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.

(2) Narcissism

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!


13 thoughts on “Religious Discourse and Dynamics: Signs of the Times

  1. Jack, I totally concur with the last paragraph. I do have a question. In the language of the Church Jesus’ death is all about sacrifice, ‘sacrifice of the mass’, body and blood given for us, etc. If sacrifice out of love is not the point, then what is the point? Death in order to show resurrection to new life?

    1. In the medieval language of the church Jesus’ death was about a sacrificial offering and the mass was indeed an “unbloody sacrifice.” This is part of the medieval theology which also gave us “Priests” with sacred powers. Eucharist is a community celebration of our communion with and in Christ. One des not need a priest to make it work. In fact in early Christianity, Christians would have never used the word “priest.” Ordination does not give special powers..ordination arose as a form of quality control — making certain that Christian leaders were trustworthy guides in the Christian way of life…. Warmest regards. – Jack

  2. What you say is the way I have thought and believed and Is why I have trouble with going to ‘mass.’ It makes me feel so conflicted……. and rebellious. Thank you for your reply.

    1. Sue, if it makes you feel any better, I have the same feelings, about the special powers of the priest and the turmoil I feel at Mass. It sure made me feel better to see your reply. I feel so “un-Catholic” at times. I have always felt that giving priests this “power”, and thinking they are Christ on Earth, is what caused us to blindly deny the abuse that happened for years, and sometimes, still does today.

  3. Thanks, Jack. On one of your points — “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.”
    This reminds me of a the story from Matt. 15 of the Canaanite woman who asked Jesus to heal her daughter possessed by a demon. At first, he said, “I’ve come only to the lost sheep of Israel.” When she pleads again, he replies, “It’s not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” She then says, “Yes, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the table.” Finally, Jesus reconsiders and heals the daughter. We see in this that Jesus changed his mind, grew in his understanding about who God hears and provides for. He has changed his mind, a very human thing to do, and broadened his understanding of God’s will and purpose.

  4. Dear Jack,
    Again, you have opened up such deep self-confrontation with what and why we believe. It seems to me that we all have an image of God that is comfortable with our own personalities and comprehension. Hence, the various interpretations. Rigid thinkers need a rigid god; free thinkers might have an image of a god that is more expansive. I have come across some much smarter people than myself (YOU included!) who have helped me shape “my” God—but, as you said, it is based on what matches with my needs!! One book title captured the essence for me: “Your God is Too Small.” How do we mortals put God in a box!!? I like the translation of the Hebrew word “Abbah,” as “Daddy.” I envision climbing up into God’s lap, cuddling in, and feeling the warm embrace of His love. Perhaps it is an immature, simplistic vision but it consoles me in times of trouble. I also love Jesus’s answer to the question of the “greatest” commandment: “Love the Lord God with your whole heart, your whole soul, and your whole mind.
    And the second greatest: love your neighbor as yourself.” Is that a commandment of a vengeful God?! Thomas Merton said, “Christianity is precisely a liberation from every rigid legal and religious system….let us declare his power, by living as free men and women who have been called by him out of darkness into his admirable light.” Sometimes when I read or hear some clearly un-Godlike pronouncements from people whom I think should know better, I fall back on my own created vision of my loving God and figure I’ll just do the best I can with the inspiration of the Spirit to help me stumble along.
    God Bless You, Jack. And thank you.

    1. God bless YOU Frank….Indeed we all stumble along animated and encouraged by God’s Spirit which we celebrate in a special way today!

  5. Jack

    It is great to see you address the issue of atonement. The whole idea always reinforced the wrath of God tradition in a problematic way. One of my great moments years ago came from reading FX Durrwell’s book The Resurrection in which he made clear that the crucifixion was not the redemptive event. We have been redeemed by the Resurrection, the love embrace of God that saved humanity from death. That idea totally contradicted everything I had ever been taught, It made we wonder why we continue to use the crucifix everywhere to express Christianity. Durrwell’s book is not well know, unless I am mistaken. I never see references to it, yet it is a classic.

    1. I always appreciate hearing from you Tom. I was thinking about crosses and crucifixes after reading your note. When I was growing up in Michigan I was often in the local Congregational church because it was used for some school activities…..One day I asked the pastor why there were no crucifixes in his church. I told him,in my Catholic parish church we had a big crucifix….Very gently he said “there are various styles in Christian traditions. We have no crucifix because our emphasis is not on the crucified Jesus but the Risen Lord.” 😇

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