Friday, July 12, 2013
OUR UNRULY GOD
A PAGAN APPROACH TO GOD
While I was on vacation recently I heard about a fellow I know who has now become more Catholic than… well… the Pope. I’ve been thinking not so much about him personally but about a particular way some Christians have of encountering God. Many of the following thoughts are borrowed from a little book by Carlo Martini, S.J., Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, entitled Through Moses to Jesus.
All of us have to fight against the burning desire for a revelation that is complete, total, absolute, definitive and – and this is the clincher – always under our control. This revelation seems to describe pretty well my super-religious friend’s brand of Catholicism.
I bet he’d be shocked to know that his version of Catholicism fits exactly the definition that Cardinal Martini gives for paganism. Think about it. Pagans respond to this built-in thirst for the divine and a desire to control the powers of the spiritual realm. This desire shows itself, for instance, in magic-- not the stage magician kind but the voodoo witchdoctor kind. The whole purpose of spells, amulets and magical candles is to control the powers of the spirit-world and subject them to ones will. A pagan does a whole lot of placating and manipulating when dealing with the “divine” powers. It’s a control thing. He’s got the gods pretty much in his pocket, or at he least knows how to push their buttons.
So, why do I say that my super-Catholic friend is acting like a pagan? Well, let’s take a look. His idea of Christian revelation is that it is “complete, total, absolute, definitive and always under his control.” He knows what is right and is perfectly sure that he possesses the Absolute Truth about God and God’s Will. So, naturally, he is righteously intolerant of anyone who disagrees with him (including the last six popes!).
He has God contained in this net made of unbreakable steel cables. The individual cables are familiar to any Catholic: the infallible dogmas of the Church, the revealed teaching of the Bible, the seven sacraments, the Code of Canon Law, Papal encyclicals and other teachings on morality. These and other such “cables” make a pretty safe and secure container for God.
So in Martini’s words, my friend “with his tenaciously pagan religiosity” has caught God in this net of his: “A God whom everyone can understand in the same way and who reveals himself to everyone in the same way (p. 119).” This God caught inside the steel net is not allowed to act outside the boundaries of revealed scripture, Church doctrine or Canon Law. He is allowed no contact with non-Catholics.
Some staunch Catholics get very angry at the mere suggestion that God could act outside of their restricting Net. (If you want, you can read samples of this attitude in two comments written in response to a January post in which I made bold to suggest that God loves Hindus and Buddhists.)
THE GOD WHO GOT AWAY
Yet 1500 years before Vatican II or Pope Francis the Fathers of the Church were teaching some things that seem to the point here. In Greek they taught ho logos brachynetai, “the Word makes itself small.” I’ll let Cardinal Martini explain the saying for me. The universal Word, the supreme maker of all, “makes itself small, contracting to this time and space, so that it is here and not there, it is here now but was not here before, it is here now but not tomorrow. It makes itself small and in so doing makes itself particular and therefore accessible. It adapts itself to an interpersonal relationship, that relationship which touches each individual and thus participates in the particularity of the person. In this way it can encounter each one in a unique and absolute manner (118).”
A careful reading of the preceding paragraph with its use of words such as “accessible” “interpersonal” and “particularity of the person” already poses trouble for folks who have God captured in their nice neat religious net. But there’s more.
“But when the logos is revealed in Christ, it makes itself small, not only because it assumes a physical dimension that it did not have before, but especially because it becomes particular, a part of history. (119)”
Woops! This is horrendous news for the Steel-Net Christians! Cardinal Martini goes on to offer the following charming image which inspired me to write this post: “But it so happens that thisGod, about whom we think we know everything, makes himself like a tiny fish before this terrible net with which we aspire to entangle the divinity in a circle in which everything is predetermined, and he slips through the mesh of the net. He makes himself small in order to be free, to be himself. Indeed, it pertains to God to make himself small without being constrained by this littleness. Conversely, however great our ideas of God may be, he is always greater than these ideas….
“God is small and great at the same time, and he eludes all our attempts to program our dialog with him. God is love, and love does not let itself be programmed. God becomes small and frustrates our programs; he accepts being a scandal to all those who do not want to leave him free to love us as he wishes, with a love that is true, that is, unforeseeable, inventive, ardent, tender, jealous, incendiary. It is a love that no one can control, because it is the secret with which God loves (119-120)”.
The God that Cardinal Martini is describing here is quite untamed and will not allow himself to be imprisoned in our comfortable categories. Let us learn to be content with a God who slips through our nets of smug certainty and sectarian narrow-mindedness. Let us leave God free to love us the way God loves, free to love us and everyone in the world with a love that is “unforeseeable, inventive, ardent, tender, jealous, incendiary. … a love that no one can control.”