On the Friday before Pentecost 2020, a contemporary theological reflection: What are the religious discourse and dynamics that shape our contemporary lives?
Religious people today, especially as society grows ever more divided, have very differing perspectives on belief and God. Some make God in their own image and likeness, adjusting their God-image to fit their ideological agenda. What they don’t like, God doesn’t like. Ask no questions.
For some, God is an angry judgmental God, who has sent the Coronavirus as punishment for homosexuality, sexual promiscuity, pornography, and abortion. A right-wing pastor in Florida even proclaimed, recently, that the spread of the Coronavirus in synagogues is God’s way of punishing the Jewish people for opposing Jesus of Nazareth. Bizarre, but antisemitism is flourishing these days….. People who shape God in their own image and likeness know what their God likes, and what their God dislikes…..
Some Catholic clergy, on the other hand, like the former Papal Nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Viganò, and Cardinal Gerhard Müller, former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (Once known as the “Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal INQUISITION”) have launched an appeal, warning that the Corona pandemic is not a punishment from God but a sinister and evil human creation being used by world leaders so that “centuries of Christian civilization” can be “erased under the pretext of a virus” and establishing an “odious technological tyranny” in its place. Viganò and Müller stress unquestioned faith over science; and they stress fidelity to “traditional” religious doctrine.
The Viganò and Müller focus has not been on dynamic pastoral life but always on strict dogmatic rigidity. Both men belong to the traditionalist Catholic group that has condemned Pope Francis for being weak in proclaiming Catholic doctrine, thereby contributing to “the fraud of the anti-Christ.” The Viganò-Müller God-image too is that of a stern judgmental task master demanding unquestioned obedience.
We really do need to reflect on the religious dynamics that guide people’s lives. Over the past several months, of course, we have been witnessing a lot of religious dynamics — from bad advice and nonsense about the Corona virus to fundamentalist objections to anti-measles and anti-polio vaccinations.
What are the religious attitudes and religious values that shape our human actions? I see three: (1) Reward and punishment, (2) Narcissism, and (3) Jesus-based acceptance. These values shape and direct how religious people behave. They can be the basis for a deep and serious self-examination.
(1) Reward and Punishment
Some religious people believe – and at one time many religious people believed – that God rewards or punishes people, here and now, for their behavior.
Reward-Punishment-preachers remind us that Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden because of their sinfulness. They remind us about Noah and the flood. Just a few years ago, remember, various religious leaders in the United States suggested that Hurricane Katrina, which killed 1,836 people, was sent as a divine punishment for the sins of New Orleans.
For far too long, many Christians have seen the crucifixion and death of Jesus of Nazareth as a necessary supreme sacrifice to appease a judgmental and vengeful God. We can thank Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) for pushing this “atonement theology.” That kind of God-image, however, is so very distant from the Loving Father, about whom Jesus spoke. In the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), the prophets called for justice in the face of evil and for reliance on a gracious and loving God. Abraham, recall, was told by God’s messenger that God did not want the human sacrifice of his son Isaac. In Isaiah chapter I, we read that God does not want sacrificial offerings, but says: “Take your evil deeds out of my sight. Stop doing wrong. Learn to do right. Seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless., Plead the case of the widow.”
Actually the concept of the reward-and-punishment-God works best for anxiety-plagued religious people who are still in an early stage in human development. If I don’t behave well, Mommy and Daddy will punish me.
In Christian history, God’s fidelity to God’s people has too often been seen in a tribal way: God was faithful just to God’s chosen people. Religious narcissism. Many Christians even taught that one of the joys of the chosen was to see the annihilation of the unchosen. This viewpoint inspired the Crusades of course and the religious wars in the sixteenth century. Even today, some fundamentalist Muslims, Jews and Christians still operate with this kind of religious narcissism.
The notion that God’s grace is for some and not others is not just problematic. It is pernicious. Quite frankly, however, Western imperialism and colonialism have been one of its most powerful manifestations. Today of course “white supremacy” is a key example. Annihilation of the unchosen by the chosen is always very tempting. Blacks. Mexicans. Muslims…I am thinking right now about George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis…
(3) Jesus-based Acceptance
As a Jewish fellow of his own time, I suspect Jesus of Nazareth had to work-through his own understanding of God and grow and mature as a believer. Perhaps it took him thirty years to do that. Jesus had a human mind, a human will, human emotions, and a human body, etc.
Looking at the life and ministry of Jesus, what stands out in amazing clarity is his sense of God’s love and grace for all. That is the golden thread that links us to the historical Jesus and connects all Christian history – even when Christians, at times, have been miserable failures at living it out.
With the men and women who were his disciples and apostles, Jesus believed in and longed for the Reign of God. And if we pay close attention to the life and message of Jesus it becomes absolutely clear that for us today, if we are truly his followers, there can be no talk of divine vengeance, condemnation, repudiation, or of religious rejection or exclusion of anyone for any reason whatever. All men and women are radically equal before God. And this is Good News for certain. It is also our Christian challenge……
Come Holy Spirit!