Dennis and Dionne Newton

Dennis and Dionne Newton
Dennis & Dionne Newton

Sunday, October 30, 2016

A Tale of Two Translators

Due to our inability to grasp the Bosonski language, Dionne and I often hire translators when a potential partner does not speak English. Because car travel is typically involved, we have had some enjoyable conversations with our translators. With their permission, I want to share some of the content of a couple of these conversations.

Whoever coined the adage "never talk about religion or politics in polite company" has never been to Bosnia. Bosnians talk about politics with the same frequency and passion as Kansas Citians talk about the Chiefs. It is impossible to truly get to know the people of the Balkans without learning their thoughts on these two important topics. Ask a simple question and you will be treated to an hour long discussion. If you don't ask any questions, then they will bring the topic up (usually by referencing Trump Clinton).
The funny thing is that Bosnians, in my experience so far, are generally loud and passionate but also decent listeners. This actually leads to some good conversations rather than shouting matches. But I have not asked about toilet paper.
Such was our experience with two translators these past two weeks. Both are women in their early 20's who are attending college. One conversation was political and the other was religious. I was favorably impressed by the minds of both translators. Their opinions were well thought out, erudite, and logical.


We went to visit a small rural school near Vlasenica with Nina Rašejević; a horse-loving political science student. It took little time until she began to ask about politics. Specifically, she wanted to know about the presidential campaign. She, like everyone that has brought up the topic here in the Balkans, is very concerned about Donald Trump. The other day we had a 10-year old boy bring up the topic out of the blue and inform us that he was very, very worried that Trump might be elected.

Nina and some horses we found along the road
But soon we were talking about many other political topics. Since I am a true Wyoming-born native, I generally am hesitant to share my own political views. But I do like to ask questions. Nina, like many of her generation, is a strong Bernie Sanders supporter. She was saddened when he lost the nomination process. Then she added another fascinating tidbit. She believes that the best politically run state in the United States is California. California!

I now understand why Ramie has stayed so long. I just thought it was Cheryl.
Okay, maybe this was her one opinion that I found a little questionable. But we had a lovely conversation. She is quite concerned about the fractious nature of Bosnian politics. Everything is sub-divided by ethnicity; locals love to complain about this but few are willing to make the changes. But she referenced several political parties (and there are 100s in this country) which are trying to overcome the traditional divisions. Surprisingly, unification candidates made some headway in the latest local elections and so there is a little optimism to see if this can be effective.

Discussing where water pipes need to be repaired with the principal and main janitor of the school system.
She also said that she most admires the policies of the Scandinavian countries; most specifically Sweden. We here this all the time. Everyone in Bosnia loves Sweden. Think they are the model of the perfect political system. Everyone dreams of moving to Sweden.

Nina does not have much faith in capitalism as a political system. She strongly prefers some form of socialism. And is hopeful about a time when a "truer" form of Marxism (or communism) can exist. She knows that this is idealistic. But she likes the Marxist concepts and believes that the world has failed repeatedly at implementing Karl Marx's true vision. When I pressed her little for a historical example of Marxism succeeding, her best example was Tito's Yugoslavia. That is another thing that most Balkans are nostalgic about. Most look back quite fondly about the Tito era.

A wood burning heater in the rural school we visited. Appropriately enough this school was built during the Tito era.
My own age and experiences belies a tinge of skepticism about communism but I really appreciated her idealism. And we talked much about the advancement of technology and how that will change human lives in the distant future. When machines can do most of our work, how will we then want to be governed? These are questions that some of the brightest minds are considering so it was fun to talk through them with Nina and to get her opinion. It is at this time when she hopes for a communal type lifestyle which will enable people to follow their passions rather than to be bogged down in a day-to-day job. And I find it conceivable that technology could advance to a state where many of the human responsibilities are bequeathed in some form of communal model. While this seems so contrary to the human nature that I know, I do find it at least theoretically conceivable.

We both used Wall-E as examples of the problems with each approach...Nina mentioned that capitalism is what ruined the world to begin with...I mentioned that absolute reliance on technology led to fat wheelchair bound humans. It is really remarkable how many complex conversations can reference the Pixar catalogue.
We did not solve any of the world's problems but it was enjoyable to listen to someone who grew up with a completely different worldview than my own.


Our second translator gave me permission to write about our conversations but did not want to be identified by name. So I am not going to give too much personal information about her. She is Muslim and studied theology for two-years at an Iranian university. In my realm of friends that makes her unique and interesting to talk to.

She enjoys discussing religion, philosophy and theology. Which I do as well. So we had an immensely enjoyable conversation on our drive.

Proof that we did some work on this drive. This is the location where a water reservoir will be built to serve the little community of Hrasno (100 inhabitants). They are currently get water from a nearby river.

Some quick historical background on Islam. Founded in the 7th century CE, Islam flourished during the Middle Ages while the rest of Europe languished in the Dark Ages. In Islamic parlance, this time period is known as the Golden Age of Islam. Arts, science, philosophy, theology, math, and astronomy were all embraced and advanced by Muslims during this time period. During this early period Islam seemed to take a particular interest in Hellenism and especially Aristotle (known in Arabic sources as "the Master of Logic" and the "first teacher." As the Oxford History of Islam states..."to place Islamic philosophy in its proper historical context, one must first review the various stages through which its predecessor, Greek-Hellenistic philosophy, passed, to the eventual capture of Alexandria by Arabs in 641 CE."

This was the "primary channel through which Greek philosophy was transmitted to the Muslim world (Alexandria), where the study of Greek philosophy and science was flourishing when the Arabs conquered it in 641." Very early on Muslim thought and Hellenism became meshed together. For 500 years Muslim philosophers worked to make sense out of Islam theology and Hellenistic philosophy. So Islam has a rich history akin to that of the early Christian Fathers, Augustine, Aquinas, and Renaissance philosophers.

An Arab depiction of Socrates teaching his students.
Another quick aside that may be controversial to nearly everyone reading this post. Orthodox Jews, Christians, and Muslims all share similar beliefs about the nature of God due to the impact of their interactions with Hellenism. When the world of ideas clashed in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, the logic of the Greeks had to be accommodated by the major religions. "Greek philosophy had a profound impact on Christianity beginning primarily with the Patristic writers (about 180 CE to roughly 325 CE). Traditional Christians adopted the Neoplatonic notion of perfection as a static, absolute upper limit. This notion of perfection was adopted by what I shall refer to as the 'absolutist tradition,' represented by thinkers such as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and John Calvin." (Ostler but it could one of hundreds of authors who attest the same idea of dependency) Remember this idea...because I am going to return to it as I talk about one of my most surprising conclusions as I talked with my new friend.

Somewhat familiar with LDS beliefs, we talked a little about the nature of God. As we talked, we found ourselves hitting the same classic philosophical conundrums that are written about in philosophical treatises (e.g., even though we did not talk about this, a good example is the existence of God in a world filled with evil). Our conversation started by talking about whether or not God (or Allah although we never used that name for God) is incorporeal (does not have a body). For her, the idea of God having a body would in someway limit God and make him less deserving of worship. Even the term "father" is an anthropomorphism that is unfortunate because the idea of gender does not apply to God.

The drive to Kalesija is along a river in a valley. Quite gorgeous.
This led to a fascinating discussion of what then is God. Does God have matter of any kind? If not, why? What would limit him if God had some form of matter? And then I posed the classic question about whether or not something can exist if it does not include some form of matter. (The study and philosophy of matter is one of the most important and yet under appreciated subjects in the field of theology.)

"Just look around if you want to know God's existence." Driving around Bosnia, I would have to agree. On the other hand, I believe that the Irish rail workers dubbed Rock Springs, Wyoming as "hell on earth." Would have to agree that Rock Springs is evidence of another's existence.
This led to another discussion about creation. Like most within the Judeo-Christian tradition, Muslims believe in creation ex nihilo. As we discussing whether or not God existed before creation (yes), did that mean that he existed in some material form or was God simply intelligence, we somehow dropped into a possibility raised by Muslim thinkers about God having created universes before our universe. It is fun to see that Muslim theologians have been forced to deal with the same problem that LDS theologians have had to face (it is a called the elephant on top of a turtle problem).

No discussion about God and creation can take place without a mention of predetermination, omniscience, and free will. One thing I respect about this translator is her ability to speak so many different languages. In addition to Bosonski, she is fluent in Farsi, can read Arabic, recognizes Spanish (watching Spanish language soaps), and could carry out a philosophical conversation in English. Quite impressive.

The paradox of creation, omniscience, and free will is this: if God made us out of nothing, he is solely responsible for our nature (he made us!). Even though he allows us to act freely, how can our nature be truly free if he is the one responsible for giving us our character and personality. The idea of God's omniscience compounds this problem. If God knows everything that we will do in the future, then, even though we supposedly have free will, it is impossible for me to do anything other than what God knows that I will do.

It is this logical paradox that has led to the rise of process theology and open theism among Western philosophers. Unfortunately, I have not found a Islamic parallel. It might exist but I have not found it. It is logical that Islamic scholars will begin to innovate in this direction because their thought is suspect to the same philosophical issues.

I have been fascinated by the rise of open theism within the Christian theological world. Its proponents view it as a return to actual text and meaning of the Bible. Its opponents view it as heretical. There seems to be no middle ground.
Her response was well thought out and effective. Interestingly, it echoes many of the same responses that I have heard from historic fundamentalist Christian writers when pressed about the same issues (not me doing the pressing mind you...the theological community). The idea is that God knows us so well that his omniscience is based on this understanding and is not determinant. And, in that sense, we are free because he does not force our actions. It was very enjoyable to hear her describe what she had learned about God, free will, and her own inspiration.

This cartoon illustrates that there was nothing new that we talked about. We were covering ground that has been walked on many, many times.  
On and on we talked. We touched nearly every important attribute of God. And we also talked about how can we discern truth; meaning absolute truth. This is when my most interesting insight struck me. As I was talking about God with this Muslim college student, I realized that I had had this same conversation so many times with endless numbers of fundamentalist Christians and a handful of Orthodox Jews. While a few details are different (e.g., a small thing like the role of Christ), it is the same Hellenistic notion of God being defended using the same philosophical arguments but just couched the language of a different texts (either the Torah, the writings of Paul, or the Quran).

She mentioned that she feels God's presence when she reads the Quran. It is that book that testifies to her of God's existence. This made me recall the way some orthodox Jews talk about the Torah. They believe the Torah to be the literal word of G-d. Likewise, my fundamental Christian friends feel much the same way about the Bible. The words of the Bible draw them nearer to God. They know God exists because of the words found in the Bible.

If I mixed and matched the texts and the statements about the attributes of God, I could easily get confused with whom I was having a conversation. As a Latter-Day Saint, I realized that when all of these groups are combined, there are nearly 3 billion who believe in this Hellenistic God worldview; a view quite different from my own. That is a big marshmallow!

This was my big "aha." Along with the utopia that is Sweden!


  1. Have you ever studied Process Theology?

  2. I have studied Process Theology a little. But not even enough to be dangerous. I am much better versed in open theism. I have read 3-4 books by advocates, I have done a 1 1/2 hour presentation on the basic tenets, and read many of the critical reviews.