May 22, 2005
Do you know what sin is attacked more than any other in the Bible? I bet if I took a survey today, very few would get it right. It is the sin of idolatry. The very first of the Ten Commandments is “I am the Lord your God, you shall not have false gods (you shall have idols) before me.” It seems that in the long history between Israel and God, Israel was frequently tempted to turn away from the one true God and to begin to worship the pagan gods of their neighbors. When things were going poorly, when the Jewish people could not understand what Yahweh was about, they were always tempted to believe that if they worshipped another god, if they worshipped one of the idols of stone or wood, their lives would be better. Perhaps the idol could provide something which their God could not. Therefore, the Hebrew prophets were always railing against the worship of false gods. The pages of the Bible are filled with oracles that condemn idolatry.
Now, you might think that idolatry has very little to do with us today. After all we are not inclined to worship gods of wood or stone. Yet the temptation to idolatry remains a real threat to our lives, because at its heart, idolatry is accepting as God something that is not God. It is worshipping a false god, rather than the true God. Although we do not tend to worship idols of wood or stone, every time we accept a false idea of who God is, we create a false god and we engage in idolatry. Such a temptation is real. We are always inclined to create God according to our own image. We would like to believe that God thinks the way we think, that God would make the same choices that we would make, that God would view the issues of the world and evaluate them as we would evaluate them. But the truth is, God is different than us and greater than us. God is pure spirit. God is all-powerful. God is eternal. God does not think the way we think or make the choices that we make. God does not evaluate everything in the world the way we would evaluate it. Yet, every time we try to shrink the idea of God down to a size that we can understand or control, we create a false god and engage in idolatry.
The only way to prevent this tendency to create false gods is to constantly remind ourselves that God is transcendent, that God transcends us and the world in which we live. God is greater than anything we can think or imagine. Here is where the Feast that we celebrate today, the Feast of the Holy Trinity, proves so useful. At the heart of our faith, we believe that God is One. There is only one God. Yet at the same time, we believe that God is three divine persons, Father, Son, and Spirit. It is impossible for us to imagine how God is the way that God is. How is God one and three at the same time? I have no idea. What the Doctrine of the Trinity does is remind us that God is different than us, greater than us. In so doing, the Doctrine of the Trinity asserts the transcendence of God.
All this talk about idolatry and Trinity and transcendence can seem rather remote and heady. Yet believing in the transcendence of God has a number of practical and helpful consequences. Let me mention two. Those who believe in the transcendence of God know that they do not need to understand. They also know that there is nothing we can do to stop God from loving.
Those who believe in the transcendence of God know that they do not need to understand. When something tragic happens in our lives, when we have a miscarriage, when we discover we have cancer, when thousands of people are killed in an earthquake, we want to understand. We want to try to explain how these evils are a part of our world. Yet every effort to explain runs the risk of creating a false god. In our efforts to explain, we say, “this happened because God was trying to punish me,” or “God was trying to teach a lesson,” or “God was angry.” All of these explanations do in some sense explain what happened, but they do so at the cost of creating an idol, a god who is different from the way that God is. Those who accept the transcendence of God understand that they do not need to understand. They continue to proclaim a good and saving God even though they do not understand how God can allow these evils to happen in our world. Knowing the transcendence of God, they are more comfortable in saying they do not understand than creating a false god. They accept transcendence over idolatry.
Those who believe in the transcendence of God also know that there is nothing we can do to stop God from loving. God’s love is radically different than human love. We love other people because they are good and because they love us in return. God’s love is not limited to such categories. When people attack us, abuse us, or manipulate us, our love ceases. At times we must place boundaries so that we are not hurt again. But God’s love is different. God’s love does not have the limitations of human love. God can and does love everyone. God loves our enemies. God loves us, even when we are wrong and selfish. God can do this because God is different than us and greater than we are. Those who accept the transcendence of God understand that there is nothing we can do to stop God from loving us.
We believe in a transcendent God, in a God who is greater than any thing we can think or imagine. This is Good News, because we do not, after all, want a God who is just like us. We want a God who is so good and great that we cannot completely understand God. We want a God whose love is so free and powerful that nothing we can do can stop God from loving us. Such a God is beyond our comprehension. Such a God is no idol. Such a God is not the creation of our best intentions. Such a transcendent God is the only true God—the only God worthy of our love and adoration.
What God Is Not
May 18, 2008
John 3: 16-18
Fifteen centuries ago, St. Augustine, one of the great thinkers of our tradition, was grappling with the mystery of the Trinity. Augustine was trying to discover an idea or an image that would explain how there could be three persons in one God. As he strained to do this, he decided to take a break and walk along the beach of the city of Hippo where he was bishop. As he felt the warm sun and the cool ocean breeze, he noticed a young boy running back and forth on the beach. The boy had a small bucket and was filling the bucket from the ocean and running over and pouring it into a small hole which he had dug in the sand.
“What are you doing?” Augustine asked.
The boy stated proudly, “I’m taking all the water from the ocean and pouring it into this little hole.”
“That’s impossible,” said Augustine.
The boy shrugged and continued on with his play.
Then Augustine realized that he was that boy. He was trying to do the impossible. He was trying to take the infinite vastness of God and pour it into the small hole of his finite mind.
It is impossible for us to come up with an adequate image of who God is. Every attempt to do so will be inadequate. Every thing we say is but a glimpse of God’s real being. On the feast of the Trinity, I would like to explain to you how there can be one God in three divine persons, but I can’t. I would like to present you with a picture of what God looks like, but that is impossible. I would like to tell you who God is, but every effort I would make would be inadequate. So since I cannot do the impossible, I would like to offer you something else. Since I cannot explain to you what God is, I would like to preach on what God is not. God is not anything which keeps you from God. Any image of God which alienates us from God is wrong. God is not like that.
We call God, Father. But if we think of God as a demanding father whom we cannot please, we are wrong. God is not like that. Or if we think of God as an indulgent father who places no responsibility on us, who never asks us to grow or change or serve, again we are wrong. God is not like that. We call God, Son. But if we think that by calling God, Son, we are discovering a maleness within the Trinity, then we are wrong. Because God, Father, Son and Spirit is beyond any sexual differentiation or gender. God is not male or female. God does not have sexuality. God is not like that. We call God Spirit. But if we think that by calling God Spirit discover that God is illusive or unable to touch us in our lives, then we are wrong. God has the power to move our souls in their concreteness, to move us with the beauty of a sunrise or the depths of human love. Although God is spirit, God is able to touch us concretely. God is not illusive or aloof. God is not like that.
We call God, Creator. But if we think that by being creator God is so preoccupied with the running of the cosmos that God has no time for us, we are wrong. The same God that makes the rain to fall and the sun to shine is interested in our every need and our every joy. God is not too busy for us. God is not like that. We say that God is all good, all holy. But if we see God’s holiness as a means to keep us distant from God, we are wrong. Despite God’s supreme perfection, God, nevertheless, embraces us and calls us into union even with our flaws and sins. God is not too holy for us. God is not like that.
So every image of God which keeps us from coming to God is wrong. It is an illusion, an error resulting from our inability to see God as God really is. When we take away all of those obstacles and all of those errors, all that’s left is an invitation: Come to God. Come and share in the life of the Trinity. Come to a God who is beyond our ability to comprehend. Come to a love that is deeper than the ocean, a love beyond our ability to imagine.
Priority and Mutuality
June 15, 2014
We celebrate the feast of The Most Holy Trinity every year, but it does not always fall on Father’s Day. This year it does. And because it does and because we call the first person of the blessed Trinity Father, we might ask ourselves, “What can we learn about human fatherhood by reflecting on God the Father?” Now this seems like a good idea, but it is quite risky and difficult. So you will have to work with me today, because the Holy Trinity is a mystery. It is the mystery of God, and we can never fully understand God. There are some true things that we can say about God: We can say that there is one God. We can say that this one God is three divine persons. But it is impossible to understand how God can be both one and three at the same time. Nevertheless, I still think that we can use some of the true things we believe about God the Father and apply them to human fatherhood. So here goes–stick with me.
We call the first person of the blessed Trinity “Father” because in a sense the Father is the source of the Trinity. We say that the Son, the second person of the blessed Trinity, proceeds from the Father. And we say that the Holy Spirit, the third person of the blessed Trinity, proceeds from the Father and the Son. “I get that,” you say. “That seems clear.” But here is where the mystery of the Trinity asserts itself. Because although we say that the Father is the source of the Trinity, at the same time we say that there never was a time when the Father was, and the Son and the Spirit were not. God is always God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, even though we say that the Father is the source of the Trinity. You see what I mean about the Holy Trinity? It is impossible to comprehend. But let’s push on, okay?
If we can say that the Father is the source of the Trinity even though there never was a time when the Father was and the Son and the Spirit were not, then we can say that there is in the Trinity a certain priority: God is Father. Yet at the same time, that priority is not the most important thing. The most important thing in the Trinity is the mutual love that is shared by Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So, in the Trinity then there is both a priority and a mutuality. But it is the mutuality that is primary.
Let’s apply this to human fatherhood. (We could apply it to human motherhood, too, but this is Father’s Day.) In human terms, the priority of human fatherhood is obvious. With our human fathers there was a time when our fathers were and we were not. Because of this priority in human terms, we always respect and honor our fathers. Life came to us through them. Indeed it is this honor and respect for fatherhood that most people believe we are celebrating today. We are honoring fathers because they have given life to us, both physical life and personal life. All this is fine and good, and we should always honor fathers because of their priority. But the mystery of the Trinity pushes us to another truth. It tells us that although we honor the priority of our fathers, the basic goal of our relationship with them should be mutuality. Even though we honor our fathers as the ones who gave us life, we should move toward the time when we can be equal with our fathers, when we can share a common life together. To put this in colloquial terms, we say that fathers and sons, fathers and daughters, should be able to become friends.
Now, when we look at this in human terms, that process obviously takes time. We cannot be mutual with our fathers while we are children. Then the father must take the primary role. But as we grow older, as we become adults, it becomes possible for us to see our fathers not simply as the ones who have given us life, but as equal to us as human beings, sharing common likes and dislikes, fears and dreams. In other words, we can begin to relate to our fathers as mutual sharers of a common life.
Now, of course, in many circumstances this mutuality with our fathers cannot be achieved. Our fathers may die too soon, or there can be obstacles or limitations that prevent us from attaining that kind of relationship. But in most of our relationships with our fathers, there are moments when mutuality becomes visible. There are moments when we recognize that this man is not simply the man who has given me life, but is a partner with me in a common life. Those moments of mutuality are important, because today’s feast tells us that every time we touch a note of mutuality with our fathers, we receive a glimpse of the very life of God.
The Mystery of Salvation
June 11, 2017
Today’s gospel begins with love and ends with judgment. We are all attracted to the love: “God so loved the world that He gave his only son, that whoever believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” This is the gospel, the good news. God loved us so much that he saved us in Christ. But the judgment that takes place at the end of the passage is more difficult to swallow: “Whoever does not believe is already condemned for not believing in the name of the only Son of God.”
What this passage seems to be saying is that God loved us so much that he gave us Jesus. But if we do not accept Jesus, God does not love us anymore. In fact, this is very close to the interpretation that many Evangelical Christians make of this passage. They believe that the only way to God is through Jesus and anyone who does not accept Jesus as the Lord of his or her life cannot be saved. I think this would be troubling to many of us here today. It means that the kind Jewish couple who lives next door, who are the best of neighbors, who water our plants when we go on vacation, are going to hell. It means that the kind Moslem doctor who always takes a little bit of extra time with grandma when she comes in for her appointment and, even when she is in pain, finds a way to make her smile is excluded from God’s love.
Most of the people in the world are not Christian. Yet, they love their families, serve their communities, and many work for peace. Are we required to believe that these people who do not believe in Jesus will never find eternal life? Catholic theology says that we are not. Our Catholic tradition has always believed that people of good will, who try to do what is right, even if they do not accept Jesus, are still loved by God and are still saved by God. At the same time, Catholic theology assumes that Jesus is the way to salvation, the only way to salvation, and that we, as followers of Christ, should spread the word so that others might believe in him. Yet if people do not accept our message, we still claim that it is still possible for God to save them.
Evangelical Christians call foul. They say you cannot have it both ways. If Jesus is the only way to salvation, then Jesus is the only way to salvation. Those who do not believe in Jesus are out. Their argument is not without its logic. How, then, can we respond to it? I would suggest to you that today’s Feast of the Trinity is helpful.
At the heart of our faith, we believe in one God who is three divine persons: Father, Son, and Spirit. How can God be one and three at the same time? We do not know. We cannot explain it. We say that it is a mystery, that God is greater than us and different from us. We understand that we cannot understand the very being of God, and yet, we believe. I would suggest to you that we can move some of this mystery into our understanding of salvation. Jesus is the only way to the Father, a unique gift given to us. Yet we also know that the gift of Jesus cannot exhaust who God is or how God loves. God is greater than us and different from us. So we should never use the gift of Jesus to claim that a Jew, a Moslem, a Hindu, or an atheist is not loved by God and cannot be saved by God.
God is both one and three. How can God be both? We do not know, but we believe. Jesus is both the only way to salvation and those who do not believe in Jesus can still be saved. How can these two things be possible? We do not know. But again, it is something that we believe is true.
Racism and Faith
June 7, 2020
Exodus 34:4-6, 8-9; 2 Cor 13:11-13
Paul tells the Corinthians in today’s second reading, “Live in peace with one another.” Easy to say, but in light of this week’s events difficult to achieve. Ignited by the horrible death of a black man in Minneapolis while under police restraint, our country has erupted, often violently, in almost every American city. We have not witnessed such civil unrest since the 1960s. Protesters are demanding the end to police brutality and insisting that we face and address the issue of racism in our country.
I have to admit that the events of this last week have left me almost paralyzed. There is so much of what is happening that I don’t understand. I cannot explain why so many people in our country are angry and desperate. I cannot understand why some people think that the destruction of property and the smashing of windows will somehow move us forward. And above all, I don’t know what to do. I do not see myself as a racist. I have never insulted a black person. I have never denied a job or given an unfair grade to a person of color. Moreover, I am a Christian. I believe in my heart that all people are equal and that God loves people of every race. So I don’t get it. I do not know how I am expected to change.
But at the same time in my gut I know that things have to change. I cannot ignore the anger of so many people taking to the streets. I know that I have some responsibility to be a force of justice and peace in the midst of this turmoil. I am just unable to suggest a concrete step that would seem to make a difference. In the last couple days, I have read many articles and I prayed often. And I have come upon two insights. They are not an action plan and in no way a solution to the problems that our country is facing. But they were helpful to me and I would like to share them. One is about racism and the other is about faith.
This week I began to understand that racism is not limited to the individual intentional actions of bad people. I will repeat that. Racism is not limited to the individual intentional actions of bad people. Actions such as assaulting a person of color are certainly a part of racism. They are its most visible part. But racism is bigger. It goes beyond individual intentional actions. Racism is imbedded in the structures of our society. It is present in the ways laws, tradition, and influence give preference to one race over the other in the areas of business, housing, education, health, and safety.
Now the reason that this insight was helpful to me is because it allows me to see how racism is my problem. Even as a person who has never engaged in individual intentional acts of racism, I live in a society where the structures around me have been influenced and shaped by racial preference. Therefore, since I am a part of society, I share in racism.
What does faith say about this? Today’s first reading presents God as slow to anger and rich in kindness. I would suggest to you that if racism is our problem, we must be patient and kind. There is so much we do not understand that we must be patient with ourselves and with others as we try to learn. We must also be slow to anger even when dealing with people who have deep anger. Because in doing so we reflect the God who is merciful to us. And we must have the courage to believe that God who made all people of every race will show us how we can work against racism so that one day we will be able to follow the advice of the apostle Paul and live in peace with one another.