It's not just because I'm a writer that I believe words matter -- often a great deal and for a long time. The evidence is everywhere, even if you limit your inquiry to the field of religion.
For instance, today is the anniversary of the death of St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430). And it's the anniversary of the birth of Russian novelist, social reformer and religious thinker Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910). (Tolstoy's old birth date, Aug. 28, now is considered to be Sept. 9 because of calendar changes since his birth.)
Their words still are in print today and still helping to shape how people think about religious matters.
Among Augustine's works are The City of God, De doctrina Christiana and Confessions. The latter work has been especially influential in that in it readers see a deeply flawed man who, nonetheless, found a way to God and found some answers to the eternal questions.
His writings have influenced almost all branches of Christianity in different ways. And although the Catholic Church has designated him as a saint, Protestantism credits him with early thinking that helped to shape the Protestant Reformation more than 1,000 years after his life.
Tolstoy's novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina are still read widely today and help us understand the human condition and the roles that greed, pride and revenge play in a broken and sinful world. In fact, I confess that I didn't get around to reading the latter until a couple of years ago, though I found it compelling. I also confess that I've read a fair amount about War and Peace but have never finished the book itself. (I'm betting that puts me in pretty good company.)
If works by Augustine and Tolstoy have such staying power, imagine how influential the sacred texts of various religious traditions have been -- the Bible (in all its form), the Qur'an, the Talmud, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Upanishads and more.
In the Jewish and Christian traditions, God created the world via words. God, in other words, spoke the cosmos into existence. And Christians consider Jesus Christ to be the Word of God. Words would matter even if none of that was the case. But they matter all the more because of it.
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CONFESSION IS GOOD FOR THE WHOLE
One of the best things to come out of the recent gathering in Germany of an international interfaith group, Religions for Peace, was the confession that in many issues facing the world, "religious communities have fallen short." Once that's acknowledged it's easier to figure out what to do going forward.
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THE BOOK CORNER
Given my lead topic today, this seems like an excellent day to alert you to some intriguing words in a new book, River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey, by Sister Helen Prejean, the nun who has spent much of her life working against the death penalty. Now in her early 80s, Prejean uses this book not just to sum up her personal life but to set it in the context of developments in both the Catholic Church and the world. But she wants readers to know that she's not done working for change in the world. Near the end of the book, in fact, she writes that she hopes "that the recognition by the Church of the inviolable dignity of every human person, even criminals, will become a guiding moral principle for the Church to rethink its attitudes, teachings and policies on women and LGBTQ persons." Prejean comes across in this book not as a rigid rule follower but a struggling, fallible person seeking to know and do God's will. She seems both fun and, at times, funny. At the same time, she confesses that early in her life -- and in her training as a woman religious -- her faith was "riddled with fear. So much fear that I'm even afraid of Jesus." It takes her time to get over that, but eventually she finds ways to live a life of joy and commitment to the inestimable worth of everyone. Vox has done an interesting interview with Prejean that you can find here.