because knowledge is limited to what we now know. Knowledge is, if you like, utilitarian. It’s useful. It works. As such, it closes the mind and heart with a solution. Imagination on the other hand, opens the mind and heart with wonder and with the apprehension of beauty. If knowledge is utilitarian, then (on its own–without imagination) it is also barbaric. If there is any question that utilitarianism is barbaric take a look at the practical, ugly buildings that have been built in the last fifty years that pass for Catholic churches.

What came into the church, in the wake of the second Vatican Council, was an unthinking acceptance of certain tenets of secular modernism – one of the most fundamental and insidious being utilitarianism – or the barbaric belief that what works is good. When this frightening aphorism was unthinkingly stood on its head, not only “what works was good”, but “what is good is that which works”, and consequently the only “Good” became “whatever works”.

This unquestioned utilitarianism influenced not only church architecture, but every aspect of Catholic life. Suddenly there was no use for such “pointless people” as contemplative monks and nuns. They all had to develop “ministries”. Church became a kind of club for social activists and do-gooders, and the Mass became the “gathering time” when we all met to think about Jesus the noble martyr and how we could change the world, and so we sang the rousing anthem, “We can make a difference. Yes we can!”

The 1973 translation of the liturgy fit into this modern utilitarian-determined church. The theory of “dynamic equivalency” dictated that the noble Latin language should not be translated literally. The words were too difficult. The concepts too arcane. The grammar and syntax too complex. Like a bare, modern church; like the polyester vestments; like the pottery vessels and the felt banners and the padded pews and the glory and praise music, the liturgy was supposed to be useful and understandable and plain. It ended up being beige, boring and bland, and the suburban clergy facilitated it all with a kind of dull resignation-topped layer of Kool Whip enthusiasm. It was a case of the bland leading the bland.

The dull liturgy left nothing to the imagination, and this is where the great liturgist Albert Einstein steps in and says, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

The banal translation of 1973 – in its sincere attempt to make the mass intelligible – was knowledge-based, and therefore it never went beyond what everyone already understood. Obscure references to Scripture were left out. Words that hinted of ‘complex’ theological concepts were ‘simplified’ or ignored. Language that was considered ‘lofty’ was brought down to earth, and dialogue that was considered courtly was thrown out of court.

Happily, the new translation brings it all back, and does so (in my limited experience so far) magnificently. Now here is where it all gets very interesting. Do the faithful people in the pew know and understand what is really being restored? Does Harry gasp and say, “Goodness Mildred, when I say ‘consubstantial’ I feel like my soul is opening up into the mysterious realm of beauty”? Probably not. Most of it will go over their heads, but as it goes over their heads it will also go into their hearts. We perceive the depth, the beauty and the magnificence in a more subtle way — as we do the beautiful poetry embedded in a Shakespeare play, or the beautiful architecture of an ancient church. Yes, we might comment on the nice stained glass windows, but when beauty is present there is something greater going on — something beyond words — something that we find impossible to articulate, and it is this connection with the ‘something greater’ which will be the lasting legacy of the new translation to our common imagination.

What is happening with the new translation is that our imagination is being engaged, and not just as as individuals, but all of us a part of a Catholic culture. The imagination is that part of our mind that connects with beauty. Beauty is the language of worship, and it is the imagination which perceives and processes beauty in our mind. As Einstein says, “imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” The new translation does not simply spout more beautiful language, it opens our heart and mind to embrace all things visible and invisible.

Therefore, as we return to beauty of language and thought in the new liturgy, and as the Vatican sets up its new commission on sacred music and architecture, we have every hope that a true new liturgical movement — in which young artists and architects and musicians and designers will renovate not just churches, but hearts and minds of ordinary Catholics — so that through the apprehension of beauty we might apprehend more deeply the mysteries and truths themselves.

When we do so we are not only truly Catholic, we are truly human, and that brings me to another quote by the German genius, “ The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious; It is the source of all true art and science.”


Fr. Longenecker is building a beautiful new church at his parish of Our Lady of the Rosary in Greenville, South Carolina. Go here to see pictures of it and read his articles on sacred architecture.


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