This article is taken from a talk given by Fr Gerry O’Hanlon SJ at a seminar jointly presented by The Jesuit Centre for Faith & Justice and The Jesuit Centre of Spirituality in Manresa House, Dublin (June 2006) on the theme: Faith and Justice for the Long Haul.
When the tsunami struck after Christmas in 2004 there was in Ireland and the rest of the Western world an outpouring of articles and comments expressing doubts about the existence of God. I was in India shortly afterwards. There I experienced a spontaneous turning to God for help. A big difference. We live in a secular atmosphere so that, spontaneously, believers doubt. Sometimes this is not helped by our spontaneous image of God as one who demands so much that we are paralyzed by the guilt of our inadequate response. I want briefly to explore the space for God in a secular society, and to sketch the kind of God who liberates for the Long Haul.
The place of religion in public life: a vision that nourishes
“And the Lord answered me ‘Write the vision; make it plain upon the tablets, so he may run who reads it…if it seems slow, wait for it: it will surely come, it will not delay’” (Hab. 2, 2-3).
It seems that we have become very secular: religious practice has declined, the Church has lost credibility, we are more confident because more affluent, and we don’t have the same need of God. You will know many other signs of this, and maybe if we look into our own hearts we will see that we have been affected.
And yet: Sinead asks me at a baptism recently how she can bring up her family to believe, how she can pray. The interest in the Da Vinci Code seems surprising in a supposedly non-religious culture. What is going on?
What seems to be happening is that Modernity (beginning in the 15th century and continuing through the work of Descartes, Kant, Nietzsche, Hobbes, Locke, Voltaire, Newton, Galileo, and Kepler, and with such phenomena as the Industrial Revolution, the French Revolution, the American War of Independence, the rise of capitalism and democracy, and the emergence of a culture of human rights) is coming to an end. The belief in rationality, science, technology, the myth of constant progress has faltered with the 20th century wars, world poverty, and environmental degradation. Post-modernism wants to rehabilitate emotion, the poor, women, the other… – and yet it does so with great skepticism about knowledge and truth (relativism), Grand Narratives (whether scientific or religious), organized religion – breeding ground for the Da Vinci Code, but not for the Vatican! And political philosophers, looking at the prevailing model of liberal democracies in the Western World, with their emphasis on individual freedom (from, and not for) are opening themselves up again to notions like the common good, to civic republicanism, to communitarianism.
In short: there is a space opening up in the public domain once again for religion. Not for a religion that relies solely on revelation and authority, but one that can enter into dialogue, seek to persuade, and, above all, provide a vision. The moral foundation of capitalism and liberalism is weak; the existential loneliness of human beings without God is palpable. This is not a religion that can provide a blueprint for the ordering of politics and society, even with the rich resources of Catholic Social Teaching. Rather the gospel provides inspiration, meaning, a nourishing horizon, a vision (without vision the people die!).
What might the outline of this vision be, one that can inspire us and that we can offer to our fellow citizens? One that can help us too with our fellow Islamic citizens, who reject the secularist exclusion of religion from the public domain and who search for appropriate forms of public religious expression? One that can help us to run – for so often we drag our feet, even stagger a little!
Image of God
“The Lord takes delight in his People” (Ps 149)
Let’s start with something that we all know and that, as Pope Benedict said in Deus Caritas Est, has become banal and trivialized in our culture and language: love. Falling in love, seeing the best in one another, whether young love, the love of parents, friendship….to see with eyes like that: is it foolish, illusory, love is blind, or….? You know when someone loves you like that, believes in you, you can do things that you never thought possible. You can be healed of hurt. You get energy in bursts, and for the long haul. You are grateful, you want to respond. You have gone beyond moralism, super-ego, rule keeping. Well, this is how God sees you, this is the truth, taking everything into account. We already know from the way we love how insecure we are, how we can see that the other is so good, so wonderful and yet cannot see this ourselves…so God is with us: this is the truth, God is in love with us, takes delight, and God is not fooled.
With this you have entered the freedom that the Gospels speak about, what Augustine understood (love and do what you will). Jesus is telling us that God is love: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, a relational God, whose unity can integrate difference, who is to us exactly how he is in himself. It’s like someone you know and love well, their essence. They can fail on occasion (not God) it is true, but almost always and in the end always they are themselves, good through and through, loving. A love which gives (kenosis), so that it suffers, absorbing pain and evil the way a mother protects her children and bears so much for them within. A love which, as the Good Shepherd, the Prodigal Son, The Good Samaritan, the woman who was a sinner, the Magnificat of Mary, all show us have a special place for the poor and those who are treated unjustly. And a love which receives, which is gracious enough to be receptive, which takes delight and pleasure, which suffers. A paschal love, as all love is, characterized by modalities of life, suffering, death and resurrection, which goes to Jerusalem which it must, not before. A love which cannot be measured by the calculus of achievement, of getting and spending, but instead where there is a calculus of nothing at all, ever, being wasted, a calculus of Martin Luther King’s great phrase that “unearned suffering is redemptive”.
This is the God who labours with us out of love, like a good Father or Mother, like a lover, like a friend, consoling, cajoling, calling us to our better selves but never in a moralistic way. This labouring is only rarely by direct intervention (the Incarnation, miracles): more usually it is by and through creation, the ordinary working of the universe, and our free stewardship of it and our responsible interaction with one another.
This is the reason for the Church: to be the sacrament of this love for our world, as Jesus Christ is the sacrament of God. And above all it is the meaning of the Eucharist, the giving and receiving of the Body of Jesus as sign of the reality that we live within the sure victory of this love over all evil, called to live together ultimately with all women and men, so that any restrictions on access to this Banquet are by definition temporary and provisional. And the greatest sacrament of this love is our neighbour (love of God and love of neighbour are one), even our enemy, even the poor.
The Lord takes delight in his people: in you, in those with and for whom you work.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God
With this kind of vision, this kind of God, we are called to our work of faith and justice, at all the appropriate levels – personal, interpersonal, structural, cultural, political, policy making and so on, according to our particular gifts. Just one or two further comments about the workings out of this vision. Our response of justice is within the context of gratuity.
Don’t be misled by this talk of love. We are faced in our own lives, not to mention in our bigger world, with terrible suffering and injustice, and no soft talk of love will get around this. We need to protest like Job, be angry and yet cunning like the Canaanite woman (take scraps), be stout-hearted like Mary in the Magnificat. Think of the intensity, the intelligence, the burning passion, the focus of a Paul O’Connell. Love, but grown up.
But think too of the mystery of it all: the wonderful presence of the “Holy Ghost over the bent World broods with warm breast and with ah! Bright wings” so that if life sometimes seems a prova di resistenza (an endurance test), how nobly and – it seems almost blasphemous to say it – so happily do many poor people in Africa, India, South America live their truth. Hope can go with failure: the panic attack of Jesus in the sweating blood and tears in the Garden, the “we had hoped” of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, the writing of God on crooked lines, the realization that this is mainly God’s work, God’s dream and that its successful outcome is assured. We sow seeds, others reap: it is wonderful sometimes to succeed, legitimate and right to hope for progress, but it is alright to fail too, to acknowledge that project x has not worked out, for now at least, and to go on hoping because we have been told that “all will be well, all manner of things…”, the terrible and beautiful truth of the smiling Jesus on the cross.
And do try to be open to difference and otherness. It has been a temptation of those of us stirred by injustice to accuse others of ideology, to create worlds of black and white, goodies and baddies, to be impatient of opposing views even when articulated by allies! We need – and faith, and prayer can be a great help here – to deal creatively with ideology, our own and others, and not get trapped in ideological battles. This means welcoming difference head-on, trying with the eyes and mind of God to appreciate the good points of what others are saying, creating safe spaces where this can happen (communities of solidarity which respect difference). Of course this is not easy and to get on with life we have to oppose, to agree to disagree, and on so on: but we gain wisdom by not writing people off, but by taking on board what values they are trying to preserve.
Truly, with a vision like this, a God like this, we are blessed, unworthy though we are, and we have something to keep us going and to share with others. Go for it!