Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son:
A Meditation on the Nature
We have been talking about “rethinking God” since I made the original post saying that Senatorial candidate Richard Mourdock’s comment that God wills pregnancies, even those that are the result of a rape, made me stop and reflect on things that I have always just taken for granted about God. And as I have reflected on what I actually do believe I find that it is quite different than things that I once believed even though I was never conscious of my understandings of God having evolved. I did several postings on the shifts of God as seen in the perspective of the Hebrew Scriptures or what we Christians often call “The Old Testament.” Now we need to move on to the “New Testament” or the Christian scriptures. And again, I am writing not as a scripture expert—which I am not, nor as a theologian—again which I am not, but as a historian looking at the development of thought.
Perhaps the greatest shift in our “rethinking God” comes with Jesus himself. Jesus dramatically redefines God. While the Hebrew Scriptures refer to God as “Father” in terms of God’s relationship to the entire people of Israel and specifically of the Davidic Kings, Jesus applies the familiar form of this word—Abba, equivalent to our “Dad” or even “Daddy” not only to himself but to each of us. There is no parallel to this familiarity in any of the Jewish writings that go before Jesus. In fact, while the scriptures use the term “Father” for God being the “Father” of Israel, or the “Father” of the King (see Psalms 2:7; 89:27; 110: 2-3;) there is no sense of the personal Father-child relationship between the individual Jew and God. Jesus in his time in the desert following his baptism and in the frequent nights he spent in solitary prayer (Mark 1: 35; Luke 4:32) seems to have realized a very unique and personal relationship with God and one which he did not choose to keep to himself but into which he invited his disciples to enter when they prayed (Matthew 6: 9-13; Luke 11: 2-4). This familiarity with God was very off-putting to the religious people of his day who considered it blasphemy that Jesus proclaims this parent-child relationship (Matthew 27:43; John 19:7).While we Christians take this familiarity with God as, well, familiar, for Jews and for Muslims God remains totally other—Transcendent—and this Christian concept is something with which they are not only uncomfortable but even think to be highly presumptive, a violation of Lèse Majesté. For many Christians too the idea of God as “Abba” or even Father is no more than formulaic—they shy away from the implications that God is this loving and forgiving parent to whom they return to find not only forgiveness but an unconditional accepting love. God remains for them primarily the judge who will mete out according to the measure of our merits rather than the measure of his love. Like the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-32) they cannot move beyond the idea of “deserving” to understand the fundamental idea of Grace—the totally gratuitous love which God offers not according to our virtue but according to our need.
Reading some of the blogs such as the infamous Les Femmes: Women of Truth out of Woodstock VA or The Thinking Catholic Blog or listening to Michael Voris’ Vortex one can see just how fiercely the compassionate Father revealed by Jesus is rejected in favor of the idea of God as put forward by the Scribes of Jesus’ day who were so threatened by Christ’s revelation concerning a God whose fatherly heart desires without condition His children’s return to him. To a great extent the divisions in the Church today are rooted in these two diverse theologies—one emphasizing the need for propitiation, the other focusing on the idea that “it is mercy I desire, not sacrifice” (Matt 9:13).
This problem is not confined to a few lunatic bloggers but is part of the wedge between the Catholic faithful and those “shepherds”—whether priests or bishops (or, I suppose, deacons) whose pathology manifests a compulsive need for control over the lives of the faithful and a fear of a Catholic laity whose intellectual and spiritual maturity empowers them to make moral choices for themselves. A god who requires propitiation gives an unhealthy power to a clergy whose role it is to offer sacrifice and insert themselves between God and God’s people as the necessary conduit of grace from God to His people. This is a role of great power and thus—like all great power—subject to great abuse. We saw this in the episodes earlier this year in which Father Marcel Guarnizo took it upon himself and on his own authority to deny a woman Holy Communion because he unilaterally judged her to be in the state of grave sin. (See posts for Feb 28, March 1, 2, 12, 16, 17, 27, 29, April 25, 27, 29, 30, all 2012. ) He had to “protect” God (Christ, present in the Eucharist) from contamination by one whom he judged to be a sinner. Those who are anxious to have others denied Holy Communion or other access to means of grace reflect this idea of a god who conditions his acceptance on “merit.” How far this is from the example of Jesus and his confrontation with the Woman at the Well (John 4: 1-42)! On the other hand, those who accept the idea of God as “Abba” as revealed by Jesus see the need for conversion but realize that conversion comes as a result of God’s love, not as its condition. From these two different understandings of God proceed widely diverse understandings of the Mass and Sacraments, the role of the clergy, Christian morality, Christian political and economic theories, and other issues that are linking the Church to our society’s culture wars. The division has become acrimonious and is creating a wide gulf that is not only disturbing parish communities but undermining authority in the Church and threatening the unity of the Church. The subject needs to be studied carefully and a strategy for healing needs to be implemented before the gulf grows wider. A strategy for healing does not mean submission to the neurosis that has precipitated the crisis but the selection of shepherds who have wisdom and compassion necessary for truly pastoral leadership.