Here and Hereafter
A older man in a business suit sat across from me on the suburban train. He was reading William Taubman’s recent hefty biography of Mikhail Gorbachev. As he paused to look down at the rocks and sea below, I asked, “What do you think of Gorbachev?” “Oh, this is, among other things, a great 20th century Russian love story,” he said, tapping the book, “and so well written. He loved his wife, Raissa, and he loved the Russian people.”
We chatted for a few minutes during which he mentioned how Gorbachev was rejected by the very people whose freedom he had masterminded. I had noticed my companion wore a tiny cross on his wristband, and I said Gorbachev wasn’t the first to be rejected by his people. “Are you a priest?” he asked. And the conversation took a different turn.
Turns out he had taken adult courses in religion over the years and commented that what it means to be ‘religious’ today is shifting significantly from what it meant a half century ago. “What does it mean for you today?” I asked. “I think of it as a rediscovery of the sacred within the secular,” he said after a couple of seconds reflection.
“How would you see that working out in practice?” I wondered. “I grew up in a Church that focussed on helping me to prepare for the next life. Today, I turn to religion for support in living in this world and hoping it can become better for everyone,” he said, after taking a couple of runs at my question.
We talked about a deep-seated confidence in God that’s needed in today’s secular world, and the kind of values needed to sustain one’s faith. I was reminded of the almost primordial trust the Christians of Aleppo place in God in order to survive years of ISIS onslaught. An account of their survival has been documented in the recently published “Letters from Aleppo.”
That kind of faith lies deep in an area of the heart which Tillich called ‘ultimate concern.’ My friend suggested that dogmas, doctrines and teachings can bring us only so far, but don’t speak to where people are at today. Something more is needed if there’s to be a future for people to hope in.
We can believe something to be true without it making much difference to us. We can place our trust and confidence only in something that’s vital for the way we hope to live and the kind of world we want. Before parting, we exchanged contact information and said we’d stay in touch.
Fr. QQ 9/27/17