This was the case last weekend with the sermon given at Sunday Mass. It focussed on Jean- Dominique Bauby, who was the editor of the French Elle magazine and who suffered a massive stroke that left him with locked-in syndrome. He was paralysed apart from moving his head and blinking his left eye. But, locked in this paralysed body, his mind was as active as ever – a reality that would have driven many of us mad. It doesn’t bear thinking what it would be like to be a prisoner in our own skin. Bauby, however, with the help of an alphabet chart dictated a book letter by letter, blink by blink, telling of his experiences. It was called the Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
The point of the sermon was that we are all, to a certain extent, locked in and in need of liberation – very apt for Pentecost Sunday. But what’s true for us all personally is also true of religions. Religions give their followers a story to live by; moral values to follow; practices with which to order their lives and, because of family or community traditions, believers tend to see the world only through what they’ve been given. This of course can give meaning and purpose to life, be liberating in its own way but dangerous if seen as the only way, the only truth that disregards the way of others or even sees that way as wrong and worthy, not of respect or consideration, but only of rejection. Religion can then become a prison which locks people into one narrow perspective - a perspective that blinds them to the diversity that enriches life, that challenges them to grow and develop and widen their perspective. Religion and religious truths are like the finger pointing to the moon, focus too much on the finger and we miss the moon. They point beyond themselves to a reality that can give meaning to our lives. And a variety of fingers can help us see dimensions that are closed to us if we only follow the one finger. But of course to be open to this we need to dialogue.
This is important as much within religions as between them. It’s easy to think our own interpretation of our religion is the correct one. At present within the Catholic Church there’s a tension between those who look nostalgically to a past and those who seek an ideal future as a way of having a perfect present. Both love the Church, want what’s best for it, want to fix it according to their own particular lights and seemingly reject the way of those who differ from them. It’s easy to split into camps but if we’re a community we need to grow together, need to understand one another, see where the other is coming from. It needs reconciliation and dialogue to be able to stand in the other’s shoes. I heard it said recently that everyone has the right to be understood. And for the sake of unity and harmony we need to do just that and dialogue, not to convert the other to our way of thinking but simply to understand them and allow them to be different, perhaps even realising that in our different ways we’re being nourished by the same basic faith and upheld by the same hopes. But such a dialogue needs preparation and facilitation if we’re to truly listen to one another. Open conversation in my experience can easily lead to polarisation if not managed well.
It’s not just believers who can be locked in to a blinkered view of life. Religion itself can be affected and one way in which this can happen is the use of religious language. Theological concepts arise in particular periods of history and often grow through dialogue with the prevailing intellectual and philosophical climate of the time. But over time they become meaningless and unrelated to people’s reality. Christian theology is suffering from this at the moment and even the Academy recognises it with books being written about reclaiming theological language for the present generation. But there’s another trend and that’s theologians exploring human and theological issues through writing fiction. What they’re doing is exploring issues of good and evil (many of the novels are crime novels) in an attempt to reflect on the struggle of people doing the best they can with what they’ve been given. And insights into this condition can be found in literature, film, art, all a source for good theologising and reflection. Perhaps this will help religion break free from its theological prison and become more meaningful to people’s reality – certainly more interesting.