Moving towards an adult Faith

Joseph Mattam S.J.


Christianity has appropriated the mentality, language and ways of thinking of the pre-Christian and of the early centuries of Christianity. The Hebrew Bible and its mentality certainly influenced Jesus’ own way of speaking. People have evolved culturally, socially and linguistically but our religious language and mentality have remained the same as if no change is required in that area. We need a radical re-thinking in many areas in order to speak a more honest language suited to the people of the present day.  Our language about God and about God’s doings needs urgent attention, etc. In this short paper I want to comment on our way of speaking about God and God’s action in the world. This is an area that the Church authorities and theologians seem reluctant to broach, for fear that what was held as truth for so many centuries may be found to be not all that true. This shakes up one’s security and hence the fear to touch on this theme.

1. Our language about God and about God’s doings.

The authors of the Hebrew Bible believed that nothing happens apart from God’s plan, knowledge, decision and permission. God makes the sun to rise, the rains to come down, God takes the land of other peoples and gives it to the Jews. They seem to take everything written in the Bible as literally true as records of what really happened in time and space.  Even people’s hardening of their hearts is attributed to God (Is 6.9-10, Rom 11.7-8, 9.18). The fact is that the Hebrew authors used various stories to keep the people faithful to the covenant, and to convince them that they were different from the rest of humanity and that they had to behave differently. This purpose of the authors was often not remembered. Hence the many stories of God punishing, rewarding, etc. were taken as literally true, as what really happened.  God is supposed to have killed many first-born innocent children of Egypt, despoiled many nations of their life and property for the sake of the Jews, God’s chosen race. The Hebrew authors interpreted natural or humanly caused events as God’s action.

This way of looking at the writings of the Bible is also in the New Testament, especially Paul takes so much of the OT as literally true and bases his theology on that reading of the OT, for example, his views on the position of women in the Church (1 Cor 11.7b-8, 1Tim 2.13-14, etc.) are based on a literal reading of chapter two of Genesis. The Church Fathers and theologians also took all these as literally true, not only in the early centuries of Christianity, but right up to the last century.
We have to keep this background in mind to understand many sayings of Jesus, as they need to be interpreted, and also to speak a more credible language.

Jesus’ words about prayer, God’s providence, etc., for example, need to be understood on this background. “Not a hair of your head will fall without the knowledge of your father in heaven”. Jesus seems to understand God as living in a place they called heaven; the truth that we have become aware of, thanks to Paul and John, that God dwells in us does not seem to have been in the mind of Jesus when he spoke these words[1].

When people see unpleasant things happening they ask in despair: “Is God allowing, causing such disasters, is God not able to prevent such, is God indifferent to what happens on earth, does God solve our problems?”  To answer these questions we must keep in mind some of the shocking facts of history.  Down the centuries people have observed that God does not intervene in mighty human events that happen all around us. We may mention just a few, out of the many, of such important events that have happened and are happening in history: millions of Africans were uprooted from their own country and made slaves and were treated in the most inhuman ways; the genocide of millions in America and Australia; colonialism by which most of the Asian and African nations lost their sovereignty and were impoverished, becoming mere source of enrichment for the colonizing Christian nations. The Black Death of the 15th century which nearly decimated the population of Europe, major events like the horrors of the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the Bhopal tragedy, killings in Rwanda, World wars and smaller wars where millions have been killed, casteism and the discrimination and ill treatment of dalits in India; and in the Church the treatment of women and laity, and their inferior position, in spite of the claims that we are all God’s own children. The killings in Palestine, Lebanon, Somalia, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Iran, Uganda, Bosnia and Kosovo; in Iraq so far more than 650000 people have been killed in and after the recent war the Americans imposed on them. We may add also the co-existence for centuries of enormous luxury on the one hand and abject misery for the millions on the other hand. Even today in spite of all developments, hundreds of people die of hunger in Africa, Asia. Everyday newspapers bring us stories of a minimum of a thousand persons who die of unnatural causes every day – by accidents, murders, etc. So many unwelcome, unexpected, and unexplainable things happen. The cyclones in Orissa, Andhra, the earthquakes in Gujarat, the recent tsunami, tornados, etc. and many other such “catastrophes” happen and God does not seem to be involved in these and similar events in any direct way.

One often hears of “unmerited” suffering, implying that there are some “merited” sufferings, considered as a punishment from God. When earthquakes happened in Gujarat some people interpreted that as God’s punishment, forgetting that the people who perished in the earthquake had nothing to do in whatever may have taken place in Gujarat. The OT does talk of God punishing and rewarding; but, as I have mentioned earlier, the authors interpreted natural and human-caused events as punishments or rewards by God to keep people faithful to the covenant. Otherwise, we would have to believe that there is a different God in the NT.

If we hold that God intervenes to punish, as he is supposed to have done in Sodom and Gomorrah, God would have punished the world a hundred times over, seeing the sexual perversity and promiscuity, cruelty and inhumanness that rule the world since many centuries, and especially these days. If God is supposed to intervene and rectify things, in no way can we understand all the happenings in history, especially events like the Holocaust, and the present world with such immense problems. Besides the problems mentioned earlier, floods and draughts, the ecological disasters like global warming, the abuse of women and children, the corporal punishment of children, women, slaves and workers, the church’s changing stand on various issues like religious freedom, ecumenism, relation to other religions, the question of salvation, etc. One would rightly say that all these are human made problems. As we see from history all humanly caused or other disasters have to be solved by humans alone, be they slavery, colonialism, casteism, poverty, or any other.

A theistic concept of God sees God as up in the heavens, who every now and then in answer to our prayers comes down to solve our problems, helps us, heals us, prevents accidents, stops wars, etc. In the past, the opposing armies have composed prayers and their chaplains solemnly said those prayers before their armies went forward to kill their brothers; God is supposed to have helped them crush their enemies, be they Christians or others.  Often people have the concept of a paternalistic God who is supposed to be doing things for us, keeping us as infants all the time. Though one does not like to be treated like an infant, yet in relation to what happens in the world often we function like infants, expecting God to solve our problems.  Some people think of God as doing part of the job for us, especially the difficult part - all that is needed, is that we inform God of the situation.  But the truth is that God does not seem to intervene to solve such huge problems created by humans or through natural causes. For centuries people have managed to overlook such events and keep up a paternalistic concept of God.  The naïve and puerile belief in God’s providence encouraged by the official Churches and our Shrines, prevented people from questioning these beliefs in the face of such shocking events where God does not seem to intervene. A make-belief system has been kept up.
          Here we have to keep two things in mind. First, the most important and precious things in life are all freely given without our asking: our very life, our parents, our sisters/brothers and other relatives, nature with all its riches, the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat; culture, religion, Jesus, the Spirit, the Church, the Sacraments, etc. These are not given in answer to our prayers. Second, we must keep in mind what we saw above that God does not seem to intervene in our history to solve our problems. It is in this context that we look at prayer as not a means to get things from God. Besides, if we insist that God wants us to be praying to him for what we need, think of someone who comes to you only for “getting something” every time s/he comes to you. You will not be very eager to have that person visit you. It is naïve to presume that a God who is considered almighty, who does not involve himself in such mighty, massively important events, where millions and millions of his children are involved, would step in to solve a small problem.

I am fully aware that many holy persons are declared blessed or saint on the basis of the miracles seen as the otherwise unexplainable interventions of God in history.  But this fact of God’s non-intervention in weighty human events cannot be overlooked, as if such things have never happened; we cannot go on with the idea that only what the Catholic Church says about God is the truth. The ostrich like mentality or the frog-in-the-well mentality will not help prevent the present and future generations of people from leaving the Church in big numbers. The church authorities are closing their eyes and ears to the number of people declaring themselves as non-believers, or as “not-Christian” in the once Christian Europe and America. I am not suggesting that the people leave the Church only for this reason, but this is also one of the reasons.

History cannot be ignored, though we have the habit of often doing just that. We cannot continue ignoring history; we have to take it seriously and ask honest questions about our God language. What is obvious cannot just be swept under the carpet. The obvious fact is that in enormously important and weighty matters affecting millions and millions of God’s children, God has not intervened to rectify, remedy, improve or solve any of these and similar humanly important problems and happenings.

It is high time that we use a language that makes sense to today’s educated, questioning and searching people, emphasizing our full responsibility, in total dependence on God, the loving source, the fountain within us that keeps flowing life into us, but without forcing, interfering with our freedom, creativity, etc. This is what we find realised in Jesus: in total dependence on God whom he called his Abba, he was fully responsible for what he had to do, and he thanked the Father for what he (Jesus) did; and he told his disciples to be responsible through the examples he gave (the birds and lilies who are very hard working – Matt 6.25f), and by telling them, “you give them something to eat” (Mk 6.37), instead of asking them to pray to the Father, as one would have expected him to do, as he himself had told them that the Father gives whatever they ask for (e.g. Lk 11.1-13).

  We have to recognise that God has left the world completely to us to look after, to care for, to nurture, to improve, or whatever we want to do with it, as Gen 1.28f tells us. Hence rightly does the Bible say that after God put Adam in charge of creation “God rested” (Gen 2.2), though this also is not literally true, these words seem to direct us towards a solution in our God language. God, however, is not like a retired engineer who after constructing a building goes away for good.  God is right within us, empowering, enabling us to be our own creators. God is not certainly absent from the world as God dwells in each one of us as the source of our life, creativity, freedom and love-ability, enabling each one to reach out in every human situation, human-made or natural, lovingly and creatively to improve the situation. In fact, as history of centuries testifies, humans have done precisely that.  Humans have been progressively responding to challenging and difficult human situations creatively and lovingly and hence we have freedom movements, scientific and other progress; we have people like Gandhiji, Mother Teresa, John XXIII, Nelson Mandela and many others who have affected human history. We can rightly see these people as prophets who speak in God’s name. 

 God is within us cannot force God’s children whom God has created in God’s image and likeness as sharers of God’s freedom, creativity and love-ability.  Hence God does not interfere with the created freedom, but lets God’s children manage their freedom and their world. That is why the Bible calls God a compassionate one, a “suffering-with-us” God. God is strictly speaking “not allowing” anything that happens – everything happens according to its natural laws of cause and effect.  If God has created creators after God-self, it is but natural that they be fully responsible for what happens on earth. In fact humans create most of the problems and God cannot be expected to solve them.  Human error and negligence cause accidents.  Children are born handicapped due to what happens to and in the mother when the child is in her womb. Human greed, cruelty and injustice cause wars; humans pollute the air, water and the earth.  God has no say in these matters, as they follow their own laws.  If, for example, people dump dirt into the rivers, the polluted waters cause sickness, etc; if a consecrated virgin is raped on a day when she can conceive, she will become a mother, and God does not prevent that from happening; if parents carry the viruses of AIDS or any other contagious disease, they will transmit them to their children. We remember too that God did not intervene when God’s innocent Son was brutally murdered.

Only when the Church becomes an adult Christianity, can we expect to stop the emptying of the churches in Europe, stop the flow of many Christians to other new sects and non-Christian sects like the Brahmakumaries. During a recent visit to Mount Abu I was surprised to see hundreds of Europeans and Americans, both men and women, among the Brahmakumaries. The Hare Khrishna, Hare Ram and other movements also attract many Christians. Without Christianity growing up to adulthood, using a language relevant to today’s people and mentality, we may expect more and more churches turned over as theaters or handed over to developers.  In India and Africa this may not happen immediately yet people giving up allegiance to the Church is becoming more and more common. The solutions of yesterday cannot solve the problems of today just as the language of yester years cannot speak to the people of today. The church has to grow up; we cannot continue bluffing ourselves eternally with a make-belief system.

2. Prayer and our God language

          Hence we have to say that prayer cannot primarily be a relation to be maintained or fostered with a view to getting things from God.  By saying that God does not give us anything, because he has given us everything, I do not oppose the belief of many who honestly claim that they have received such and such a gift in answer to their prayers.  I respect their stand. All I want to say is that personally I do not see the need to affirm such extraordinary interventions of God independently of the created world of people and things. We need to remember that the God we pray to lives in us: the source of all blessings is already in us; God’s power is available to us. The God, who is the source of so much that is very precious and important to us does continue to give abundantly more than we can ask for or even desire (Eph 3. 20-21) – God reaches out to us through God’s innumerable creation, and is the source of the infinite power that we carry in ourselves. There are people who pray for God’s mercy for sinners – I think it is a misplaced devotion. God is mercy; he is merciful to all; it is we humans who fail to be merciful to one another. We sinners need to return humbly and trustingly to God who is always merciful – we need not ask God to be merciful. 

Yet Jesus does say: “Ask and it will be given you; search, …knock and the door will be opened for you”.  What does God really ‘give’ us in prayer? Luke answers it very clearly: God ‘gives’ us his Spirit (Lk 11.1-13). It is the Holy Spirit that is ‘given’ in every prayer. But if we believe that God dwells in us, when we say that the Father ‘gives’ the Spirit, is it not rather an invitation for us to become more aware of his loving, creative presence within us, of our need to consciously open ourselves to be transformed by God’s presence?  We become aware of God’s presence within us and thus God’s love becomes more alive and operative within us. A piece of iron thrown in the fire becomes red-hot; a stream being in touch with the spring is filled with fresh waters. What God ‘gives’ is God-self.  Every prayer is ‘heard’: we come into conscious communion with God, our source, like a stream coming into conscious contact with the fountain whence it springs. This coming into conscious communion and contact with God is the purpose/aim/end of prayer. Apart from this gift of self, we may say that God does not give us anything, for God has given us everything: this beautiful creation with all its potentialities, we ourselves with our creative powers that we have to actualize
However, our prayer of petition is not useless, for whether it is prayer of petition, or just prayer, the aim is to be in communion with God and our willingness to be in communion with our brothers/sisters and the rest of creation.  In that sense, it is an end in itself. Besides, in our prayer of petition, we express the truth of ourselves: our total dependence on God; we express our concern and love for others - true love is truly miraculous and powerful; it brings about what it desires. Such a prayer is also an invitation to us to do something for those in need: to translate into human action God’s concern for God’s people. God works in and through us, through our love. Our prayer also expresses our “faith” – our wanting to be out of the present situation, our rejection of the status quo, and our hope for a better future; it is our conscious opening of us to the healing powers in nature.

Recently I read a touching story of a young boy, William of 5 or 6 years. His mother had told him that soon he was going to have a sister. His mother used to keep him close to her womb and make him sing love songs for his sister. When his sister was born, she had some severe problems and was kept in an incubator; William was not allowed to visit her. He kept insisting with his mother that if he could sing to his sister she would become all right. Finally unable to resist the persistent pleading by William, one day the mother took him to the hospital, dressed up in a hospital gown, mask, etc. Only after the mother signed a declaration taking full responsibility for her action, the warden allowed William inside the ICU.  Sitting by the side of his sister he began to sing love songs for her as he used to do earlier; after about half an hour, the nurse who was watching intently saw some small changes in the sick child, and eventually she opened her eyes for the first time, her breathing became normal. This procedure was repeated for three days and on the 4th day the child was well enough to be taken home. The miracle of a child’s genuine love!

Prayer, as in the case of Jesus, is to express our gratitude to God for the many gifts we receive.  We often forget and fail to be grateful for the many immensely important things that we have received without our asking: our life, our parents, and our brothers/sisters, family, etc. as I have mentioned earlier. But gratitude is not a matter of words, but becoming aware of the gift, appreciation of it and relishing the gift that we are and all that we have.

Prayer has to be seen as the expression of our love for God. Prayer is the willed, chosen and wanted openness to Reality: it is to open ourselves like a flower to the morning sun, to its warmth and light. Prayer is to remain open to the breath of God that enters into our being, fills it and leads to its growth. Prayer is truthfulness to ourselves, to be more intensely and consciously what we are, namely, “received beings”, “praise-worthy-beings”, “loved-beings” destined to grow unto the likeness of God. It is to share in the “YES” and “NO” of God: “YES” to self, to others, to life, to everything that God is “YES” to, and “NO” to all that God is “NO” to, namely, sin, injustice and dehumanization in whatever form. Prayer is the time we live fully with awareness of who we are: as gifts, received beings, the giver in the gift, interrelated and interdependent beings, and children of God our loving Father/Mother.        
This conscious openness to reality means listening to God’s word wherever it is heard and seeing God wherever God is found. It is to be attentive to God’s Word and Spirit. Reading the Scriptures, listening to music, the song of a bird, the cry of a child, looking at a sunrise or a sunset, a flower, a tree, a fountain, a stone, seeing the face of a person. It is to listen to, to touch and feel God.  The precise object is not important, for everything is God’s self-revelation. It is to wonder, to contemplate, to be totally present, and to be lost in Reality; for which we need to be silent. Whatever leads to silence, like the repetition of a phrase, the Name of Jesus, a line of a Psalm, etc, is welcome, for finally we want to be silent. If our aim is to be in (and with) God, then silence is what we are looking for. It is in silence we are being born into prayer. Silence is not mere absence of noise and words but being attentive to what goes on inside, being fully present to us. In silence we come into contact with the truth of ourselves, with our deeper self. This openness to the truth of self implies openness to God, the ultimate source-reality. Each moment of this conscious contact with the source, God, fills us with God’s Spirit, and we become renewed, refreshed, as we see in the story of Zacchaeus (Lk 19. 1-10).

This coming into contact with the deeper self is necessary for one to be more fully oneself. This openness to reality lived out more consciously and fully and enhanced in silence is not an obligation from outside, but the very necessity of one’s being to be truly itself. What happens in that silence in/with God is very personal. What Tagore says might throw some light on that situation.  “Early in the day it was whispered that we should sail in a boat, only thou and I, and never a soul in the world would know of this our pilgrimage to no country and to no end. In that shoreless ocean, at thy silently listening smile my songs would swell in melodies free as waves, free from all bondage of words” (Gitanjali 42). 

One may hear Jesus’ words calling his disciples, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest” (Mk 6.31). There one freely chats with one’s father/friend/beloved, calling God my beloved Father/Mother. We call our ABBA by whatever intimate word appeals to each one of us, just as we do with our loving and loved earthly father/mother. By His Spirit, Jesus leads us into his own intimacy with the one He called ABBA. We may quarrel with him; complain to him – whatever one feels like doing. One is no more controlled by rules, but just communes with the Beloved and enjoys that communion. One senses being in the company of Jesus, the Spirit opening our hearts to the warmth of the Abba’s love. We cannot pre-determine to what depths this intimacy with the Abba will lead each one. The Bible reminds us “you have only to keep still” (Ex 14.14). This emphasis on “be still” has been lost in our urge to inform God of what God needs to do; in our greed for getting more, we forget God’s presence in us, the infinite number of gifts go unnoticed and we fail to see the millions of miracles that happen all around us all the time.

Prayer is to slow down and listen to God’s silent whispers of love to us. In prayer we take time to soak in, to reflect on God’s love for us.   Prayer is to allow God to find us; it is only when we are totally empty that we are able to receive God in God’s fullness, with all God’s love and strength.  It is in our own utter destitution that our heart is broke open to love, allowing God to take over. Prayer is a reflection on God’s presence and action in us; it is the conscious attempt to enter the transcendent moment, into the Mystery. That is why we have to move away from mere “asking”, “informing” and “thinking”. Unfortunately, in the Catholic tradition, due to our greed, we have made prayer into a business relation of getting things from God and have encouraged more novenas, more shrines, etc.  
I conclude by saying that in fairness to God and to ourselves we must “save” prayer from the commercial and manipulative relationship that it often becomes; prayer cannot be seen as a means of manipulating, coaxing God to do things for us, but it is our surrender in love to let God’s infinite love be operative in us to such an extent that we become the living, creative channels of God’s love and concern for the whole of creation.

To conclude, then, let me say that we need to discover a way of speaking about God, God’s ways with us and about prayer in line with what we see in reality; the language inherited from over 2000 or more years ago cannot satisfy the people of today. We cannot just ignore history. Our liturgy needs a thorough revision, avoiding expressions based on the beliefs and cosmology of the OT, and expressive of a mentality, which respects history.  God cannot be seen as one of the causes along with other finite causes, but as the transcendent Mystery that envelops and sustains us from within, which we acknowledge as the source of infinite power within us, as the source of everything – a source which does not replace the finite causes, which does not interfere with the created freedom of humans, and which allows each one to be his/her own creator.

[1] John is supposed to be quoting the words of Jesus, but it is not sure that Jesus spoke those words that John quotes as his words in chapters 14-17.


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