12 September 2010

The God we believe in

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time – C – 13 September 2010

Readings: Ex 32:7-11, 13-14; Ps 51:3-4, 12-13, 17, 19; 1 Tim 1:12-17; Lk 15:1-32

More than a week ago, news articles around the world carried a controversial statement from one of the best known scientist in the world. British physicist Stephen Hawking released a snippet from his new book, The Grand Design (for sale just a few weeks before the Pope’s visit to the United Kingdom – and surely there is some grand design in this timing):

"Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going."

Stephen Hawking, presumably after years of scientific inquiry, concluded that there is no need for a Creator of the universe, gravity would have done the job.

In 2006, another noted atheist scientist, Richard Dawkins, released the book The God Delusion. Among other things he ranted: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

He would not be the first to think this way. Around the year 144, Marcion, a disgraced but wealthy bishop founded a movement which stressed that the God of the Old Testament was different from the God of the New Testament. The heresy that taught that the wrathful, vindictive Hebrew God of the Old Testament was a separate being and one lower than the loving, forgiving God of the New Testament came to be known as Marcionism.

To this personalities, I would like to line up the scribes and Pharisees in this Sunday’s Gospel passage from Lk 12, who complained about Jesus welcoming sinners and eating with them.

All of them – the great scientific minds Hawking and Dawkins, the charismatic Marcion, and the authority figures scribes and Pharisees – got it wrong about God. They all tried to put God into their respective boxes. But God, being God, is much, much bigger than their convenient conceptual boxes.

To the scribes and Pharisees – and to us all, including Hawking, Dawkins and adherents of New Atheism – Jesus presents three parables: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son (popularly known as the prodigal son).

Jesus presents His mission to sinners as analogous to a shepherd who leaves 99 sheep to look for one lost, to a woman who lost an insignificant coin but invites her neighbors to a feast to celebrate her finding it, to a father who readily forgives an errant son who brought him shame and wasted half of their family’s assets. There is something difficult to understand here, to say the least. But there is also wisdom to be gained.

To the scribes’ and Pharisees’ strict logic of justice and purity, Jesus responds with the logic of grace and mercy. Justice is a good thing, without it, there is chaos, there is injustice. But mercy and grace go beyond them. The logic of justice, a good universal standard as it is, submits to a higher logic, that of Grace.

Our standards for what is fair and due to each one is dependent upon the amount of information presented to us. We can never know everything and so we legislate reasonable laws and establish norms based on our shared experiences. But how can we contest the logic of the God who knows everything?

The psalmist sings in Ps 139,1-6:
“O LORD, you have probed me, you know me:
you know when I sit and stand; you understand my thoughts from afar.
My travels and my rest you mark; with all my ways you are familiar.
Even before a word is on my tongue, LORD, you know it all.
Behind and before you encircle me and rest your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is beyond me, far too lofty for me to reach.”

Our God is one who intervenes to save the lost, the fallen, the insignificant in the eyes of the wise and mighty. Our God knows the inmost of our being, accepts who we are and guides us to what we can become. This is the God we believe in.

Stephen Hawking
Our God is not how Hawking perceives Him: a posited dictator of the immutable laws of the universe, a theoretical beginning of everything. And even here, he is overstretching his competence, for how can physics explain the philosophical question: “Can something come out of nothing?” Gravity doesn’t quite answer it.

Our God is not how Marcion and Dawkins perceive Him. To their contention, we may even throw in the First Reading from Ex 32 which features God threatening to “blaze up His wrath against the Chosen People to consume them”. Fortunately for them, they have Moses to make a timely intercession.

The God of both Old and New Testaments are one and the same. It is how people understand Him that changes, not God’s nature. From their old barbaric ways, God has shown them first the beauty of order and the benefits of justice, and then mercy and grace. When Jesus came, He revealed the fullness of who God is. Yet, of course, our little minds cannot contain the entirety of the mystery that is God. So even now, Christ’s Spirit continues to lead and guide us into experiencing and learning, individually and communally, how God is present in our lives and in the universe.

How do we gain full access to the reality of God?

1. Faith seeks understanding. Read the Scriptures, the Word of God in the words of humans, inspired by the Holy Spirit. Study the correct interpretation of the texts, as the community of believers understands them. Be guided by the teachings of the Church and the writings of wise and holy men and women.

2. Faith leads to virtuous living. Live the faith. Learn from the saints. Follow the way of the humble and the poor in spirit. Above all: love. For understanding leads the way to virtue, and virtue prepares us to accept Grace in its fullness.

St. Paul in 1 Tim 1,13-14 (the Second Reading) testifies to the power of Grace when our hearts and minds are open: “I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant, but I have been mercifully treated because I acted out of ignorance in my unbelief. Indeed, the grace of our Lord has been abundant, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”


In the 1970s, Juan Arias, a Spanish priest and writer (who would later leave the priesthood) wrote a book translated in English as the The God I don’t believe in, in response to his dialogue with many atheists and agnostics of his time. At the last part, he wrote:

“….I would like to end my book with this article which is my simple and honest profession of faith, imperfect but sincere, for my non-believing friends.” The following is an excerpt [full text here]:

“No, I shall never believe in:

the God who catches man by surprise in a sin of weakness,

the God who condemns material things;

the God who sterilizes man’s reason

the God who blesses the Cains of humanity,

the God who is a magician and sorcerer,

the God who makes himself feared,

the God who does not allow people to talk familiarly to him,

the grandfather-God whom one can twist around one’s little finger,

the lottery-God whom one can find only by chance,

the judge-God who can give a verdict only with a rule book in His hands,

the God incapable of smiling at many of man’s awkward mistakes,

the God who “plays at” condemning,

the God who always demands 100 per cent in examinations,

the God who can be fully explained by a philosophy,

the God incapable of loving what many people despise,

the God incapable of forgiving what many men condemn,

the God incapable of redeeming the wretched,

the God whom only the mature, the wise, or the comfortably situated can understand,

the God incapable of captivating man’s heart,

the God who would not have been born miraculously from the womb of a woman,

the God who would not have given men even His very own mother,

the God in whom I cannot hope against all hope.

Yes, my God is the other God”.

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