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There are No Certainties

This may seem like a strange title for someone who follows Jesus Christ, but we need to be honest about the realities of life and belief. It’s been well said that the opposite of faith is not doubt but rather certainty. Those who claim certainty or actively seek it in this life are at best misguided and at worst they can become rigid in their world view and – horror – rigid in their notion of God.

I know someone who is a very devout Catholic and a daily mass go-er, but their faith has largely morphed into an extreme traditionalist practice. As such they are deeply suspicious of Pope Francis as he seeks to reform the Church, and they prefer to listen to Pope Emeritus Benedict. On this point we must be clear: there is only one earthly leader of the Catholic Church, and while we are in somewhat new territory with a pope who has resigned, his presence and role is now only honorary. To reject Francis in favour of Benedict is to identify with a reactionary world view and that is quite simply contrary to the Gospel where the Holy Spirit is constantly asking us to widen our views and stances and to be prepared to respond positively to the ‘sign of the times’. It is a good indication that we are truly listening to the Holy Spirit when we are open to new possibilities and prepared to enter uncharted territories. Sad to say that the Church has often been guilty of the opposite!

In regard to my traditionalist friend, there is little point trying to argue with someone who claims a rigid certainty. We need to understand what underlies this ‘unnatural’ human stance. I would suggest rigidity and reactionary beliefs are the result of someone desperately needing certainty – and certainty is never ours to grasp. To hold a rigid stance, whether in religion, politics or what-have-you, is to deny the dynamic of life, and to cling to the pool side while others are plunging into and splashing about in the joys and sorrows and unpredictabilities of life. Certainty is also closely allied to pride: the rigid person knows the right position, rules and choices, and doesn’t tolerate any dissent. Faith in contrast is predicated on humility (as I previously wrote about).

I suppose the constant challenge for us, especially for those of us who believe in the God of Jesus, is to be passionate about our faith but always to humbly admit our lack of understanding – that in this life we all see through a ‘glass darkly’ and struggle to focus on the ‘real’. As such, our doubts are actually good indicators of our faith, and that our faith is something alive and active. In all things we need to work hard to discern what is God’s will and to be open to different voices, constantly checking that the fruits of the ‘new’ are positive and affirming in a human sense.

To give some examples of what I mean: someone who says the Holy Mass can only properly be celebrated in a certain way and ritual – they are in fact in love with forms and are missing the whole point of what Mass is – our radical union and reunion with Jesus and one another. They might as well be an unbeliever who delights in sacred music and ‘bells and smells’. And someone who categorically states that women can never ever be priests is actually setting themselves up against the Holy Spirit – we can never say never!

Life is never black and white, but always subtle shades of grey. Many atheists know this better than many religious folk! Sadly, religion can frequently encourage arrogance. Many religious folk give the impression that God dances to their tune, when in fact it can only be the other way round.

To say there are no certainties in this life is not to deny the revelation of Jesus. I’m fond of saying:

nothing in this life is free except the one priceless thing – God’s unconditional love for us.

And while I hold firmly to that belief in His great love, I have to admit that I cannot claim to know how that love expresses itself in every time and situation.

To summarise, a strong faith is always characterised by humility, whereas a rigid belief usually indicates arrogance and self-righteousness, and both of these attitudes are entirely contrary to the Gospel of Jesus.

We need to constantly discern, discern, discern! And that is not weakness.

Martin

Humility

The core sin of humankind could be said to be pride. In the Biblical story of Adam and Eve, the serpent (Satan) tempts the couple with becoming “like unto God”, that is, usurping their nature as creatures to somehow become on a par with their Creator. This impossible ambition nonetheless appealed to their pride, their ego. So it can be said from biblical testimony that sin entered the world because of human pride, and every other sin and evil that besets us is fundamentally derived from this first and causal sin of pride.

What then is the antidote to pride? We need to do the opposite of what Adam and Eve did. That is essentially to admit and reassert our nature as creatures, utterly dependent on the One who created us. In other words, to ‘eat a slice of humble pie’ and recognise our littleness in comparison to God’s majesty. We need to value and strive to embrace humility.

Even for those who do not accept that God exists, this antidote of humility can still be construed as accepting humanity’s place in the world, that is, we are not the overlords of nature although that is largely how we have behaved and consequently we now fear the damage of climate change and species destruction. And from an astronomical perspective, humanity is perched on a small and relatively insignificant planet on the fringes of just one galaxy among innumerable other galaxies. Astronomer Carl Sagan put this much better than me in his famous address on the ‘pale blue dot’.

A Pale Blue Dot | The Planetary Society

Humanity is clever, resourceful and powerful, and has dominated its world, even to the point of setting foot on the moon – and has ambitions to go further and even colonise other planets. But that very ability that sets us apart from other animals also means we are prone to pride and overreaching. Who among us would deny that? Surely all the wars and bloodshed in human history testify to man’s capacity for prideful folly? Even for non believers we can assert that humankind should adopt an essential humility in regard to our place in the world, and in our dealings with one another.

Humility is therefore fundamentally an attitude of realism: recognising our relative littleness in the great scheme of things. But being realistic does not come easily to us!

From a religious perspective, humility is simply recognising that we are human and God is God. In this we acknowledge that all we have and are is gift of God, even to the very breath we take. Moreover, we have to admit that we cannot ever ‘capture’ the mystery of God – as St Augustine stated: “If you think you understand it (God), then it is not God.”

Unfortunately it has to be admitted that religion is often guilty of the very opposite of humility and it can easily feed our innate pride and selfishness. Many religious folk claim to have the ‘whole truth’, but their view of God is actually constructed from their own political, social and religious prejudices. It is then very difficult to talk to people who claim to have divine truth and who consequently are closed to any alternative viewpoints. Jesus Himself criticised the Pharisees for this very arrogance.

As the often quoted passage from Micah states:

This is what God asks of you: only this, to act justly, to love tenderly, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6: 8)

Not a bad motto for daily life.

The native Americans had a similar wisdom – always to walk in a sacred manner.

We should value and strive after humility. This is the core attitude for recognising and accepting the Kingdom in this world. It is not weakness and lack of knowledge to accept that we are ‘little’ compared to God, that we can scarcely begin to understand His ways, and that we should admit to a ‘holy hesitancy’ in our dealings with one another. How often do we stop and try and discern God’s will before we act?

Let me finish with another short verse from scripture:

The prayer of the humble pierces the clouds.” (Sirach 35: 21 – 23)

in His love,

Martin

Is Mother Theresa a Saint?

The following is a true story from my days as a student for the Catholic priesthood in the 1970s. It happened that two of my fellow students were driving across country and they had with them in the back of the car two young Polish students for the priesthood. At one point on the journey one of the British students said they should stop and say the rosary. Now this was church student code for “let’s stop and have a pee”. (I’m glad to say that we British church students always had a healthy habit of poking fun at religion.) When the car had stopped the British lads turned round and saw that the two Polish students had taken out their rosary beads and were trying to kneel down in the back of the car, to which the two British lads burst out laughing.

The Polish lads, bless them, were very devout and – when it came to religion – were very serious! I don’t think they appreciated the humour of the situation!

I tell this story because I hope it illustrates that people from different backgrounds and places can have very different attitudes, even on supposedly important matters and even when the people are all of a similar age.

Mother Theresa of Calcutta has in the recent past been both canonised by the Church and also vilified by many commentators. As such she is a figure who provokes strong reactions both for and against. There appears to be much evidence that her ‘inspirational’ ministry among the abandoned poor in the slums of Calcutta was in fact tainted by poor medical practices and some very old-fashioned spiritual practices, to the extent that many, even within the medical community, see her as a regressive and problematic figure who perhaps did more harm than good. They cite her theological and spiritual messages as indicative of someone who was both extremely traditional and other-worldly, and this is seen especially in her teachings on the place of suffering in human life. A case can be made against her that instead of doing everything possible to alleviate physical suffering she in fact almost celebrated such suffering as somehow a special path to God.

My story of the church students illustrates that, in any evaluation of someone like Mother Theresa, we need to understand them as being from a time and a place. Both Mother Theresa and her great friend and soulmate Pope John Paul II were from Eastern Europe and lived through two world wars and were hugely affected by the grim forces of totalitarianism and militarism. The Church in Eastern Europe had to fight to protect itself and its peoples’ cultural identity, and, metaphorically speaking, drew up the wagons into a corral against these secular threats. This caused the Church to embrace a fortress mentality and to have a dominantly defensive outlook. This inevitably engendered a Church that was tribal and reactionary, and that also emphasised uniformity of belief and strong devotional practice. As such both Mother Theresa and Pope John Paul II were extremely traditional in their outlook – this has had huge consequences for the Church in my lifetime, and not always for the good.

What I’m saying here is that influential figures like Mother Theresa may have appeared as somehow superhuman but they were intensely human, and that as well as their undoubted charisms they had their failings. Mother Theresa’s mentality matters because it would have influenced her practical ministry. I have elsewhere written about the mystery of suffering – suffice it to say that many in the Church have accepted an outlook that suffering is sent by God and needs to be embraced rather than fought against. This to me is bad theology and bad practice. God never sends suffering – He hates to see us suffer but – and it is a big but – God can and does use our suffering.

Is there then a purpose to suffering? Richard Rohr OFM says:

If suffering is “whenever we are not in control” (his definition), then we can understand why some form of suffering is absolutely necessary to teach us how to live beyond the illusion of control and to give that control back to God.”

What Richard Rohr is saying here is that suffering can have value, but that’s a long way from saying that we should embrace it willingly, fail to counteract it or see it as somehow God’s will for our life.

Did Mother Theresa see suffering as something to be accepted and possibly not fought against? Did that impact on the nature and the quality of the care she and her sisters gave to the poor? And if so, does that disqualify her from sainthood? You be the judge.

In His love,

Martin

A Tale of Two Lives

For the Christian, existence is a tale of two lives. This notion cannot be proved, and has to be accepted on faith, but that belief is rooted in a profound logic that resonates with the deepest needs of the human heart. As such, Christians are joyful because creation is both good and hope-filled: we know where we are going, and that all will be well.

In this life of limited years, with its joys and woes, we have to accept that God appears to be absent if not actually non-existent. It is easy to suppose that there is no god, and no afterlife. Many believe this and live their lives as best they can, often with great charity and self-giving. The truth for Christians is not that God is non-existent, but that He is profoundly constrained, to the point where He cannot practically intervene, and must therefore allow things to happen – even bad and terrible things. God is almighty but is limited in this world precisely because He loves us and totally respects our freedom. The paradox here is that it is the very fact of His love for us that necessitates His seeming absence.

In the life to come, the eternal life, things will be very different. Almighty God will no longer be constrained by human free will. God will be completely in control, to the extent that all bad things will be no more: no more sin, no more misunderstanding, no more death, no more separation or breakdowns in relationships. We humans will be fully redeemed – by His power – and that is a scenario that it is really impossible to imagine here and now. As scripture says: “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the mind of man what good things God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Corinthians 2: 9)

In a real sense, if we accept Jesus’ message, there is no comparison between life now and life to come. The former is the briefest moment whereas the latter is unending, everlasting, eternal. And yet, this life now is hugely important: this is where we exercise a radical freedom and make choices both great and small. What we discern and do now really does matter for our eternal destiny: do we choose to give ourselves in love or do we choose to grab and grasp for ourselves regardless of our sisters and brothers?

And so as well as a tale of two lives, we have a tale of two destinies: eternal bliss with God or eternal emptiness without God? Heaven or Hell…

Traditional Christian teaching would see those who consistently choose selfishness and hate as ending up in Hell, whereas those who choose love – real self-giving love – will enter Heaven. We may state that God does not send someone to Hell – rather the individual effectively chooses Hell, by their life stances and choices.

I have elsewhere said that, while Hell exists as the logical apex of our freedom, I doubt very much that there is anyone in Hell. I know that this opinion departs from much traditional Christian teaching but it is based on a simple principle: God is love, and love will not tolerate anyone being lost! As such, in the final analysis, it will be God’s tremendous mercy that will see us all home to live with Him and each other in eternal bliss.

In truth, there is a great mystery here, but it is God’s issue and He will solve it! All I know is that He is the greatest lover, the tenderest father, and what parent would ever rest easy if their child was lost? And so I say, it is not our effort that will ‘win’ Heaven – it is entirely His mercy that will see us home.

Perhaps the real point of our choosing love in this life is precisely that we can somehow ‘bring’ Heaven on earth? In other words we can actually start living the resurrected life here and now, although it will only find its perfection in Heaven. I have met people who are living this life here and now, and they are truly inspiring.

Martin

Have You Read The Shack?

I’ve just finished reading The Shack by William Paul Young. This is a novel about a man whose young daughter is abducted and presumed killed. As a work of fiction, and without giving anything away, the plot is somewhat fantastical but the book seriously attempts to deal with that key question: how can we believe in a loving God when there is so much suffering, and especially when the innocent are brutalised and families torn apart? If God could speak, what would He/She say to us? As such the book is full of theological concepts and arguments, but they are presented within a fascinating story with lively dialogue that makes the whole read far from a dry and tedious textbook.

While I might be uneasy with some of Young’s theology, and that would be nit-picking, I can honestly say that I have never cried as much over a single book. It presents a triune God who is passionately in love with all creation, yet who must respect the independence and free will of humanity, even when that freedom entails sin and deviation from God’s plan. We become aware of God’s raw anguish and His/Her nearness and presence to all human suffering. We see a God who is not distant from human suffering – who in fact co-suffers with us and bears our scars. As such it echoes my own theme and poem of an: Unmighty God

The author rightly stresses the importance of relationship and the basis of that relationship as love. At the core of all existence is the eternal relationship of God as Trinity – utterly giving to each other and utterly self-sufficient in their love. From their overflowing love comes their creation of the human drama, where God seeks to include us completely in this everlasting bliss. For Young, relationship with God even comes before membership of a church and any institutional codes of conduct. Knowing God as loving Parent/Son/Spirit is the only real source of freedom. This correlates to the importance of a contemplative practice: we can never grasp God with our mind but we can experience something of His/Her love – if we give time and focus quietly on that inner realm.

I would join the many others who recommend the book. It is thought provoking and might just change our perception of God from a distant and troubling judge figure to an intimate, warm, passionate, involved, even humorous soul-mate. You can get more information if you go to http://www.theshackbook.com

There is also a film version of The Shack which I have just ordered online. So while I haven’t yet seen the film, and I’m often wary that a film never quite captures the essence of a book, I’m looking forward to seeing it – with a box of tissues nearby.

In that supreme relationship of love,

Martin