Unfamiliar territory

‘Familiarity’ is both a pleasant and a dangerous word. It comes, of course, from ‘family’ - that first home where we learn the security that opens up the world to our exploring.

‘He is now with his family,’ conveys the sense of a person coming out of some trial, captivity or sickness that kept them away from where they want to be; rooted in ‘familiar’ surroundings. And to be ‘familiar’ with a person, in whatever degree of intimacy, is a great experience and makes one feel accepted and loved.

Yet we know we cannot live our lives bound up in the familiar. If we never venture forth towards the strange, the unknown, we begin to wither. Traditional rural societies disliked any change as their survival depended on keeping to well-tried ways. But modern urban living has stretched people to explore new ways of living and relating which can be totally un-familiar.

This weekend, in Ireland, there has been a referendum. Voters were offered the chance to amend the constitution so that it says: “Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.” There was a lively and thoughtful debate and the proposed change was overwhelmingly approved by the people. All the political parties were in favour. The Bishops of the Catholic Church were against, but they were not surprised by the result as it had been clear for some time that this was the mind of the people.

Ireland has been a Catholic country for a millennium and a half. So what made her people vote in a way that the church clearly opposed? Why did they not follow their bishops’ lead? There are obvious answers and not so obvious ones. The church has lost much credibility through the widening gap between what people feel is acceptable, particularly in sexual matters, and what she, the church, teaches. And also, since the leaders of the church, the bishops, are perceived, on the whole, to have failed in their response to the tragedy of child abuse, they have lost much of the respect they formerly enjoyed.

But there are further considerations that bring us into quite unfamiliar territory. The phrase ‘secular agenda’ is frequently used to explain the radical shift from religious observance on the one hand to its abandonment or at best its privatisation on the other. Secularism and religion are viewed as incompatible with each other in much the same way as reason and faith were in times past. To see religious yearning at the heart of secularism or, conversely, to see a link between secular fulfilment and religious practice is to pose questions that may seem absurd. Yet, unless we want to say that the world has gone totally astray, we do have to explore what this referendum result – and so much else in the global “secular” world – is saying to us.

This weekend we also celebrate the feast of Pentecost, an event that plunged us into the unfamiliar and the astonishing, that changed the world forever.

– Ngomakurira

Post published in: Opinions

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