My current job is really fascinating. I work for the “education authority” Catholic Education Flanders, offering support to Catholic schools on the theme of Catholic dialogue schools. This results in an interesting mix of theology, educational theory, and practical concerns.
One example of that mix is a letter that was forwarded to me by my supervisor, with the question to try to offer an appropriate response.
I can’t just quote the letter out of respect for the writer’s privacy, obviously, but I’ll try to give you a summary. The writer, a man in his fifties, tells that he is in that phase of life where you have to say farewell too much. He has lost a number of relatives and friends recently. But what bothers him the most, it seems, is that he notices that most of them have chosen for cremation, rather than for burial. To him, that is a defining, and unsettling choice. It is a choice that implies that the people he loves ultimately – in the most fundamental moment of death – do not share his religious beliefs, his fundamental views on life, on meaning, on fulfilment.
He does not express this explicitly in his letter, but I can imagine that what upsets him the most might not be so much that his loved ones have different beliefs than he has, but that he only became aware of this on the moment of death. There is a suggestion of lost opportunities, of concern about how his relation with the deceased – who do not seem to share his belief in the resurrection – hidden in the last lines of his letter, in which the writer accusingly asks how good catholic education could result in this kind of secular, atheist, behaviour (not my interpretation of cremation, the writer’s!).
I’m not sure what I will answer yet. There is a pastoral aspect to this, of a man in need of comfort about his relation with friends and relatives who he, apparently, did not know as well as he thought. And there is the theological aspect, about the goal of religious education in a pluralist society. Education should never be indoctrination, and that certainly counts for religious education.
But there is also a matter of gratitude. I am grateful to this man, whose letter taught me how difficult religious diversity can be, and how fundamental the challenges of diversity are to our personal identities. As a white Western male, born in a highly detradionalised society, I sometimes neglect that. I’ll keep this letter as a reminder…