Yesterday at mass, Fr. Frank shared an excellent homily about “The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin.” The name of this traditional day of celebrating Mary, the mother of Jesus, is not new. But this was the first time I’ve heard a discussion that shed light on the meaning of words that sound strange to my 21st century ear. Fr. Frank said, “‘The Assumption of Mary’ is not a dogma, it’s a devotion.” He drew a clear distinction. In my own words, dogmas are truths announced by authorities, devotions are involvements of our hearts. This distinction resonates with me, but when we’re talking about unfamiliar words, authorities that pronounce what’s true, and matters as important as our own inner worlds, I can’t just come along for the ride. I have a fundamental question that I must answer: Do these old words have any meaning that we might discover in our own right today?
I’ve been attuning my ear to contemporary sensibility ever since high school–over 50 years ago (yikes!)–and the words assumption, blessed, and virgin just don’t come up much in daily life. Because I was steeped in a Christian heritage and educated in a denominational seminary, I’m inclined to expect their significance even when their meaning in my life eludes me. This is one of the hazards of going to church these days: There are a lot of old religious words whose familiarity is assumed but whose meaning is uncertain. I suspect that many people experience such words as anachronisms at best and gobbledygook at worst. Who has time for that sort of thing these days? I’m inclined to be attentive to our fathers and mothers in the faith, but I’m bound by deep conviction to rummage around for the truth in terms I can understand.
Forty-some years ago, a number of well-read and able teachers pointed out to me that the Twentieth Century was notable for an explosion of work by Christian scholars troubled by the dilemma of old words that have lost their ability to touch our lives. Bultmann, Bonhoeffer, Tillich, and Niebuhr spring to mind, but there were dozens of others. I’m an interested observer from a certain distance, but one insight of their work is crystal clear: The old religious words came from an era when people of faith had a vastly different world view. The people who wrote the Christian letters and gospels, just like the Hebrew writers who preceded them and the Muslim writers who followed them, viewed the world as a multilayered creation. Heaven, heavenly beings, and the ultimate truth are above us. When people die, they leave the earth and go to either heaven or some sort of nether world below us, depending on the moral quality of their lives. In between heaven above and the shadowy underworld below, we humans live our lives, for better or worse, in anticipation of going elsewhere in the end. We know from history that this world view can have a powerful impact on peoples’ lives, for good and ill. Neither crusades nor jihads exemplify humanity at its best. I know from my own experience that the old world view just doesn’t make sense in my life, except as a way of describing the way people viewed the world when many of the major religions of the world were born.
Scientists, philosophers, and other observant thinkers have known for many centuries that we live and die in a single, vast uni-verse. The universe we see has nothing above it and there’s no place below it. This is it, it’s really big, and it’s getting bigger. Herein lays the dilemma of whether to pay attention to things like the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin or whether to ignore them as quaint relics of an age before Copernicus, Galileo, and telescopes.
As a 21st century man, I approach questions as homo scientificus, a home-grown observer who–in principle–looks and listens first and writes second. In my role as self-assigned, chief investigator, I’ve taken on the lifelong experiment of seeing what happens when I approach matters of faith and belief from the perspective of a contemporary world view. Instead of the blinders of dogma or the sleep of credulity, I’ve chosen a devotion to discovering the life experiences that lie behind the words. In matters of religion and spirituality, as in politics and economics, it’s not the words that count, it’s what’s happening in real life.
Attending mass on the day of the “Assumption of the Blessed Virgin” raised more questions than fit conveniently into a single take-home bag. In fact, almost anything that has to do with spirituality and religion raises more questions than answers. But the right questions–those that have to do with the way life is–are far more satisfying than dogmatic answers that have little to do with living. Finding the important questions is itself a worthy lifelong quest.
But finding the important questions is only part of the challenge of being fully and deeply human in the modern world. My particular quest is for the right words–words that resonate with a 21st century sensibility and shed light on life experiences that anybody can recognize. This quest leads inevitably into some mighty swampy territory. I’m looking for hummocks of solid ground so I won’t bog down and get so lost in the swamp of language, meaning, and life that I never make it out of the dark. It’s hard to go to work, care for a family, be a good neighbor, and live as a citizen of the world when we’re in the dark about the way life really works. For me the really important question will always be: When we discover something that lights up our own life, what do we do to share that light in the world around us?