Religious language is often dismissed as non-scientific, subjective or a fairy tale. In fact, it is metaphor, an attempt to describe the indescribable. Theologian Karl Rahner described God as the mystery in human experience. Even the most convinced atheist experiences mystery. Rahner says that God is the ‘depth dimension’ in experiences such as solitude, friendship, community, beauty, suffering, loss, death and hope etc.
We all experience these moments – believers and non-believers alike. Scripture, creeds, the Eucharist itself and even lighting a candle at Our Lady’s altar are the language and actions we believers use in the attempt to understand reality. Or, as Father Ronald Rolheiser puts it, ‘to put us in touch with something that we can know but struggle to explain.’
We become tongue-tied when confronted by a cynical non-believer. But we needn’t be ashamed of that. Our religious language is meant to be ‘studied, contemplated, knelt before and prayed with rather than taken literally’. It’s sacred ground.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus often finds himself in conversation with those who ‘don’t get it’. The Samaritan woman at the well thinks Jesus is talking about real water when in fact he is attempting to explain something of a different order. Hence the sceptical comments like ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ (John 6:53) and ‘This is intolerable language. How could anyone accept it?’ (John 6:60).
When we talk of the death and resurrection of Jesus we are attempting to explain the greatest mystery of all: that rejection, loss, suffering and death can open us up to the transcendent and enable us to live life more fully. Once encountered, this fullness of life makes ordinary human existence (which we hang on to because it’s all we’ve got) seem two-dimensional, even though the seeds of indescribable fulfilment lie within it but only if we are prepared to let it go. We believers call this apparent contradiction ‘grace’.