The Central Question for Theology

What is the foundational theological question? Some would say the question is “Who is God?” Others, “Who am I?” (Or, one could split the difference and say, “Who am I in relation to God?”

In Face of Mystery: Constructive Theology, Gordon D. Kaufman gives his view, writing:

The central question for theology is not merely, or even preeminently, who or what God is, or how God is to be distinguished from the idols; nor is it what humanity is, and what the central problems of human existence are. It is not primarily a speculative question, a problem of knowledge at all. Most fundamentally it is a practical question: How are we to live? To what should we devote ourselves? To what cause give ourselves? Put in religious terms: How can we truly serve God? What is proper worship?

I was reminded when I read this of some lines of Pedro Arrupe that I am fond of giving people to reflect on:

Nothing is more practical than finding God,
That is, than falling in a love in a quite absolute, final way.
What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination will affect everything.
It will decide what will get you out of bed in the mornings,
What you will do with your evenings,
How you spend your weekends,
What you read,
Who you know,
What breaks your heart,
And what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.

How are we to live? Don’t spend your time thinking about God or studying about God or talking about God. Instead, fall in love with God. Fall in love with God and the question of how we are to live will answer itself.


Motive Matters

In today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus warns his disciples against hypocrisy:

Give alms quietly, “do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others.”

Pray in an inner room in secret, not “like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them.”

Fast in a manner that no one will know you are fasting, rather than looking “gloomy like the hypocrites” who “neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting.”

Motive matters, not just acts. Are we doing things for God’s glory or our own? Are we giving out of love and compassion, or to get a pat on the back? Are we praying or fasting out of a desire to deepen our relationship with God or so others will be impressed with us?

I suspect that most of us act with mixed motives most of the time. Our purer motives are often tinged with more base ones.

Maybe most of the time the best we can do is hope that our primary motivation is God’s glory not our own. But I also think that greater self-reflection and awareness can help in purifying our motive.

A God of Allowing

One of the books I’m currently reading is Richard Rohr’s Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self (although, given various distractions, he’ll have his next book out before I’m finished reading this one).

In his book, Rohr calls God “the Great Allower.” God allows us to make mistakes and God allows acts of great evil to take place. And this is not something anyone likes. Rohr writes

God’s total allowing of everything has in fact become humanity’s major complaint. Conservatives so want God to smite sinners that they find every natural disaster to be a proof of just that, and then they invent some of their own smiting besides. Liberals reject God because God allows holocausts and tortures and does not fit inside their seeming logic.

Rohr goes on to suggests that if we were being honest, we would admit that “God is both a scandal and a supreme disappointment to most of us.” Despite our professed love and desire for autonomy, “we would prefer a God of domination and control to a God of allowing.”

This was something I struggled with in the first weeks of my prayer when I did the Spiritual Exercises of St. ignatius. I couldn’t see why God couldn’t just “force” me into doing the right thing, rather than risking that I would blow it. It took me quite some time to accept that allowing us our freedom was a great gift.

Rohr speaks of “allowing the Great Allower to allow us, even at our worst.” If we do, he suggests, we learn, as I did during the Exericises, “to share in the divine freedom” and to “forgive God for being too generous.”

Would We Treat Them Differently?

I saw on Facebook yesterday a video produced by Cleveland Clinic. Although its direct focus is the medical setting, the question it asks it one that goes far beyond that setting: If you could stand in someone else’s shoes – hear what they hear, see what they see, feel that they feel – would you treat them differently?

We often react to each other with no idea what the other is experiencing, what might be prompting their words, facial expressions, their actions. The film is an invitation to treat each other with more grace, more generosity, more compassion.

Like Simon or the Sinful Woman?

In today’s Gospel from St. Luke, Jesus is dining at the home of Simon, a Pharisee, when a “sinful woman, ” who has learned of Jesus’ presence there, “stood behind him at his feet weeping and began to bathe his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the ointment.”

Simon is aghast that Jesus is allowing this, assuming Jesus does not recognize the “sort of woman…who is touching him.” Jesus, of course, knows exactly who the woman is and what she has done, and he chides Simon, saying:

Do you see this woman?
When I entered your house, you did not give me water for my feet,
but she has bathed them with her tears
and wiped them with her hair.
You did not give me a kiss,
but she has not ceased kissing my feet since the time I entered.
You did not anoint my head with oil,
but she anointed my feet with ointment.
So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven
because she has shown great love.
But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.

The Simon’s of this world think they have it all. They live lives that (in their eyes) are blameless; they don’t feel they owe anyone anything and they do not believe they need anything (certainly not forgiveness, since, after all, they live such blameless lives).

The woman know her failings, her weaknesses. And she knows she is in need for forgiveness. She comes in her weakness and offers what she has in humility.

For us the question for reflection is, are there times when we behave like Simon? How do we approach Jesus?

In Every Breath

I’m enjoying a few days in New York, where I came to attend the opening of my cousin Joe’s sculpture show. It is always good to be with family and friends and it is always a special pleasure to be at Joe’s openings.

For a Saturday morning reflection, I thought I’d share a poem by Rumi that a friend sent me yesterday in response to an exchange we had about our shared lack of patience in certain situations.

Rumi writes:

in every breath
if you’re the center
of your own desires
you’ll lose the grace
of your beloved

but if in every breath
you blow away
your self claim
the ecstasy of love
will soon arrive

in every breath
if you’re the center
of your own thoughts
the sadness of autumn
will fall on you

but if in every breath
you strip naked
just like a winter
the joy of spring
will grow from within

all your impatience
comes from the push
for gain of patience
let go of the effort
and peace will arrive

all your unfulfilled desires
are from your greed
for gain of fulfillments
let go of them all
and they will be sent as gifts

fall in love with
the agony of love
not the ecstasy
then the beloved
will fall in love with you.

Wishing everyone a blessed weekend.

Law and Spirit

There has been a lot of press over the last several days over some comments Pope Francis made last week when he met with the presiding board of CLAR (the Latin American and Caribbean Confederation of Religious Men and Women). For “lefties” the good news was something like, “Pope Francis said it doesn’t matter what the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) says.” For “righties” the bad news was something like, “Pope Francis said it doesn’t matter what the CDF says.” As with most headlines, neither side really got it.

Both sides miss that what Pope Francis really was trying to convey was something about the tension between law and the spirit, a persistent tension. If our only concern is the letter of the law, we end up with a stultifying system in which there is no growth and change. On the other hand, if we jettison law and purport to be blown only by (our perception of) the Spirit, we lack any mooring.

Contrary to the claims of some that the Pope’s remarks undermined the teaching authority of his office, tt seems clear to me that Pope Francis was not at all suggesting the CDF was irrelevant, that its views didn’t matter. Rather, he urged groups like the CLAR to do what they were called to do in their prayerful judgment, recognizing that they could be in error. “Perhaps even a letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine (of the Faith) will arrive for you, telling you that you said such or such thing … But do not worry. Explain whatever you have to explain, but move forward … Open the doors, do something there where life calls for it. I would rather have a Church that makes mistakes for doing something than one that gets sick for being closed up.”

I think all would do well to stop trying to capture this Pope with short headlines that are incapable to capturing any nuance at all. There is a creative tension in his words that require more than a knee-jerk effort to label.

Whoever is Angry with his Brother

All Christians are familiar with the “Great Commandment,” Jesus’ command that “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind…Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” Today’s Gospel from St. Matthew is one that addresses quite directly and forcefully the relationship between loving God and loving one another.

Jesus refers to the commandment of the “ancestors” that “You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment,” and then tells his disciples that following the old command is not good enough:

But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother
will be liable to judgment,
and whoever says to his brother,
Raqa, will be answerable to the Sanhedrin,
and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.
Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar,
and there recall that your brother
has anything against you,
leave your gift there at the altar,
go first and be reconciled with your brother,
and then come and offer your gift.

Jesus is quite clear: our relationship with God cannot be separated from our relationship with one another. Put simply, if we are on bad terms with each other, we can not approach God with an open and loving heart. There is an act of fraud in offering gifts to God with hearts full of anger for another.

We don’t have the ability to stop anger from arising, any more than we can top ourselves from experiencing any other feeling or emotion. But it is our choice what to do with that anger when it arises. It is our choice to keep that anger alive in our heart or to let it go. But if we do hang onto it, it affects not only our relationship with each other, but our relationship with God.

Note: Chapter 15 of my Growing in Love and Wisdom: Buddhist Sources for Christian Meditation offers some meditative practices to help in overcoming anger and developing patience.

I Shall Not Want

Almost spontaneously, I always end my morning prayer breathing the line, “The Lord is my shephard, I shall not want.” I sat for a while with it this morning, more conscious than I usually am of the fact that the line expresses the same sentiment that ends St. Ignatius’ Suscipe, which is also part of my daily prayer, and which ends with our affirming to God that “your love and grace is enough for me.”

Very simple line, yet a realization that makes all the difference in the world. With the Lord as my shepherd, with God’s love and grace, I already have everything I need.

Obviously that is not a statement about our material situation; it says nothing about how much money we have, what our skills are, or anything else about what we have. It doesn’t say we won’t face hardship. But it reminds us that all of those things are secondary. That they are part of how we live out our physical existence, but do not address our central being.

I have God’s love and grace and guidance. And I can relax into that reality. The reality that I shall not want…I do not want..I never will want for anything that I really need. Because I already have it all.

Of course, we don’t always (or even usually) live out of that reality. We think we really “need” so many things. And that perceived need – whether it be for some outside approval, some honor, some material item, or something else – makes us anxious, unhappy (and sometimes pretty unpleasant to be around).

Our priority needs to be coming to a deeper apprehension of the truth of that simple line: The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

How To Talk To God

This morning’s Daily Meditation from Silent began with Jesus speaking, “You don’t have to be clever to please Me. Just speak to Me as you would to anyone who cares for you.” Jesus went on in the selection to invite us to share our fears, our failures, our joys, our temptations, our pride, our needs – in short whatever is on our mind.

I was reminded when I read it of a Mary Oliver poem I love, titled Praying:

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

It really is pretty simple, despite all our efforts to complicate it. Say what is on our hearts, and then give God a chance to respond.