Jesus said to the crowds: “To what shall I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? They are like children who sit in the marketplace and call to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, but you did not dance.’ We sang a dirge, but you did not weep.'”
Luke 7: 31-2
Religion is the aspect of human life and understanding that “binds” us to God, and so to life as a whole. The word itself connotes our capacity to respect and bind ourselves to Reality in its wholeness, to practice living in our proper relationship to God and so to all that is. It suggests a mode of being in which we are subject to that which transcends us, a way of humility and obedience. Religion, in this sense, is not so much a matter of cognition but rather a way of living out obediently the sovereignty of God in our lives. “Thy Kingdom come; Thy will be done.”
However, given our fallen nature, it too can become yet another mode of our illusion of sovereignty. Rather than binding us to God, we can attempt to use religion as a way of binding God to us. It can become not a stance of submission before the Mystery but rather a reduction of the Mystery to being a servant of our own desire for domination and control. As a young child, prior to the Second Vatican Council, I experienced this first hand in my own family experience. My parents were formed in different Christian traditions. My mother was raised a Catholic in an immigrant Italian household; my father, though raised in the Episcopalian tradition, had over time become largely unchurched. Living in close proximity to my father’s extended family and attending public schools in a mostly Protestant town, I was largely unaware of the claims of superiority of any tradition over the others. However, as I grew a bit older, I would hear in my religious instruction classes on Sunday that there was a danger in being associated with non-Catholics, and that if one did not keep “one’s faith,” one’s soul would be imperiled. I would then experience moments of concern for the salvation of my father and half of my extended family, but overall my experience of what I knew as his and their goodness did not allow these teachings to take root in any deep way within me. I heard what was said, but I could never truly believe it.
There is great danger for human beings when we believe that we have some kind of exclusive access to the truth. Jesus points out in today’s gospel that the people were unable to recognize God’s gift and presence in both himself and John the Baptist because their idea of the truth of God stood in the way. We have our ideas of what God looks like, and, because of our human propensity to prefer our own kind, from that fallen perspective God looks like us. God is most manifest in the cultural and tribal ways in which we have been formed, and even in the ways of being characteristic of our own temperaments. We are always, in our own ways, “playing the flute” and expecting God to dance to our tune.
Pope Francis has, by deeds and words, summoned all people to become servants of a wounded world. We are not here on earth to demand that others submit to our version of the truth, but to serve them in love and humility so that Jesus, in His truth, may shine out through us. We shall only be able to do this to the degree that we allow them to serve us in the same way. It is no small task to receive with gratitude the truth as it come from one who is different and whom we might see, from the level of our prejudices and biases, as inferior. A very common phrase these days is that we are to “hate the sin but love the sinner.” Such a sense, however, maintains us in the superior, and knowing, stance. In the gospel we see Jesus being served by the woman who anoints his feet. He receives from her what she has to give him. Perhaps we too could become more willing to receive and even to learn from those we might judge as sinners — not “loving” them from a distance born of superiority but rather realizing that we need them and what they can teach us of life and of God that is as yet unknown to us
I want to suggest that the imaginative awareness evoked here is what secularism undermines; that the non-secular is, foundationally, a willingness to see things or other persons as the objects of another sensibility than my own, perhaps also another sensibility than our own, whoever ‘we’ are, even if the ‘we’ is humanity itself. The point is that what I am aware of, I am aware of as in significant dimensions not defined by my awareness. The point may be reinforced in a particularly acute way if I also include my own subjectivity as one of those objects of awareness that elude my possession. Imaginative construction, verbal or visual, works to make present an aesthetic object that allows itself to be contemplated from a perspective or perspectives other than those of the artist’s own subjectivity. Art makes possible a variety of seeings or readings; it presents something that invites a time of reception or perception, with the consciousness that there is always another possible seeing/reading. Imaginative construction begins in the sensing of the world in this way, a field of possible readings, therefore never reducible to an instrumental account –related to one agenda, one process of negotiation at one time. Instead, there is an indefinite time opened up for reception and interpretation: the object is located outside the closures of specific conflicts and settlements of interest.
Rowan Williams, Faith and the Public Square