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perspectives

from the Secretary General

Incapacity

by Robert L. Stern

If you’ve ever had an itch on your back, you know there are some parts of your body you can’t scratch – there’s no way of reaching them – and you can’t even see them without the help of mirrors.

If we’re that limited with our physical selves, no wonder life is full of instances where there are understandings we can’t reach and aspects of things we can’t see by ourselves.

That’s why we rely so much on the points of view and perspectives of others whether coaches, trainers, counselors, physicians, spiritual directors, teachers or therapists.

There’s no shame in all of this. It’s simply a matter of capacity. We’re limited in what we’re able to see, understand or do. For better or worse, that’s the way we are made.

On the other hand, limited though we are, each of us has the potential to reach out to something that no one else can touch, perceive something that no one else can see, or understand something that no one else can quite grasp.

Each of us has experiences – and makes judgments in particular situations – that may be similar to those of others, but they are never entirely the same. Although we’re limited, each of us is also unique.

I think St. Paul may have had this in mind when, writing to the Ephesians, he said that God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world. Each of us is an irreplaceable and integral component of the divine plan.

Conversely, we can accomplish or understand things working together that no one of us can working separately. Just as, for example, linked multiple batteries are stronger than one and multiple processors compute better than single ones, so a group can achieve things that no member can alone.

Teamwork is a value we usually take for granted in sports, music, research, liturgy, politics, theater or the military. In practice, we know the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Even so, it’s curious and sometimes painful how often, perhaps inadvertently or conveniently, we forget our limitations in some situations, especially in matters of judgment, opinion or belief.

Remember the story of the blind men trying to describe an elephant? Each touched only one part of its body – skin, leg, tail, ear, trunk or tusk – and thought then he knew enough to comprehend the nature of the unfamiliar beast.

The story describes each of us. Especially when exploring the unknown, we easily assert that what we see is the complete picture, that what we can understand is the whole story. We forget our limitations – we forget we’re blind.

In the area of physical science, Einstein introduced a principle of relativity. His insight was what we see and grasp is relative to where we stand – and that we affect our observations. Good scientists have a certain humility – they know the limitations of their capacity to understand.

Alas, when it comes to matters of theology or discerning the will of God, scientific humility is often lacking. How arrogantly and dogmatically some religious people claim their truth is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

How much grief we could be spared if only we didn’t forget our limitations and could humbly pool and share the little we discover of the mystery of God and his will.

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Msgr. Archimandrite Robert L. Stern



Tags: Religious Differences