Saturday, June 09, 2007

Arguing With God

Reading the Psalms always leaves me with a profound insight into seemingly ordinary things. Aside from their wisdom I admire their beauty and poetry immensely; for me, they have always served as theology lessons dressed in the most elegant finery available. A cursory reading of any psalm, I have found, gives me something to think about for days, even weeks, whether it be the most exuberant shout of praise or the most dire and mournful of laments. They chronicle the life and times of the people who wrote and sang them with exceptional clarity and profundity, expressing in verse what no mere words can accomplish. It has been said that the two Old Testament books of the Psalms and of Job can take an entire lifetime just to exhaust the infinite possibilities of meaning that they have.

Yet the world of the Gospels and of the Bible in general was no walk in the park. It was a world of turmoil and distress, of conquest and diaspora. A quick glance at the books of the Old Testament reveals more chastisements and admonishments for the Israelites for their behavior than they do praise for that people’s virtue. Even Our Lord was born in such distressing times; born in a manger, with beasts and lowly men for companion. Upon His birth, instead of ambassadors and tributaries, He had soldiers hunting for Him. In place of a throne, He had a cross, in place of fearless warriors, He had a band of all too human disciples.

In the book of Psalms, one will notice a variety of themes that present themselves again and again. There is the theme of war, where God’s might and majesty are extolled; there is the theme of lamentation, where God’s mercy and consolation are seemingly absent; there is the theme of His greatness, where songs proclaim His supremacy and omnipotence; indeed, it seems that there is a psalm for almost any theme about God. I have often been intrigued by the psalms that speak of lamentation and despair; for me, they have always portrayed a world, however hypothetical, where the work and providence of God are absent. These psalms beg His mercy and intervention in a tone that is more than pleading, indeed, almost demanding. For modern, cosmopolitan man, such a situation is perplexing: if indeed God is Almighty, then why does He not help us in times of distress? Why is He absent when we most need Him?

Although almost always overlooked or forgotten, we should remember that these psalms were written in precisely such a tone of anger and resentment. In the world of the Old Testament, wars and conquests were decidedly common things; we hear of several great civilizations that rise to the height of their temporal power, only to be brought crashing down to earth after their brief stint atop the tower of Babel. Israel itself was not spared, and as I have said, God has chastised them more than He has blessed them. These psalms of lament, however beautiful and poetic they are, were nevertheless written amidst a bubble of fear and despair. They were written in anger, almost is if they were meant to be shouted at God.

This naturally poses a problem for most of us. As Christians, we believe God to be all-holy and all-powerful; as humans, however, we are more inclined to emphasize His tender mercy and love. For many, such a situation is problematic, because it seems to go against our rational understanding of God as opposed to how we view Him in daily life. I think this is one of the key problems that plagues Christians today: either God is too holy to be approachable, or He is too much like our best friend to be feared and respected. These polarities have divided many a good Christian for the last few decades. But what is God really like? Is he the insufferably just, bordering-on-sanctimonious Judge, or the all-tolerant, all-permissive drinking buddy that is becoming more and more a popular image these days?

I remember how an old priest once told us that God became man in order for man to remember how to become man, and consequently, become ‘deified’ in the process. It can be said that the significance of the Incarnation goes even beyond the salvific mission of Our Lord; by taking on a human nature, He is basically saying that man is important enough to be taken at an individual, personal level. It is one of the surest signs of His love for us. I have written many times over in this blog that Christianity is not about having the best house, a perfectly manicured lawn or the biggest car; often, it goes directly against this stereotype.

Many Catholics around the world abide in a world of extreme poverty and hardship; in the Philippines alone, a poor family on average has eight children (in many cases, too, there is also the mistress’s family to feed), and some, if not most of these families, subsist on literally less than a dollar a day. There is no room for any trappings of luxury—perfect modesty is almost impossible, and manners are rare. But sadly, that is life for many people out there. Were I put in that same situation, I would probably be an atheist right now.

I wrote in an earlier post that despair is often used by God to plant the seeds of eternal hope, and to paint a picture of what it is like to see the world without love, without hope, without God. I think the reason why more and more people are abandoning faith and turning to atheism in this day and age is that we have become too smart, too rational, for our own good. While we may believe in a just God, we sometimes forget that He, too, is a loving God. Conversely, we forget that God is also just in believing in an ‘exclusively inclusive’ icon of Him. There is a massive discordance between the mind and the heart, between reason and sentiment—and this is what is causing so much aggravation within the Christian community today. One of the bedrocks of Christianity is founded on the belief in a personal God. Could it be that the reason why there is so much confusion being sown among the faithful is that we have forgotten this fact? Is God then just an idea, a choice between sanctimony and excessive tolerance? Are we worshipping a god that is fashioned after our image and likeness?

Lest we forget, the word person is defined as a rational being; but most of all, a person is an individual. God is such—He is Three Persons in one God Trinity in Unity, after all. That He has willed to be called ‘Our Father’ is incontrovertible proof of His Personhood. I think this is something that most of us tend to forget these days. We confine God to a limited perspective and forget the fact that He is boundless, immanent, and ineffable. Scripture reminds us that ‘A clean and humble heart You will not despise, O Lord’. We cannot be truly honest before God when we harbor such doubts and insecurities—we must first learn what it truly means to humble ourselves before the Lord. Unless we are honest about our doubts and fears, we will never be free. Scripture itself, after all, was not written by angels, but written by (divinely inspired) men, who, while sinners, were nevertheless loved by God so much as to suffer for him.

The greatest mystery we can ponder on in this life is not about the reason why there is suffering in the world, but life itself: its simplicity, elegance and importance. Yes, life is simple, and modern man, isolated in his unshakable sphere of hyper reality, has forgotten this for too long. At the end of the day, all the suffering, the trials and tribulations are a reminder of God’s love and providence; they speak of a world without Him, a world plunged in the most inconceivable despair. It is proof that the love was real and worthwhile, of its truth and importance. Christianity is a religion that demands loyalty at least as great as our own loyalties to our families. It demands a filial relationship that goes beyond petty fights and earth-shattering crises and periods of loss and despair. For the Christian faith teaches us that God and the company of the angels in saints in heaven are also our family, and like a real family, they will always be there for us, no matter how sinful we are.

A certain Church Father once wrote that the Old Testament is shadow, while the New Testament is icon, that is to say, image. As we know, in Eastern theology, an icon, more than a mere pious image, is also a mystical representation of a certain truth, and in no way is this more personified than in Jesus Christ. I have always taken this thought to be an allegorical representation between the meeting of God and man; in Jesus, this is incarnated into truth and in Him, we see and perceive the love of God in ways previously unseen and unperceived. It shows us that God is, was, and always will be in control. God loves us in ways that we cannot even begin to comprehend: the problem is with us, who are so convinced of our own unworthiness as to reject this gift, and wallow in our despair and lamentation.

My favorite line from the Psalms comes from the 46th psalm: ‘Be still and know that I am God’ (Ps. 46:10). But this line comes not from the quiet of reflection and the stillness of prayer, but was born out of fears and anxieties. It is God’s answer to the warbling, heartfelt plea of a sinner, angry and confused, caught amidst a maelstrom of fear and trembling, trial and tribulation. And lest we forget, Jacob, too, once wrestled with God, and he certainly didn’t earn his stripes for nothing. Only by blood, sweat and tears will we truly know what it means to be loved by God.

What, then, are the psalms? For me the answer is life, pure and simple. It is the divine train wreck that is the beating heart of Christianity, the joyously chaotic intersection between the providence of God and the incompetence of man, and one of the most wonderful gifts we have been given. Our own lives must ultimately bear witness to this truth.


Archistrategos said...

I guess what I am really trying to say here is that to be a Catholic, one does not necessarily have to be the perfect individual. The Church has always taught that Our Lord came to this world precisely to save sinners; and acting like we have some huge stick up our asses is not the answer to this problem. The Church shouldn't enslave us to any particular way of life-- we somehow forgot that with Our Lord's sacrifice on the cross also comes the gift of freedom. We are only deluding ourselves if we think that a change of clothes and lifestyle would be the be-all-end-all panacea for life's problems.

An inextricable part of being a Christian is the accepting Jesus--His life, His mission-- as a whole. And part of that is to embrace the cross, with all its hardships and suffering. Perhaps this is ultimately what the Church is trying to tell us when it admonishes us not to look at the world through rose-colored glasses?

Andrew said...

A couple of things.

Having had to go through the Book of Psalms as part of the syllabus for my diploma, I can understand where you're coming from. Studying the psalms, the prayer book of Israel, one finds a psalm for every occasion, be it rapturous joy or deep dark despair reflecting the entirety of the experience of the Israelites and their King as they journeyed through this vale of tears. Reading and praying the psalms through the Divine Office each day lets us experience this first hand as well as we beg for mercy and confess our sinfulness in the Office for the Dead or sing God's praises in the Easter offices.

The people of Israel let the psalms permeate them so that its words spring forth from their lips in joy and in sorrow as did Jesus Himself in His cry on the cross, 'My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me'.

Next. Sometimes, material wealth and even good health can sometimes make us over reliant on ourselves. If we have everything we need, where then, does God fit in? Religion becomes something respectable that we 'do' each Sunday but God ceases to be a part of our lives, sharing with us the joy of an unexpected gift or the pain of the loss of a child or the despair of a poor man at the end of his rope. For the rich, when disaster strikes, sometimes it is an opportunity to go back to God, to rely on Him once again as the prodigal son returned to His Father through the hardship that he endured. But for others, the have wandered so far and for so long that they have forgotten the way back and are lost.

Just some rambling thoughts.

Archistrategos said...

Thank you for those thoughts, Andrew. As I've said numerous times in this blog already, one of the worst tragedies that came with the advent of Protestantism was the compartmentalization of religion. For the people living in the Middle Ages, religion was life, and life was religion-- with the Reformation came along a privatization of these two elements, thus effectively causing a rift between daily life and the supernatural life. As we've seen, the fruits of such an endeavor turned out to be quite tragic; thus we now have a God who seems distant and aloof from creation.

The men of the Middle Ages lived their Catholicism; oftentimes, it had more in common with superstition than the dogmatic faith that most of us are acquainted with. Catholicism, in its purest form, is full of sinners and all-too human characters; as Sarabite says, it has the most in common with the mob that first followed Jesus, hence, it must be true. And that is perhaps our greatest consolation today. After all, what is the main focus of Christianity but the salvation of sinners?

Andrew said...

The salvation of souls is the business of the Church, We should never forget that.

All our activities should be geared towards the salvation of souls, be it our own or others'. If we ever forget that, then we should close shop.

Religare, to bind together. That's what the word religion is derived from if Lactantius is to be believed. In the middle-ages, it did just that, binding God to His people and binding everything together in a grand unified theory of everything. But Protestantism not only compartmentalized people's lives, it compartmentalized peoples as well as the Church began to be linked to nationalism rather than Catholicity and the priority of the local or national Church began to be asserted over the primacy of the Universal Church.

As Cardinal Ratzinger has argued against Cardinal Kasper is their memorable exchanges, we are baptised into the Body of Christ, the Church first and only then into the local assembly, the local Church. But after the Council, with the decentralization of power from Rome and the emergence of National Bishop's Conferences and the increased use of the vernacular, even the Catholic Church is being affected and is 'divided' along national and linguistic lines.

Would that religion bind us together again in Christ...