Sunday 30 September 2012

Talking to Normals

By Eric Hanna, S. J.
A while ago, I found myself jokingly using a nickname for those people who were not familiar with the Catholic faith: 'normals'. This was a funny way for me to remark on the fact that we as Catholics, and Jesuits in particular, can use a lot of jargon that is unfamiliar to the rest of contemporary society. It was a reminder to myself not to use arcane terminology when simpler words sufficed. However, it got me to thinking.

We believers love to be counter-cultural. If the world moves one way, many of us are inclined to move the other. If you are a believer, I ask you the following question: do you see yourself as normal and the rest of the non-believing or different-believing world as abnormal? Or is it the other way: is the world normal and we ourselves the ones who are different?

Most of us encounter both of these ways of thinking at one point or another in our lives. And both ways of thinking have their positive and negative aspects.

If we, the believers, are normal and the world is abnormal, then it can lead to a healthy rejection of the unspoken assumptions of our culture: that material wealth is the measure of success, that people are at their core self-interested, and that autonomy is the highest good. All of these ideas are important to question in order to come to truth through a real struggle. However, on the negative side, if we think our group is normal and that the world is broken, we can fall into a siege mentality. We can reject other people and judge them harshly by our standards. And we can interpret questions as attacks.

Let's flip it around. Suppose we believers are the abnormals and the world is normal. This idea takes a bit of courage to examine. We can look at ourselves from an outsider's perspective and realize that we use a lot of jargon, that many of our actions do not seem consistent, and that what we affirm is so paradoxical it is often very difficult for one who does not believe to understand. These realizations open us up to communication, to understanding the perspectives of non-believers. But this way of looking at the world has negative points too. It can tempt us to compromise too much, to be afraid to speak the truth as we see it.

Christ, in this Sunday's Gospel, provides us with a possible resolution to this quandary. He declares boldly that, "Whoever is not against us is for us" (Mark 9). This is not just an attitude for Christ's followers to take up. It is a general attitude that leads any human being to right relationship. Everybody appears normal to themselves. So when we encounter a stranger who doesn't share our perspective, we must assume that what they say or do makes sense to them and that we are all seeking the good.

When I encounter someone who is not a believer, I do not think of myself as 'one within' addressing 'one without', nor vice versa. Rather, I recall that Christ has given me to love the person. So my first job is to listen because it's much easier to love somebody you understand. I won't always understand completely. And I won't flinch from an honest disagreement if I must stand up for my principles. But I am genuinely interested in the other person and that person's perspective.

We are not genuinely interested when we only listen to someone in order to discover that person's error. Nor do we love when we use the time when the other is speaking just to plan what we ourselves will say. Genuine love requires genuine attention, and a genuine willingness to be challenged and changed by what another person says. At the same time, when I look to someone not of the faith with love, I am better able to translate and represent my own perspective to them, perhaps to challenge and change that person too.

Reflect on your own experiences. Examine how attentively you listen to the perspectives of people who disagree with you and how much love is in your heart when you speak to them. Examine also how afraid you are not to fit in and whether you shy away from conflicts by agreeing too quickly to what is said. Listening means accepting the person and taking what is said seriously.

We have no need to be angry, nor have we need to be afraid. The best cures for these two ills are love. And Christ supplies our hearts with love in abundance when we ask for it. And we have Christ's guarantee that our dialogue will not be in vain. Because whoever is not against us is for us.

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