Saturday, December 29, 2012

Saying good bye to the Santa Claus God

On Christmas Day, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd offered an essay by a Catholic priest and friend as a reflection on the recent shootings in Connecticut and New York. By his own admission, Father Kevin O’Neil is unable to answer the column title’s question: "Why, God?" Rather, he identifies times of suffering and loss as unique opportunities for family, friends, and even strangers to reach out in compassion. It is in this way that God's love enters the world and brings consolation and healing to those in need. Two paragraphs summarize his viewpoint:

I believe differently now than 30 years ago. First, I do not expect to have all the answers, nor do I believe that people are really looking for them. Second, I don’t look for the hand of God to stop evil. I don’t expect comfort to come from afar. I really do believe that God enters the world through us. And even though I still have the “Why?” questions, they are not so much “Why, God?” questions. We are human and mortal. We will suffer and die. But how we are with one another in that suffering and dying makes all the difference as to whether God’s presence is felt or not and whether we are comforted or not.....

A contemporary theologian has described mercy as “entering into the chaos of another.” Christmas is really a celebration of the mercy of God who entered the chaos of our world in the person of Jesus, mercy incarnate. I have never found it easy to be with people who suffer, to enter into the chaos of others. Yet, every time I have done so, it has been a gift to me, better than the wrapped and ribboned packages. I am pulled out of myself to be love’s presence to someone else, even as they are love’s presence to me. 

This column hit a popular chord (for several days it was at the top of the The Time's most emailed list). Father O’Neil is a good writer and deep thinker. Most importantly, his thought is strongly influenced by the everyday lives of the people he encounters in his pastoral ministry. He doesn’t assume he brings the answers or “truth” to people and their problems. He enters into a dialog with them, listening as well as speaking, allowing himself to be influenced by their thoughts and experiences as much as he might hope to give them guidance.

The result, as he says, is that his beliefs have changed. What struck me is that the direction of that change is much the same as what I described in my last post. The message of Christmas, and the meaning of Jesus, is that God now lives here on earth. Divine mercy and healing is experienced in our acts of compassion for each other.

What is important to notice, however, is that this God is very different from the one found in most of the Bible, orthodox theology, and popular piety. This God is not a celestial superhero who swoops in to rescue people in need. He does not appear in the nick of time like the cavalry in vintage Westerns. This God isn’t Santa Clause, checking his list to see who has been naughty or nice, bringing toys to good girls and boys. This God does not “answer prayer,” does not reward or punish, does not intervene from “outside” into either the natural world of storms and disease or into human affairs like war or mass shootings. This God is not a being out there at all.

While contrary to most of the biblical tradition, such thinking about God is not without precedent. Certainly this traditional God is seriously questioned if not denied in the Hebrew Bible wisdom books of Job and Ecclesiastes. The traditional understanding of “God-out-there” is also challenged many times in Jesus’ words and actions and in Paul’s writings about the indwelling Spirit.

After ancient times, the mystical traditions of the biblical religions have often emphasized more a God that permeates the world and humanity than one that resides in heaven. Recently this has been expressed in an alternative formulation (popularized by the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah), “God is a verb.” At which point, for clarity’s sake, perhaps we should use the term “god” as it no longer refers to a noun, let alone a proper name. (Though an argument could be made to continue capitalization to retain the connection with our ancient heritage.)

That, at least, seems to be the direction religion and spirituality is moving. It is not part of any organized campaign but rather is, I think, a spontaneous reaction to human needs for transcendence and our growing acceptance and appreciation of the modern understanding of the world and the universe.

Resistance to such an understanding of G/god within the traditional biblical religions is still strong but also weakening. Father O’Neil’s essay has been well received. I scrolled through the comments looking in vain for criticism of his theology. On the other hand, many positive statements came from non-Christians and self-described atheists.

Churches, liberal and conservative, have clung to a self-image as mediators and purveyors of divine mercy, miraculous aid, salvation. Today, however, fewer and fewer people expect such divine intervention in their or the world’s problems because they have reasonably concluded it simply doesn’t exist. The cavalry isn’t coming. It’s up to us and always has been.

How do we cope in the midst of turmoil or disaster? How do we resist the temptations of selfishness and forces of evil? How do we suffer loss and face the prospect of our inevitable demise? We have wrestled with such questions, individually and collectively, since the beginning of civilization. Perhaps the most important function of religion has been to provide a forum for such questions and a community in which to put flesh to our answers.

That need remains as real as ever. Religion’s challenge is to cut its dependence on a Santa Claus God. Instead, it must re-imagine the divine experience as that of humans rising to their highest calling to bind up one another’s wounds. Encouraging and enabling such compassion ought to be welcomed today by the world’s religions as their highest calling.

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