Archive for the ‘God’ Category

The Incarnation

Saturday, April 12th, 2008

It struck me very forcibly the other week that the reason the incarnation of Christ is so important and why it really is the case that ‘through him, with him and in him’ and him alone, everything was created and all are saved, is because He is God incarnate. In him God enters our reality. I used to think that the insistence of salvation through Christ was just Christian chauvinism and that Buddhists, Hindus et al. had their own direct route which did not and had no need to involve Christ. But I have been thinking a lot about the utter transcendence of God and of the impossibility of any relationship, any connection, any bridging of the infinite void. Yet, in Christ it happened. In Christ God and our material, contingent and changing world are united. 

God within

Thursday, April 10th, 2008

I came across this in a book on Thomas Merton’s theology of the self.*

If, like the mystics of the Orient, you succeed in emptying your mind of every thought and every desire, you may indeed withdraw into a corner of yourself and concentrate everything within you upon the imaginary point where your life springs out of God; yet you will not find God.

This is from Seeds of Contemplation, very early Merton, and before he had much experience of the apophatic tradition and of Buddhist meditation. He is making an anti-Pelagian point and it is quite true that nothing we can ever do can bring about an experience of God. This is not to say, however, that this ‘imaginary point’ in the void, as Merton puts it, should not be striven for, should not be a goal in meditation. There is a distinction between ‘an encounter with God’ and ‘an experience of God’. The encounter with God occurred at the moment of conception and God has never ceased to be with us. It is not within our ability, however, to experience this reality. Many never experience it, some have glimpses of the transcendent from time to time, while a few do come to know the reality of God’s presence within. The whole point of sitting in darkness, at the limit of our senses, intellect and understanding, is to wait on God, as Simone Weil puts it. It is to make an offer of our whole being, an act of faith which has, apparently, nothing to support it. It also brings home to us that God is the Mysterium Tremendum, the Wholly Other.

* Carr, Anne E., A Search for Wisdom and Spirit: Thomas Merton’s Theology of the Self, Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame Indiana, 1988 p. 15


Wednesday, April 9th, 2008

I find myself becoming more and more interested in Jesus, as opposed to Christ (by Christ I understand the post-Resurrection Jesus). Christ can only be understood (and that only partially) in the context of the Trinity and the Logos and hundreds of years and thousands of words of theological reflection. The Jesus of the synoptics, once you leave out the more obvious post-Resurrection interpolations, is a very human figure (and therefore understandable) grappling with the need to understand and communicate to others his religious experience. It may well be that, at a metaphysical level, it is through the Eucharistic Christ that the process of theosis works, but at the intellectual level it is the historical Jesus that I relate to, his difficulties and struggles that resonate with me and his darkness in the garden that illuminates mine.

Kingdom of God

Tuesday, April 8th, 2008

Thinking about the Kingdom of God lately. It started off as a result of reading Sobrino’s  Christology at the Crossroads, but it has long been in my mind, ever since I realised how much the early church, especially Paul, put its own stamp on the Gospel. The ‘Kingdom of God’ was the central platform of Jesus’ message, not himself. After the Resurrection this changed and Jesus himself became the message and the ‘Kingdom of God’ was relegated. This raises many fascinating points.

  • What did Jesus mean by the K of G?
  • How much did his ideas change as a result of the poor, or non-reception of his message?
  • Was one of the reasons why the K of G was relegated post Resurrection because it carried too many Jewish connotations which limited its wider acceptance?
  • Even though the criteria for belonging to the Kingdom were universal and humanitarian and not cultic.
  • Did the Church in relegating the K of G and placing all emphasis on the risen Christ and the Holy Spirit lose something?

Whatever was meant at the time it is obvious that Jesus understood himself to be inaugurating a time of definitive change when God would be present in a new way, or better perhaps, there would be a sea change in our awareness of his presence. Some, influenced by OT prophecies, saw this presence as in terms of the definitive coming of God in the near future to bring the present state of things to an end and to establish his full and unimpeded rule over the world in general and Israel in particular. According to Meier* this was Jesus’ understanding. I think that Jesus’ understanding was more nuanced than this and that it changed as his mission progressed. I feel that the idea that the Kingdom represented God’s timeless or ever-present rule in daily life was very much to the fore in Jesus’ thinking. This comes out especially in the Beatitudes which do not make sense if the Kingdom is seen as the reversal of all unjust oppression and suffering. The Kingdom is present in the midst of suffering and injustice. The relevant verb each time is in the present tense, not the future – ‘Blessed are you’, not ‘will be’. Furthermore the poor in spirit possess the K of G now, even though they (assuming they are also those who are gentle, persecuted, etc.) will have to wait for some future time before their situation is redressed. It is clear the Kingdom is transcendent, transcending even death itself. It is not something which can be understood in sociological, political, or even psychological terms. 


I am unhappy though with the terms  malkut and  basileia, which mean reign, or  kingdom. Unhappy is probably the wrong word. In the context of his time it was no doubt the best that was on offer if Jesus was to get across his message. He used this term but he filled it out in his teaching – the parables, the Beatitudes and in his confrontations with the Pharisees and those who opposed him. I think that what he meant by it was that God was not just the transcendent creator but also the immanent abba, father. Especially that God was immanent.

[* John P. Meier,  A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Vol. II, Bantam, Doubleday, Dell, p. 348ff.]


Monday, April 7th, 2008

Yesterday at Mass it suddenly struck me – the enormity of Jesus’ impact on humanity down through 2,000 years of history to today. In contrast my own existence seems so ephemeral and fleeting, like one of those little sparks thrown up by a bonfire, there for an instant and then gone. Whereas He continues, sometimes to blaze, sometimes simply an element in the consciousness of millions, but He continues.

How does Jesus fit in to the human situation today, I wonder? I am more and more aware of the brazen hypocrisy of our self-serving politicians, of the evil and destruction done to the lives of millions by the selfishness of the rich and powerful, and of the quiet desperation of the poor and powerless. Never has the problem of evil and suffering struck me so forcefully. What can I do? What can any individual do? We say prayers, as though that will accomplish something. I feel it only salves our consciences. It is a great mystery the absence of God. Is He in the poor and suffering? Are they the face of God today? What might that mean? What might that tell us about God?


Christ II

Monday, March 31st, 2008

Thinking again about Christ in the context of Easter – which, I suppose, is the only context in which he makes sense – we need to keep the three parts of this event together: the Last Super Eucharist, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. Only then will we begin to understand. This is what the texts indicate. The disciples on the way to Emmaus only come to understand the meaning of the Resurrection in the act of breaking bread. Thomas can only begin to believe the reality of the Resurrection in the context of the experience of the Crucifixion. The Easter triple event is a chiasma, a cross over point, where Jesus of Nazareth becomes the Christ. Jesus’ life, his teaching, the training of disciples, his interactions with others, healings, his arguments and controversies with opponents, all lead up to this point – his death, or his glorification, as St. John insisted on calling it. He intimated that he was the Christ, the Messiah, and while for some Jews this would signal the beginning of the end of time, for Jesus this was never so. He pointed to a beyond, a time when he would not be present with his followers in the flesh, a new time when they would be guided by his Spirit.

We inhabit our bodies. Through them we express ourselves and communicate with others. No body, no communication. This is vividly brought home to us when we come across those who suffer from the locked-in syndrome, those whose body, either through accident or disease, is completely paralysed. No body, no habitation, no communication. At the cena on the evening before his death Jesus made a little ceremony, offering bread and wine as his body and blood. Perhaps it seemed a bit strange to his disciples, their reaction is not recorded, and I don’t suppose they understood what he was on about then. As a human being Jesus would have died one day anyway. As it was the forces he had provoked by his teaching, and simply by being the sort of person he was, could not tolerate his continued presence among them. He was going to be executed, and Jesus knew this. Hence the little ceremony at the cena. Understanding would come later. He was preparing them for the Resurrection.

The crucifixion on Calvary was a devastating event. The sudden and violent death of one so loved, in whom so much hope was invested, was so traumatic that his disciples retreated into themselves, withdrew and hid. Perhaps they would be next. They were not prepared for that. Then came Easter morning and everything changed.

Whether Jesus’ human body disappeared from the tomb and appeared to the disciples over the next few weeks is not the main point. The texts describing these experiences are obviously catechetical documents designed to elicit faith in new disciples. The important point is that now the disciples became aware of the bodily presence of Christ in the broken bread of the Eucharist – a presence so powerful that it did what the human presence of Jesus prior to his death never did – it transformed them.


Saturday, March 29th, 2008

The thought that bothers me is that while I believe that Christ is the key, both to the mystery of what it means to be a person and to the question of the meaning and purpose of existence, to the majority in this country he is at best an irrelevance. I would like to be able to explain clearly and simply why I believe Christ is the key. The annoying thing is that I cannot, for all sorts of reasons. For starters there are at least five ‘aspects’ to Christ – the Jesus of history; the Christ of faith, crucified and risen; the Eucharistic Christ; the Christ whose body is the Church; and the Son, second person of the Blessed Trinity. There is also the Jesus in whom we live and move and have our being. How they relate to each other, how they relate to the other persons of the Trinity and how they relate to me is, to say the least, not clear. 

It is tempting to simplify things by saying that there are really only two aspects – the historical Jesus, God made man, and the Son, second person of the Trinity, but relating to these is not at all straightforward. The historical Jesus is not only 2000 years in the past but he is irrevocably obscured by the spin put on him by the Gospels. They are not, were never meant to be, neutral and objective accounts of his life. In spite of this much of the real man comes through and there is no doubt that he was quite an extraordinary person and, if you believe that he was who it is claimed he was, tells us much about God. What the Gospels and the letters of Paul do is shine a light on the impact Jesus made on those who, either directly or indirectly, came in contact with him, or with his early followers. From these documents emerges a mysterious and enigmatic figure who evoked total dedication and commitment from some, lethal hostility from others and indifference from the majority. Looking back at this historical person today one has to ask – OK, what does he mean for me now? An exemplar, an admirable person, a misguided though well-meaning prophet, the Son of God? If you see him merely as a historical person – of limited relevance to today, on a par with the Buddha, and people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King – coming to ‘believe he was who it is claimed he was’ is going to be difficult, not only because of the historical perspective, but also because it requires getting past the contemporary prejudice against religion in general, and Christianity in particular; it requires a sympathetic, or at least a curious, attitude towards the Christian story and the acquiring of some hermeneutic and exegetical skills. Above all, I would suggest, it requires exposure to those who reflect Christ in their lives. What does ‘reflecting Christ’ mean? Here we are not only back to the problem of ‘which Christ?’, we also have to take account of the particular worldview of the individual, of his/her relevant knowledge and experience. To say, for example, that Gandhi was a Christ-like person will be received very differently by Hindus, fundamentalist Christians and open-minded agnostics. While Gandhi was manifestly not a Christian, he shared many qualities with the historical Christ both in his attitude to others, especially the poor and marginalised, and in his attitude to God. Each had a profound awareness of a transcendent dimension to existence which was reflected in their utter selflessness and in their concern for others. It is precisely here, at this intersection of awareness of the Transcendent and loving concern for others, that we touch on the mystery of Christ.

The ‘Son of God’ bit is even more difficult. There is an enormous hiatus between all that is implied by God, divinity, and the ordinary liturgical life of the Church. I cannot help feeling that in this respect it is easier for the Orthodox, for whom the doctrine of theosis (God became man so that man might become God – Athanasius) is at the centre and with their view of the Liturgy as a reflection here of the heavenly liturgy, than for us Catholics. Which underlines, once again, the importance of an individual’s worldview. But more on this another time.


Monday, March 24th, 2008

There is one great big question which has been nagging at me for weeks now, months – what is the point of our existence? That there is a point (in principle) I have no doubt. Speaking generally, I have no doubt as to the existence of God, that he is the author of existence, that I connect to him in some way and that my ultimate destiny lies with Him. That is about as far as my certainty goes.  But it is when I consider humanity in general, all of us, social beings acting and interacting, that my problems arise. Looking at my own life, the lives of others I know and considering the lives of all the billions striving in their various ways, I cannot imagine how we fit into the scheme of things, what grand plan is being worked out through the process of our living, interrelating and dying. I can see struggles at every level, from the individual to the global, between selfishness and greed with compassion and love. The passage of time does not seem to show any change, or even sign of a gradual change, in the relation between the rich and powerful, on the one hand, and the poor and suffering on the other. I got up just now to open the window to let out a fly that was buzzing in vain against the glass.  It will be cold tonight and the fly will probably die. Freeing or killing a fly – what difference does it make in the scheme of things? There are many influential people whose lives have a powerful impact on the lives of others, some for good, others for worse. There are countless more people, unknown to any but a few, just their immediate neighbours and family – how do they fit into the scheme of things? Is their living and dying of as little import as that of a fly? Surely more than that of a fly (our common humanity would have to agree on that) but, to the rich and powerful, the multi-national corporations, the powerful nation states perhaps not much more. But what about at the level of what John Hick calls the Fifth Dimension, at the intersection of each human life with God?  

That is one picture, the big picture. The little picture is of the individual person, created in the image and likeness of God. It does not matter whether this person is rich or poor, male or female, young, middle-aged, or old, sane, or mad, because in their depths, deep down below any sort of conscious awareness, the being of each person rests in the being of God. This is a great mystery. It is bound up with the mystery of God Himself. Even though this might not be generally acknowledged we all agree that when it comes to dealing with the individual each person is unique and beyond price. Collectively it can often happen that the individuals become merged with the general mass and are thus dehumanised. This happened in Europe with the Jews under Germany, in the States with the blacks and in Vietnam during the war, just to give three examples. As less than human, as other than us, unter menschen, they cease to have human rights, or so it was thought by Nazis, racists and many GI’s. The poor, the dispossessed, street children, refugees and asylum seekers are in that situation today and we, comfortable westerners, because we never relate to them individually, or see their faces, remain indifferent to their fate. The individual gets lost in the collective, becomes invisible and therefore, as far as most of us are concerned, ceases to matter. Like the fly, his, or her predicament, their suffering, their death causes no ripples in the placid stream of our daily lives.

If you focus on the little picture none of this, the big picture perspective, need cause you a problem. Why? Because God is closer to each of us than we are to ourselves and sooner or later, perhaps not until the moment of death, perhaps, for some of us, earlier, we will encounter Him. It could even be argued that in this encounter the poor and suffering will be at an advantage and the rich and powerful at a disadvantage. It is tempting to focus on the life of someone like Etty Hillesum and imagine that what was explicit for her is implicit in the life of each anonymous victim. Her life, a Jewish woman in Nazi occupied Holland, illuminates a terrifying scene of the most appalling brutality and inhumanity. It shows that beneath the dark surface shone bright love and hope, that God was there in the mud and the blood. She touched the lives of many but they were very few compared to the vast majority who experienced black despair and death. One story I remember about an old rabbi who stepped out of the line leading to the gas chamber and, looking upwards, shouted out, ‘God, how can you let them do this to your people?’ For a moment everything stopped, all looking at him. After a few moments, he bowed his head. His shoulders fell. All the life seemed to go out of him and he said, ‘There is no God.’ and shuffled back into the line. The horrifying thing about this story is that not only did the Nazis destroy his body but, before doing so they destroyed his faith as well, his values, everything he had lived his life by. OK, you can say that his theology was deficient. He did not understand how God worked, that evil, suffering and death are built into the nature of things. But, not to worry, because in his dying he would encounter God, his tears would be wiped away and he would enter into eternal bliss. To think thus is to fail to understand the big picture.

Like the story of Job the little picture focuses on the individual. We don’t know why there needs to be evil and suffering, why the wicked prosper while the virtuous are hard done by, why tragedy should strike the best and kindest people, but that’s the way it is so try to be brave and, above all, patient and God will put everything right in the end. The temptation is to concentrate on this and try to forget the big picture. I cannot help thinking, however, that in doing this we are missing something of supreme importance. It ignores that we are above all social beings. In fact our individuality depends on our sociality. It ignores the imperative to love. How can we not love, not be moved by the suffering of others, not want to intervene? It ignores the fact that no man is an island, as Donne put it, that we are all part of the main. Job may have had his wealth restored to him but that restoration does not make good the suffering and death his family endured.

Focusing on the little picture is to focus on a self-constructed God of wishful thinking, a personal God, my God. It fails to recognise God as he is. It ignores the fact the God is love. It is not the case that God is love as far as I am concerned, or that God loves me and that that is all that matters, or that my relationship with God is the most important thing. John, in his first letter, said God is love and ‘because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God.’ He didn’t say that everyone who loves God is begotten by God and knows God. He said, ‘everyone who loves’. So in loving others we come to know God. God is in our love for them and in their love for us. Loving is a divine activity. This imperative to love others runs throughout the New Testament and is given much gr
eater emphasis than the imperative to live a moral life,* though today you could be forgiven for thinking that morality is more important than love, or compassion, such is the emphasis of the Church on ethical correctness as defined by itself. It is easier to be ethically correct than to love. Taking a moral stance bolsters the ego. It confers a sense of pride and superiority in achieving a status which weaker, vulnerable and less moral people fail to achieve. Loving exhausts the ego, emptying it of pride and selfishness in the donation of the self to others. Loving is kenotic, self-emptying as Paul explained in Philippians, which is why it is so difficult. The Church knows all this, at least theoretically. The latest exemplar of this, Mother Teresa has been beatified. But because of its institutional and hierarchical set-up, because of the mill-stone of infallibility hanging around its neck which condemns it to live with ancient attitudes and states of mind, because of its refusal to be accountable to its people, it is now in a mess, doing damage to itself and millions of others. God as God is not there in the big picture. He is poured out in countless acts of love.

Most of those of us who can construct the window through which we look out on the world. We do not want to look out onto ugliness, poverty, suffering, or death, onto anything that might remind us of the precarious and temporary nature of our window. Because these things cannot be avoided we arrange the curtains on our window to veil as much as possible. The old and senile are kept out of sight in ‘nursing homes’, the poor out of our middle class suburbs, refugees and asylum seekers out of our country. We cannot escape wars and violence but we insist on television sanitising them so that we see only the dramatic explosions but never the severed limbs, spilled entrails and spurting blood. We enjoy the frisson of fear generated by Hollywood horror but do not want to imagine the numbing dread of life in a police state, or the heart stopping terror of a rampaging mob out to destroy you and your family. There is much in the big picture that is beautiful and there is much that is ugly. The tendency is to focus on the beauty and look there for traces of God reflected in it, while shutting out what we do not want to see, the ugly and revolting. The Psalmist waxed lyrical over the beauty of nature seeing there the handiwork of God. God was very much his god there to shield him from his enemies and to keep ugliness and suffering at bay. This was the god the old rabbi had served all his life. Such a god was powerless against the Nazi machine which exterminated him along with his people. You can say that God is reflected in what is beautiful but not in what is dark and ugly, or that God is there in both the beauty and the ugliness, or that God is not there, neither in the beauty, nor in the ugliness. It depends on your idea of God. None of these options apply to God as He is, though the second two are perhaps nearer to the truth than the first. God is both there and not there and here we begin to approach the Mystery. The trouble is we want God to be great, almighty, all-powerful, awe-inspiring, but none of these adjectives apply. We have an idea of God and it would be nice if He fitted into that idea, but He doesn’t. To say that God is love is not really helpful because we all know what love is, or do we?

* Probably a reaction to the legalism of the Pharisees. Consider Jesus’ attitude to Mary Magdalenethe prostitute, “So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven; because she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” (Lk 7:47) Paul likewise placed the stress on love as opposed to the law. Cf. Corinthians 13 etc.

The Power of Evil

Friday, March 21st, 2008

Reading something of Simone Weil’s ideas on suffering.  I was struck by one remark which reminded me of a problem I had when teaching and which I have never really solved. How did Christ by his death on the cross save us? The remark was, ‘The cross is a divine response to evil and a model for ours.’  I wondered what are the other divine responses to evil and in what sense are we saved by the cross and resurrection of Christ. The answer that immediately springs to mind is solidarity. As a human person Christ overcame evil and death. We, as human persons, through our links with him, can also overcome evil and death. How? I don’t know, but I do know, though I cannot explain, that we are all linked in some fashion and that the actions of each have an affect on all – good for good, evil for evil. Hence the importance of prayer and self-sacrifice.

The received answer is that the Father raised him up and that we, through our baptism, are incorporated into Christ’s death and resurrection. This is a Christian articulation of what I said about solidarity. But what exactly does that mean? And why is this procedure necessary in the first place? Why submit to evil? Why not negotiate with it, dialogue, overcome, destroy it, etc. So many options are possible but passive non-resistance is chosen, leading to the destruction of Christ. Evil seems to be built into the scheme of things and a world without it does not seem to have been an option for the Creator. The good, and Christ was the archetypal good man, are always going to be destroyed by the forces of evil. Some struggle and fight against it and this struggle against the forces of entropy, destruction and death, this desire to overcome not only the evil we face but the limitations of our existence, has led to the extraordinary advances of the last five thousand years after tens of thousands of years of (as far as we know) almost imperceptible development.  I was going to say that Christ chose passive non-resistance to the evil forces which opposed him and that this inevitably led to his destruction. Hence the myth, propagated by Nietzsche, of the ineffectiveness and weakness of Christianity. But it is more subtle than this. Christ did not respond to force and violence with force and violence. This does not mean that he was weak. On the contrary. His response was his moral authority, his openness, his transparent goodness, his exposure of lies and misrepresentations. Force and violence do not lead to an increase in the knowledge and understanding of the nature of reality. Christ was a revelation. He made explicit what many already knew implicitly about the power of God to transform people’s lives, about love and goodness, about the futility of violence and the desire for power and wealth. He also made explicit what probably very few knew, or suspected – the presence of God in the here and now, within and among us. Evil could not tolerate such an exposure. It destroyed Christ as it continues to destroy people like him today. It did its worst but its worst was not good enough. There occurred a resurrection in which Christ transcended evil, and also good, in fact this whole dimension of existence. Evil remains with all its destructive power within this domain. The only difference now is that we know its power is not absolute, that the only thing it leads to is death and that removes some of its mystique. Resurrection is now a possibility for us all, especially for those who live by love. The power of God’s love transcends death. 

Seeking God

Monday, March 17th, 2008

“Whoever seeks God sits in the shadow of his penitence, but whomsoever God seeks sits in the shadow of his innocence.”

 This is a quote from al-Hallaj. Dorothy Soelle says that what is to be learned from him goes beyond the Protestant search for God, with its preoccupations with guilt and piety. It is not the penitent children who seek their parents; rather the happy children know they are being sought, expected and accepted in the shadow of innocence. This reminds me of the story of children playing hide and seek. One boy hid himself so well that after a time the others, who couldn’t find him, got fed up and went off. Eventually the boy emerged and, dismayed at being abandoned, went crying to his father, a rabbi. The rabbi, when he heard what had happened, wrapped the boy in his arms and said, ‘Now you know what it is like for God. He is hidden everywhere but no one is looking for Him.’