Stephen D’Evelyn: Others on Their Own Terms

In Confessions Augustine considers the big problem of how day to day experience–creation–relates to power giving rise to it and lying beyond it–God:

‘But if God’s will that there should be a creation was there from all eternity, why is it that what he has created is not also eternal?’ People who speak in this way have not learnt to understand you, Wisdom of God, Light of our minds. They do not yet understand how the things are made which come to be in you and through you. Try as they may to savour the taste of eternity, their thoughts still twist and turn upon the ebb and flow of things in past and future time. But if only their minds could be seized and held steady, they would be still for a while and, for that short moment, they would glimpse the splendour of eternity which is forever still.’ (Confessions, Penguin Classics, p. 261).

We would be still for a while.

Recently I’ve been thinking about Pope Francis’s comments on the Church’s need to ask forgiveness of the LGBT+ community and his own feeling that he could not stand in judgment over a gay person when they come to him. The Pope asks himself if the person comes as an activist or as someone seeking the Lord.

At first, (being an equality activist myself), I thought this just meant the Pope was averse to change from outside the Church advocated by activists.

After a while of stillness, I now think he was saying something more profound. God must come first. It is in God that real difference is grounded and given. Putting activism before God means ultimately actually losing activism. The Pope did not quite say that and the emphasis is mine not his, but I have come to see that it may just be the case.
Of course there are many humanitarian organisations and individual activists not motivated in any way by religious practice or imagination, let alone by church. Yet what seems to be necessary is a kind of habitual openness to real otherness–and the difference between what exists and that which gives the possibility and reality of existence –which religions often name as God and which Christians understand in distinctive ways.

Recognizing this Other — we would be still for a while — allows us to accept and embrace others on their own terms. is the most fundamental source of meaningful othernessCUT.
Again and again on the other hand it seems to me that where one finds the Church failing to help people to see things from God’s point of view, one also finds a lack of real action, even if one may find talk that seems to move in the right direction. When we emphasise our daily experience over the big vision that is usually out of view, we easily lose sight of how daily experience may be–should be–governed differently and how it might be different.

Policy, however liberal and positive, is categorically different from life-changing action such as the Pope takes each day, being out there among real people. One might wish Pope Francis had gone even further than being the first Pontiff to apologise to LGBT+ people. But it is also important not to underplay the ways in which what we say can change the world. Talk may be cheap but sometimes cheap things change value systems and help us treat each other as priceless.

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