Taking time to understanding those who are different

Taking time to understanding those who are different

by The Chaplain

I understood this also, that God's Love is made manifest as well in a simple soul which does not resist His grace as in one more highly endowed. In fact, the characteristic of love being self-abasement, if all souls resembled the holy Doctors who have illuminated the Church, it seems that God in coming to them would not stoop low enough.

But He has created the little child, who knows nothing and can but utter feeble cries, and the poor savage who has only the natural law to guide him, and it is to their hearts that He deigns to stoop. These are the field flowers whose simplicity charms Him; and by His condescension to them Our Saviour shows His infinite greatness.

As the sun shines both on the cedar and on the flower, so the Divine Sun illumines every soul, great and small, and all correspond to His care just as in nature the seasons are so disposed that on the appointed day the humblest daisy shall unfold its petals.

From The Story of a Soul by St Therese of Lisieux

I want to look at two simple but challenging ideas today.   

The first is to look at how we react when faced with people whose beliefs or behaviour seems very different from our own. 

The second is to look at how the behaviour of people who claim to be unreligious might actually be interpreted in quite a religious way.  It comes from an area of study that interests me known as Implicit Religion, based on the sociological work of the Revd Professor Edward Bailey a former colleague in Bristol diocese where I used to live and work. 

My first question is important because, throughout life, we are going to come across people whose outlook on life is very different from the way in which we see things. 

There are two extremes: the first is what would technically be called a 'relativist' response which is to simply accept that everyone has the right to do whatever they like.  This may be quite a nice way to go through life, letting people be different.  The problem comes when you meet people whose lives impact upon your own, or whom you see causing suffering to others.  It is quite hard to be tolerant and accepting to people who might want to cause pain.  That is the failing of relativism.  We cannot sit back and allow others to do bad while we do nothing.  Too many evil regimes have risen in this way. 

At the other extreme, we can be very quick to judge and to dismiss people who are different to us.  Friendships and societies are often held together by a shared sense of identifying ourselves by the differences we have to other people.  We often define who is 'in' by identifying those who are 'out'.  You see it happening with friends who form a clique and exclude anyone whom they perceive to be different.  There is often a terrible pressure to conform, sometimes even doing things a person knows to be wrong, or going against their own good nature, just to fit in with a certain group of people. 

The ways in which people identify the outsiders are often completely random, arbitrary and cruel.  People are excluded on the basis of appearance, whether that is physical appearance or even the clothes they wear.  People are regarded as different on the basis of what they say or think or believe.   

If the extreme of accepting everyone, regardless of right or wrong, can be called relativism, I suppose that the technical term for this second way of looking at others who are different, might just be called prejudice. 

Of course there is a wide range in between being totally accepting and being prejudiced and that is where most of us operate.  But somewhere close to prejudice is the ability we have to simply dismiss someone, or even a whole group of people, on the basis of simply questioning their mental sanity.  We sometimes express this in rather more crude ways. 

I am not denying that there may be some almost unique extremes of individual behaviour and that, for temporary or more profound psychological reasons, people can act in some very bizarre or even terrible ways. 

But we use the tactic of dismissing people too quickly when we are actually doing is admitting that the problem is ours for not wanting to give the time and effort to understanding them. 

When there are large groups of people who act in a similar way; in ways we cannot immediately share, it is always worthwhile going through a process of trying to understand their behaviour.  This is not to say that we have to share their beliefs, but we can at least, seek to understand them for who they are, and perhaps learn something about ourselves in the process. 

I would like to take you through a form of religious behaviour that I have tried hard to understand even though I do not share in it myself.

 Just this week saw the end of a month long tour of England and Wales by a small, but beautifully made wooden casket.  During this time it has been seen by literally hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom have queued up for hours or travelled great distances to be there.  Some people would have just been curious, others might have had outdated and superstitious reasons.  But even though the majority of these people would have been very religious Christians, it is not something I would want to have done.

 The casket contains fragments of the thigh bone and foot of a French woman who died of tuberculosis in 1897 at the age of 24.  In life she was a nun by the name of Therese.  After her death she was canonised and is known as St Therese of Lisieux.  She is one of the most important women saints of the Roman Catholic Church; one of only three female Doctors of the Church alongside St Catherine of Siena and St Teresa of Avila, whose saint's day was celebrated earlier this week. 

In medieval times, visiting and praying, known as 'venerating' the bones of a saint was an important part of faith.  It was linked with the belief that veneration could shorten a person's time in purgatory after death and speed their release into heaven.  There was a belief that the bones of a saint could bestow healing powers or blessings.  There was a belief that prayer in the presence of the remains of a saints would somehow give greater priority to that prayer being heard by God, as if the saint in heaven would use his or her influence to pass on the request to God.  It is perhaps true to acknowledge that a church or abbey would gain a wide reputation, many pilgrims, and much income from having any number of relics of saints.   

Whilst such superstitious beliefs may surely sometimes persist, the official line of the church would not regard any of these as being appropriate responses or uses of relics.   

So we have to look a little more deeply into the motives of all these people coming to St Therese's relics.  And a way of understanding their religious motivation might come from looking at the fascination in our own society for being associated with fame and celebrity. 

As one example, a single glove, thrown into a crowd back in 1996 by Michael Jackson sold at auction at the beginning of September for £29500.  For that amount I would have expected at least the pair. 

Earlier this year in March, a pair of Mahatma Gandhi's famous round glasses along with a pocket watch, leather sandals, plate and bowl sold for $1.8 million. 

The only souvenir of the famous that I own is a signed England football from around the 2000 world cup.  I have never even queried its value but, from a quick check on the internet last night, it might sell for around £250. 

As humans we seem to have an inbuilt desire to associate ourselves with success and with the heroes our society creates; even the 2000 England squad.  The reaction we see to many celebrities is little less than worship even though a person may have done little more than sing, act, play sport, or appear on TV, film, magazines or newspapers. 

Many people would not regard themselves as conventionally religious but their behaviour in terms of that to which they give their time, energy, thoughts and money can seem to be truly religious in its expression.  For example, those who follow a sporting team, or a group, or some other media-created hero, can display very religious behaviour in the sense that their loyalty can shape their lives.   

This is what Edward Bailey regarded as implicit religion, a set of secular beliefs that can be looked at as having the characters of a religion in their nature.  It can be seen in fanatic loyalty to something quite destructive, such as a political ideology, but it can be seen in very good things such as people's loyalty to their work or even to their family.  Implicit religion can closely reflect the priorities or more formal religion.  

If people have this implicit tendency towards worship then the collection of objects may simply be an expression of this natural form of religion.  In our society we collect and adorn ourselves with objects based on the feelings they give to us: associations of fashion for the young; youthfulness for the old; health and attractiveness for those of any age. 

Much of what we know about St Therese, and the main reason for her canonisation, was a book she wrote, about her own life, called The Story of a Soul.  It is the beautiful reflection of what she felt to have been God's influence upon the whole of her life.  The model of her faith is upon what she called the 'little things': those simple actions that we can do as a way of showing our thoughts or care for other people.  This, in itself, is an expression of the love of God.  As Therese wrote:


'I had one other great wish; it was to love God only,

and to find my joy in Him alone.'


This ordinary life of Therese has been a great influence upon the quiet faith of so many hundreds of thousands of people.  And I think that this is at the heart of the reason as to why so many people queued up to walk past the small casket this last month.  It is not that they were expecting miracles or anything for themselves, but that they wanted to give time to pay their respects to the life of a person whose influence has meant so much to them.


I have understood a little more about St Therese this last week in preparing for today.  And in doing so I have been challenged to think a little bit more about a form of religious behaviour I have sometimes dismissed because it is not part of my own particular Christian tradition.  I hope that by understanding more about others we might appreciate them rather than dismissing or criticising them.


I think it is helpful to look at parallels between what we might do as a way of understanding the actions of people we might otherwise dismiss because we have not taken the time to understand them.  In the spirit of St Therese's emphasis upon the 'little things' I hope that what I have learned this week might be of some small help to you.


The Revd David Johnson

Dauntsey's School Chaplain

October 2009