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God Matters but so does Religion

Many years ago when I was working as a priest I visited the home of an elderly man. Having seen my priestly collar he eyed me warily and hesitated before he let me in. After some patient encouragement he told me his story. He was ten years old in a Catholic school and had been hauled out in front of the entire class by an irate priest because he couldn’t properly answer a catechism question. For ten minutes the priest lambasted and humiliated him in front of his peers. As I watched him speak I knew from his eyes he was back there in that class, and the pain and humiliation was as raw now as it was then, well over seventy years ago. He finished his tale and told me bluntly that as soon as he was able he had never set foot inside a church ever again.

And here I was, inviting him to attend a week of church services! What could I say to him? How could I begin to apologise and acknowledge the wrong and the hurt that had been done to him? Acknowledge maybe – heal his hurt? No chance.

I’m old enough to remember the way the Catholic faith was taught back then and the awful lack of awareness, denial even, of basic human dignity and children’s development. I myself endured some bad experiences and was also hauled in front of a primary school class and publicly harangued – ironically not for a religious issue: looking back with adult hindsight, the teacher had unresolved anger issues and I – innocently – had lit her fuse. In many ways religion just mirrors wider societal mores, and it was a time of unquestioned authority and a black and white morality. Surely religion should be better than this?

Perhaps that’s why so many people today say things like:

          “I’m not anti God – I’m anti religion”;

          “I’m spiritual, but I don’t need to go to church”.

Many of these folk had religious upbringings and sadly, like the old man, had experienced traumas and the humanly negative and abusive ways that religion was presented and lived at that time – never mind the awful testimonies of those who were abused by ministers of religion. These attitudes against religion are therefore understandable but – I have to say – regrettable.

I say regrettable because faith in God is not and can not ever be a private matter. It is not a case of ‘me and God’, or even ‘God and me’ – rather it is ‘God and us’. If only for the need to pass on the faith to the next generation, we cannot be lone believers. If God’s will means anything to us then we should make the effort to discern what He expects of us. As a Christian, I know that Jesus founded a Church, and that this Church has to have a real and human manifestation as well as a spiritual heart. All relationships are meaningless if they are not celebrated and quality time given to each other.

God of course matters. But so does religion. Let’s define religion as ‘people worshipping God’, and wherever there are people there are good and bad elements. I lament many of the aspects of religion and of my own Catholic Church, but I still love the Church and leaving it is never the answer – rather, let us work to renew the Church because we are the Church!

I believe that God is calling us to church. Not necessarily the Catholic Church or even a Christian denomination – but let our faith be warm, vibrant and… shared!

I know that that old man is with God now, but how much more wonderful if, in his life, he had been given the encouragement to live his faith within a welcoming and inclusive Church,

Martin

The Logic and Relevance of Jesus’ Good News

Many non believers are incredulous (no pun intended) that there are people who believe in the God of Jesus. With widespread education, scientific advances and so much knowledge at our fingertips, they are amazed that some folk still hold on unprovable notions of a god and a supernatural world. “Seeing is believing” as the saying goes.

As such, many nowadays hold religion in all its myriad forms – forms that often rival and contradict each other – as irrational gobbledygook. Some would consider faith in a divine being to be the refuge of the mentally challenged – a pathetic panacea for those who are incapable of facing life’s ups and downs. “Pie in the sky” indeed.

For me, the Good News of Jesus, as laid out in the New Testament and interpreted by the Church through many centuries, is not irrational. But neither is it simply rational. It is supra-rational. By that I mean that it can never be proved, but it does not follow that there is no inherent logic to Jesus’ message.

There is both a logic to the Gospel – based of course on certain foundational suppositions – and also a profound resonance with what is most central to our human nature. So we can profess a logic and a correlation with our innermost and universal drives.

One fundamental supposition, without which the Christian faith doesn’t make any sense, is that we are created by God as immortal. As such we will never cease to exist and the reality that we call ‘death’ is simply a transition from one state into another: the departure from this life of limited years and its mix of joys and sorrows, and the arrival at the proper destination that God has intended for us. The departure from a temporary but crucial span of existence, and the entry into the permanent and unending span that is our true destiny. A tale of two lives…

Whether we believe this or not, we should still be able to understand that – if this is so – then religious concepts such as sacrifice, martyrdom and redemption can begin to make sense, and that they do have a fundamental logic. For the Christian, this life matters, but it is always coloured by the prospect of the life to come. And the virtue of ‘hope’ begins to take on a profound significance as we look towards heaven and – crucially – it gives a lift to our life here and now. Hope is fixed on the future but its value is found in what it does for us now. Authentic faith should always celebrate the present moment.

It is also important to state that, as well as having a real logic and coherence – based on faith in Jesus’ words – the Good News correlates with what is at the core of our nature. By this I mean our universal desire for happiness, and for that happiness to endure for as long as possible. What person, if they’re honest, doesn’t want unending happiness? Without faith in a loving God, our expectations are hugely limited: life tells us that joy can be fleeting and even the most wonderful experiences and relationships will come to an end. The Good News of Jesus is that our desires can be completely fulfilled: we can achieve eternal bliss – indeed, this destiny is already given to us by our Father God. His free gift.

If we grasp the Good News and accept its basic conditions, then we may not have all the answers – who does? – but our life will make sense and it will hold out the most wonderful prospect that enables our spirits to soar above this life’s vicissitudes.

I have to wonder just how many believers really absorb this truth rather than just ‘going through the motions’ of religious practice? The Gospel of Jesus is indeed Good News!

In His love,

Martin

Suffering and a God of Love

While there may be some folk who go through life relatively unscathed I think it’s a simple fact that most of us experience suffering of varying degrees, and for some this suffering can amount to devastating, debilitating and life-limiting traumas. And yet the Gospel of Jesus proclaims a God who is a tender loving father – both the Lord and Cause of all Creation and also the attentive and intimate abba of our hearts. How then can we reconcile the hard evidence of life with a supposedly almighty and all-loving God who frankly doesn’t seem to care, if He exists at all?

This question has of course dogged all religions who posit an almighty being, and many are the answers supplied by these religions, with some it has to be said downright pessimistic. Christianity has supplied a number of such theories and certainly for the Catholic tradition there is a long held doctrine of God allowing suffering, even sending suffering, to somehow temper and burnish our souls so that we become better and more resolute disciples. As such, God could remove our suffering but He doesn’t want to because He sees a greater purpose. Hmmm. Not that impressed. Are you?

For me, God detests suffering. He hates to see us suffer. He never sends suffering – what loving father ever would? So how can I profess faith in this all-loving and all-powerful God when there is so much pain and evil in our world?

The truth as I see it is simply this: in this life God has effectively tied His hands behind His back, and is therefore practically impotent! God has restricted His power simply because He will not compromise our freedom – our freedom to choose love or to reject love. If I hold a gun to another’s head and am about to pull the trigger, God cannot intervene to stop me. Almighty God is therefore unmighty God as far as this life is concerned. It may seem a paradox but His seeming absence and lack of intervention is the very proof of His love!

Love in absentia? Perhaps this also seems somewhat cold and uncaring? St John in his first letter tells us that God is love, the very perfection of love. When we suffer, God suffers too, and He suffers more keenly than we ever could. He suffers the entire weight of all human suffering. How could it be otherwise for love? Every hair on our head is counted. He misses nothing. He feels everything. Everything matters to Him. Yet He cannot intervene. He cannot ‘pull strings’. The Almighty is impotent in this world. This fundamental truth doesn’t seem to be emphasised by the Churches…

In my poem “Unmighty God”, I present the image of a desperate father at his sick child’s bedside, waiting for someone else to come, someone who can help his child. This father is God – who can only wait, and suffer, hoping that another will come and intervene. This image acknowledges both God’s impotence and the sole occasion when He can – through a human person’s willingness – work in our world. And so, we are His hands, His voice, His heart of love. If we are not there for Him, as in, prepared for love and service, then He is stymied. This is our dignity, but of course it comes at a price: His seeming absence.

God is of course almighty, and a day will come, when our life’s journey is over and at death we will see and know Him as He is, and in that life to come He will not be shackled as now. He will then heal us, He will comfort us, He will redeem us. Until then He has to reluctantly permit evil and suffering to have their day. He can and does use suffering – perhaps better to say that we are seldom as stretched as when we work through our pain. But let no one pretend that He somehow prefers it so.

Love demands freedom. Our freedom demands that God stand back and give us space, in good times and bad. Be in no doubt of His enduring love and His faithful determination to bring us home to His eternal kingdom of bliss.

Martin

Some Thoughts on Science and Religion

It’s sad to say that science and religion haven’t been on the best of terms, and many in both camps would perhaps suggest that they cannot ever be reconciled. It’s probably true as well that it’s so often religion which has been the worst offender of the two in terms of communicating and being open to the other? Many religious people, especially of a more conservative and reactionary inclination, have decried and even rejected scientific theories such as evolution and the origins of mankind – citing a literal reading of Holy Scripture as their justification. In doing so they totally misunderstand the Bible which God never intended as a history or science text book – the Bible is His love letter to all mankind.

This enduring conflict is regrettable because both science and religion have their place and, in theory, should compliment and inform each other. While science is fundamentally rational, religion is supra-rational – not irrational. Science and its methods, like authentic religion, have a high value on truth, and all who are on the side of truth should respect and affirm that. Science inherently looks for proof whereas religion posits faith, which can be defined as being beyond human proof. Authentic faith, unlike the so-called ‘blind faith’ that so many believers have been misfed by their spiritual teachers, while being beyond proof is nonetheless corroborated by understanding the inner mysteries of the human soul and psyche.

Religion for its part has brought us good news and bad news: e.g. hope of everlasting life contrasted with moral scruples, guilt and despair. Science has also brought us many things, much good and some not so good: e.g. wonderful medicines contrasted with atomic bombs. Science and religion can and should inform each other and act as a regulating influence on the other.

I want to stress, from a religious perspective, that science has offered a great deal to religion and – if we accept it – has hugely influenced the more positive developments in theology, doctrine and religious practice in recent years.

The rise of the so-called human sciences have greatly helped all of us to better appreciate the complexities and constraints of our human nature. This knowledge has affected religious practice in many ways, from softening the harsh ‘black and white’ moralities that many of us grew up with, to improving the formation of ministers of religion, which in turn should help to reduce the lamentable sins of denominations who allowed unsuitable people to gain access to people’s intimate souls and indeed children’s hearts and minds.

Sciences such as astronomy and archaeology have also hugely contributed to a more balanced understanding of our human development and place in God’s wonderful creation. Astronomy in particular has forced many religious folk to realise that humanity is not actually the centre of the universe, but we are perched as it were on a small and relatively insignificant planet in just one small area of one of myriad galaxies in a vast and rapidly expanding universe. Our God has therefore to be at least as big as science is telling us that the cosmos is!

I always think of the wonderful words of astronomer Carl Sagan (an atheist by the way) who was instrumental in releasing the famous photo of our planet Earth – a photo known as the ‘Pale Blue Dot’. His words are moving and humbling – please google “Carl Sagan Pale Blue Dot” for his inspiring words. They should be mandatory reading for all religious folk and leaders of all kinds.

True religion has nothing whatsoever to fear and much to learn from good science, and vice versa. If I may adapt Psalm 90 verse 12: “Make us know our place in Your Creation that we may gain wisdom of heart!”

Martin

Justice and Mercy

One of Jesus’ most astonishing and unsettling parables is that of the ‘workers in the vineyard’: (Matthew 20: 1 – 16). This parable seems to be dreadfully unjust. The landowner is of course God, and He pays everyone the same wage in spite of the fact that some workers toiled all day in the heat of the sun, while others just started at the final hour. And if that wasn’t bad enough, Jesus also states that the ‘lucky’ guys who came to the vineyard late in the day also got paid first! No wonder that the early starters grumbled against their employer (God). What on earth is Jesus telling us in this parable?

We can make a couple of points:

~ the landowner (God) goes out to recruit workers (us) to work in his vineyard (to live a life of love and service) – as with all Jesus’ parables, it is about us;

~ the single ‘wage’ for all is eternal life in His kingdom of love – as such there is no greater wage imaginable, beyond all price.

So the wage for our loving service in this life is eternal bliss in the next life. Wage is perhaps a misleading term here because we can never earn eternal life, so it doesn’t matter when we start to live a life of love as long as we do start! But why does God make such a point of paying those first who came late (to love)?

We can point to Luke 15: 7 where Jesus declares that the late-repenting sinner is the cause of God’s greatest rejoicing because they were ‘lost’ and now are ‘found’. This echoes the great parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11 – 32). In this story Jesus makes it very clear that the older son, who never ‘sinned’, was blazing angry with his father (God) for being so merciful to his wastrel brother. It was manifestly unjust.

I think the key point in all these Gospel texts is that God is not interested in justice – He is only interested in mercy. We need to appreciate that there is a huge difference between these two qualities:

~ when one is shown justice, one gets what one deserves;

~ when one is shown mercy, one is let off ‘scot-free’.

Mercy is therefore all about a relationship where one party acts freely and is entirely gracious to the other party. The party shown mercy can never demand or merit the gift of the other’s mercy – it is the giver’s free choice. In the saving death and resurrection of Jesus, God’s abundant mercy has literally been poured on all humanity. One image of our salvation is that Jesus himself carries us ‘piggyback’ through the mercy-gate into Heaven. There is therefore no place for human pride – the workers in the vineyard who worked all day and received a very fair wage were still angry, precisely because their pride had been injured by having to wait in line while the late starters got paid the same, and got paid first.

So we sinners do not earn God’s mercy – not only it is God’s free gift to us, it is a done-deal, given already. But while it is God’s free gift already given, there is an important corollary to our receiving mercy: having been shown mercy by God, we in our turn must show mercy to our sisters and brothers. Jesus makes this very clear in his parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18: 21 – 35). Moreover, because God’s mercy is so immense and so vital for our eternity, there is no human situation where we can righteously withhold mercy to our brethren. No matter how we feel we have been hurt, we must always be merciful – because God has been so radically merciful to us. So often it is our sense of hurt pride that stops us doing what we should. Many spiritual teachers hold pride to be the ‘root’ sin.

My short poem ‘Justice and Mercy’ tries to express these deep realities:

Justice and Mercy – Poems for Pilgrims

Martin