I just finished reading Reza Aslan’s book God: A Human History, which chronicles the attempt by humans throughout history to understand God. In the book, Aslan suggests that the humans have an innate predisposition anthropomorphize God, to view God as “a divine version of ourselves.”
He also suggests that religious belief itself is an “elemental part of the human experience.” He writes
We are Homo religiosus, not in our desire for creeds or institutions, nor in our commitments to specific gods and theologies, but in our existential striving toward transcendence: toward that which lies beyond the manifest world.
That is a statement that intuitively seems right to me, that we have a natural impulse toward the divine, a sense that there is something more than the physical world I see around me. (I suspect there is also truth to the fact that we tend to create God in our own image, much as we profess our creation in God’s image.)
Where humans depart, of course, is in how they understand the “what lies beyond.” Aslan, who himself embraces a pantheism that views God and the universe as one and the same, traces the history of human belief about God (or gods) from prehistory through the rise of Islam. (I found particularly interesting the challenge to the development of monotheism, as well as the idea that the development of Islam breathed new support for Jewish monotheism.)
Despite its subtitle, the book is far from a complete history, and many will find it controversial. (That is nothing new for Aslan.) Be that as it may, I learned much in reading this book, and would love to find an opportunity to discuss it in a group that included Jews and Muslims as well as Christians.
Today is the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, and so the first Mass reading for today is one of the two accounts of that conversion contained in Acts.
Saul is a pretty bad guy. Forget the “pretty” – a really bad guy. He is not harmlessly misguided, not just a slacker with no appetite for serious prayer or deepening his life with God, not just a bumbler who doesn’t have a clear sense of the road forward.
Saul is a murderous persecutor of Christians. By his own account, he “persecuted this Way to death, binding both men and women and delivering them to prison.”
If you were looking over a list of possible disciples to proclaim the Gospel, you might easily pass over Saul’s name. But not God. Not only does God not discard Saul, but he has great plans for him.
And when Saul encounters Jesus on the road to Damascus, he is irrevocably changed. Jesus appears to him, speaks to him, invites him and he becomes a different man. And when he meets Ananias, Ananias tells him, “The God of our ancestors designated you to know his will, to see the Righteous One, and to hear the sound of his voice; for you will be his witness before all to what you have seen and heard.”
If even someone as seemingly beyond redemption as Saul, can be turned from darkness toward the light, how can we doubt the healing power of Jesus? There are some people who have a tendency to think, “It’s too late for me” or “After what I’ve done, God can’t possibly have any use for me.” The story of the conversion of St. Paul is a vivid demonstration of the fallacy of such thoughts. It is never too late for anyone.
Conversion is always possible – for everyone.
Saturday I attended the St. Catherine University winter retreat day for students and alumni of the school’s Masters in Theology program (for which I do some adjunct teaching). The keynote was delivered by Edward Hahnenberg, a professor at John Carroll University, who spoke on the subject Ministry with a Mission: The Work and Witness of Lay Ministers Today.
Early in his talk, Hahnenberg quoted language from the 2005 USCCB document Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord: “The same God who called Prisca and Aquila to work with Paul in the first century calls thousands of men and women to minister in our Church in the twenty-first century.” Indeed, the title of the 2005 document itself is a reference to Prisca and Aquila, who are referred to by Paul as his co-workers.
The names Prisca and Aquila are familiar to many, but their story is less familiar.
Like Paul, Prisca and Aquila were leatherworkers. The couple, followers of Jesus before they met Paul, left Rome after the Roman emperor Claudius issued an edict expelling all Jews from that city. They moved to Corinth shortly before Paul arrived there. A deep and lasting friendship developed between the two of them and Paul and they began to work with him. At some point, they moved to Ephesus with Paul. When Paul left that city, he left Prisca and Aquila in charge of the church of Ephesus. In the mid-50s, the couple returned to Rome, where Paul greeted them as his “co-workers.”
Hahnenberg made the point that many have an image of Paul as a solitary missionary. The reality is that he survived because of the hospitality of many fellow Christians who traveled and ministered with him. People like Prisca and Aquila – who Paul referred to as “co-workers” and “collaborators” – were instrumental to the success of his ministry, and it is good to remember that.
Today was the first of a three-class series on the Creed I am teaching for the Our Lady of Lourdes parish RCIA candidates. I began by talking about what we mean by a creed and why having one matters. I then spent most of time dealing with the first part of the creed – where we affirm believe in “God, the father, Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” There is a lot packed in that first line – starting with the first four words.
I believe in God. The first part of this first segment of the Creed does nothing to distinguish Christians from non-Christians. That is, all religious people who follow a theistic faith – whatever their particular religious beliefs – share the conviction that “God” exists – that God is something real that truly exists whatever their understanding or concept of God, and whether or not they use the term “God” or “Allah” or “Jehovah” or something else. (Even some people who are nontheistic, have a sense of something transcendent.) Having said that, the line matters tremendously.
Luke Timothy Johnson says that to declare that God exists “suggests that the world we see and touch points to a power or powers beyond our own and outside our control, beyond our sight and touch, which must be taken into account even if we are to give an adequate account of the world that we can touch and see. To affirm the existence of God, then, means to affirm that the physical world, which can be measured and calculated, is not all that is.”
That, he claims is a critical theological concept. Because we are not here affirming one belief among many, that is not a belief of limited consequences. Rather it is statement of belief that commits us to a fundamental posture toward everything else that exists. Everything else depends on the truth of this statement, a statement that we can’t prove in the way we can prove geometric theorems.
And so, by affirming God’s existence, I affirm (in the word of Joan Chittister) that “I am steering by a star I cannot see but which I am convinced is there.” And that affects everything about who I am in the world.
Many of us with an Ignatian Spirituality do a daily Examen, a prayerful process of looking back over our day with God, recogizing God’s movement in the events of our day.
As we begin a new year, we might take some time to look back over the past year.Xavier University’s Jesuitsource.org has posted a worthwhile examen for that purpose. You might take some time with it over the next couple of days.
As I review the past 12 months, from a year ago through to the present moment:
What am I especially grateful for this year?
An event that took place?
Courage that I mustered?
Love and support I received?
I ask for the light to know God and to know myself as God sees me.
Where have I felt true joy this year?
What troubled me this year?
What has challenged me?
Where and when did I find an opportunity for renewal and pause?
Have I noticed God’s presence in any of this?
In light of my review, what is my response to the God of my life?
As I look ahead, to the coming months what comes to mind?
With what spirit do I want to enter the next few months? The next year?
I ask for God’s presence and grace, for this spirit, as I enter the next year.
My friend Sarah Farnes, Program Manager for the Office for Spirituality at the University of St. Thomas, wrote a lovely reflection during Advent. Her message, I think, is even more important as we wind up our Christmas Day festivities. She write
Christmas is a point of departure. We must understand that Christmas does not come, Christmas starts.
For too many of us, we busy ourselves with preparations for Christmas celebrations. We worry about decorating the house just right, updating the dinner menu, and buying the last of the needed gifts. We are filled with holiday cheer and generosity. Then, Christmas Day arrives and before we know it, the day and festivities are gone.
But in reality, everything should start from Christmas. Jesus did not come so everything would remain as it was before His advent. He came into our midst to change everything; and specially to change our lives. By Christmas we are born again, the world is renewed, and just as the priest says during the Holy Mass, it is, “through Him, in Him and within Him…” My friends, Christmas is a time that should awaken us; our life, our heart. It is our heart that grows, and heals, and makes us true Christmas lights where we can love, just as He loves.
There is much wisdom in Sarah’s words. Jesus came to change everything. So let us view Christmas as our departure point, not just a day that came and went.
Christmas is just about here! Are we ready?
One of the songs that always comes to my mind at this juncture is In the Bleak Midwinter, the lyrics to which are taken from a poem by the 19th Century English poet, Christina Rosetti.
The last verse of that song asks a question that I would ask you to reflect on today. It is a question we all need to ask ourselves as we approach Chistmas: What can I give Him? What gift can I lay before the creche on Christmas morning?
The song not only asks the question, but provides perhaps the best answer one can provide to the question:
What can I give him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man
I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him — Give my heart.
What will you give as a gift to the Christ child?
What would it mean to you to give your heart?