A number of years ago, I went to a lecture in our parish basement by a Jesuit priest, a Father Paul Coutinho.
His book title asked the question:
How Big is Your God?
It is an interesting question that hits on the subjectivity of our concept of the Divine Being, who according to Christian tradition, watches over and helps the vast universe.
In the course of human history the vast majority of people, numbering in the billions, have believed in some kind of super-powerful Being.
The beliefs of primitive societies focused primarily on the power and might of nature.
These people knew that something was out there that dwarfed them in terms of force and dominance.
To alleviate or placate this power they developed rituals and sacrificial offerings–sometimes of human beings–that would appease these powers and protect them from all kinds of natural and even supernatural phenomenon.
The Greeks and Romans elevated these early religious practices to an intellectual level that established a more personal mythology that gave offers to their many gods.
They personified such divine attributes as love, beauty, war, love, and so on.
It was the Jews, who gave us a picture of a monolithic Being.
And it was his children of Israel, whom he had chosen to spread the word of his power and might.
The Christians chimed in with a Triune God with three different personalities and attributes–sort a Divine division of labor.
Since the 7th century with the Muslims and later in 15th-16th centuries with hundreds of other variations of Christian sects, the idea of God took on more extensive variations.
The Jews stress their ethnicity and fight a singular battle to preserve their race in a modern land of milk and honey.
The varieties of religious belief have become even more divided.
Christians and Catholics today have become more pacific, stressing God’s absolute forgiveness and charity toward all his creatures.
Millions of Muslims still favor their religion’s militancy, leaning on the axiom of convert or die.
Countless other Muslims seem more inclined toward a peaceful jihad of self-conquering and discipline.
Father Coutinho’s own concept of God, despite his Jesuit collar, seemed to owe more to his native Hindu culture than it does Christianity.
His question compelled me, not to change my belief in God but reassess my image of him so as to understand our relationship better.
I think that is something we all should do.
In some ways I don’t think man’s polytheism has totally left the planet.
I don’t mean that people believe in many gods, like the Greeks or the Romans.
Our impressions of the Eternal Being have taken on so many different forms and characteristics that Father Coutinho’s idea may not be that far off the page.
This thought conjures up the philosophy of 19th century philosopher, Ludwig Feuerbach, who established what he called the true or anthropological essence of religion.
Feuerbach believed that in every aspect God corresponds to some feature or need of human nature.
If man is to find contentment in God, he claims, he must find himself in God.
According to Feuerbach God is little more than the outward projection of a human’s inward nature.
This is reflective of the idea of Voltaire, who was not an atheist like Feuerbach, or Freud but believed If God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him.
Atheism has become very popular today among angry white men.
They used to say that there were no atheists in a foxhole.
I would amend that to say that there are no atheists alive today.
Oh there are many who do not or will not believe in the God I write about but like the Greeks, the Romans and the primitive tribes before them, they all believe in something.
Belief is the only thing that gives meaning to our lives on earth.
God is the eternal good.
Many, especially the intellectual elite and college professors have found the good in their own intelligence, science, saving the world or even just a good book.
Others, who deal on a lower level, have deified sex, a pharmaceutical high or just being alive as their earthly good.
Those who despair of life having any meaning, simply kill themselves.
Because of the vastness of God, and the fact that he appeals to man in so many different ways, I think it is not wrong to believe that different people see him in a variety of ways that appeal to their own needs.
This is an example, not of God’s limitation, but of the limitations of human beings to understand this most important mystery of our universe.
Of course in all honesty while this may explain the diversity of beliefs in a God, I think some beliefs are much better and more reflective of the God of Church and Scripture than others.
People should not forget that religion is to honor God and not themselves.
Recently I was prompted to think of my freshman year at Holy Cross…the good old days when the practice of religion was more under the sway and impetus of pre-Vatican II.
By that I mean Orthodoxy ruled.
My freshman class was the last one at the Cross that had obligatory daily Mass (except for Saturdays) in the Chapel at 7AM sharp.
We were allowed three Mass cuts a semester and then we had to undergo some rather draconian punishments–students had to check in at the general service area every 15 minutes from midnight until dawn.
That was one college experience I never had.
The clerical gatekeeper was Father Abbott–a very fitting name I have always thought for a priest.
I still have this vivid memory of his closing the doors to our St. Joseph’s Chapel… exactly as the bells chimed seven.
Above the faint echoes of the chimes, I can still hear some of those arriving 30 seconds later…banging on the door, beseeching him to have mercy on them and let them in.
He would just turn without emotion and go toward the front of the chapel, while monitors quickly took the role.
I think Father Abbott serves as a good example of how I viewed Our Father in Heaven–an eternal gatekeeper who shows no mercy once the clock has struck seven on our lives.
I don’t like that strict image of God and I don’t want to believe in that kind of god any more.
I have to think this image was nothing better than a reflection, not on Him but the tenor of my times and my Catholic upbringing at that point in my own personal history.
I think it is false image–an idol that can instill in believers a legalistic map for salvation that may work for some but will cheat many out of the true joys of living the faith.
It is this image of God that I have feared for most of my life…and is perhaps partly responsible for my high anxiety post of a couple of weeks ago.
I cannot explain just how much anguish that image has caused me over the years.
I think that false image underscores what can be wrong with religious belief…or at least my religious belief.
It is one of the aspects of the church I grew up in–the pre-Vatican II era, which stressed rules, without the love and forgiveness that seems to permeate Vatican II Church.
Salvation seemed to reside in following the rules to the letter of the law.
It almost implied that one could micro-manage his or her own salvation as long as one followed the rules.
That was something I think I subconsciously adapted to get me inside Father Abbott’s chapel before the clock struck seven.
Unfortunately in this image, trust and forgiveness, two virtues that have trouble finding a place on my resume, are usually relegated to the back of the spiritual bus.
God’s Justice rules while his compassion and forgiveness was for Protestants.
As a clarification I need to say, there is much of the new, kinder, more gentle and forgiving Post-Vatican II church that I do not like as well.
In modernizing the Catholic Church, or opening of the windows, they have lost some of the Catholic soul and become too much like secular society.
Just look at what has happened to the nuns and their convents.
The rules and commandments were like the dreaded dates on a history test.
They gave order and rationality to the facts of life.
Without them, there was nothing but moral chaos and uncertainty.
I also miss the sisters of old.
Sure some were too strict and sometimes harsh, maybe even a little neurotic but they did give me an additional structure for faith and belief in the right kind of God, even though their concept might have emphasized the rules too much.
Without that structure I do not think I could transcend the legalisms of my past understanding.
I truly believe that they had the care of our immortal souls as their main concern and that was always first with them.
Can the same be said today?
I think too many in the church today believe in a collective salvation that starts here on earth.
They think the road to salvation comes from social justice, which I believe is more Karl that Jesus.
Everything seems centered on the Christian community and little is done to form strict and right consciences.
But without a church, religion is nothing more than good feelings.
And feelings are ephemeral.
They change with the temperature and have little or no substance.
And that brings me to the question of being a man with religious faith.
But that is a question for PART II