Friday, January 13, 2012

Is God a Person or “The Force”? The Readings for the 2nd Week in Ordinary Time

George Lucas concocted an interesting religion for his Star Wars film series by combining elements of Christianity and eastern religion. Ultimate reality, or “God,” in Star Wars turns out to be “the Force,” an impersonal power with a “dark” and “light” side, similar to the way many forms of eastern religion conceive of the divine. So, instead of the Christian farewell “May God be with you,” Star Wars characters say, “May the Force be with you!”

Is that the ultimate nature of reality? An impersonal force which is neither good nor evil but somehow combines both? Or does nature ultimately come from a loving and personal Being, who created us for a relationship with Himself?

The readings for this Sunday’s Mass come down clearly in favor of the personal view of God and reality.

Our First Reading recounts the call of Samuel, one of Israel’s greatest prophets, the one who would ultimately anoint Israel’s greatest king, David:

Reading 1: 1 Sm 3:3b-10, 19
Samuel was sleeping in the temple of the LORD
where the ark of God was.
The LORD called to Samuel, who answered, "Here I am."
Samuel ran to Eli and said, "Here I am. You called me."
"I did not call you, " Eli said. "Go back to sleep."
So he went back to sleep.
Again the LORD called Samuel, who rose and went to Eli.
"Here I am, " he said. "You called me."
But Eli answered, "I did not call you, my son. Go back to sleep."

At that time Samuel was not familiar with the LORD,
because the LORD had not revealed anything to him as yet.
The LORD called Samuel again, for the third time.
Getting up and going to Eli, he said, "Here I am. You called me."
Then Eli understood that the LORD was calling the youth.
So he said to Samuel, "Go to sleep, and if you are called, reply,
Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening."
When Samuel went to sleep in his place,
the LORD came and revealed his presence,
calling out as before, "Samuel, Samuel!"
Samuel answered, "Speak, for your servant is listening."

Samuel grew up, and the LORD was with him,
not permitting any word of his to be without effect.
The LORD calls Samuel by his name in an audible voice—a rare but not unheard-of privilege in salvation history. Nothing is more personal than a name. We all love to hear our name called, and perk up our ears when we hear it. We’ve all experienced the awkwardness of forgetting someone’s name—sometimes even the name of someone we know fairly well, but if we run into them after a lapse of a few years, or in a context where we don’t usually meet them (like at the grocery store), our memory temporary fails us. Unable to evoke their name, we can’t renew our relationship with the person.

God knows us by name. He is personal, and knows us as persons. That’s part of what it means to be made in the image of God.

In this Reading, Samuel provides us an example of growth in faith. Many of us are “cradle Catholics” or at least “cradle Christians”—we grew up raised in Christian homes, learning to pray and worship from childhood.

Yet for each of us, there comes a time when we have to embrace a personal relationship with God, a direct relationship no longer mediated by our parents or others who may have raised us. We have to come to an awareness that God has a unique call and purpose for our lives, and we have to embrace that vocation. If we never make this transition, we end up losing the faith or simply “going through the motions” for the rest of our lives.

At the beginning of this Reading, Samuel’s relationship to God is mediated through his adopted father, the priest Eli. But by the end of the narrative, Samuel has learned to hear God for himself and submit to God’s will for his life. In fact, the message that God delivers to Samuel (1 Samuel 3:11-18) actually concerns judgment on Samuel’s mentor, Eli.

The Responsorial Psalm continues to pursue this theme. The traditional Hebrew text labels Psalm 40 “a psalm of David,” and we are to understand the Psalm as his words of prayer to God:

Responsorial Psalm Ps 40:2, 4, 7-8, 8-9, 10
R. (8a and 9a) Here am I, Lord; I come to do your will.
I have waited, waited for the LORD,
and he stooped toward me and heard my cry.
And he put a new song into my mouth,
a hymn to our God.
R. Here am I, Lord; I come to do your will.
Sacrifice or offering you wished not,
but ears open to obedience you gave me.
Holocausts or sin-offerings you sought not;
then said I, "Behold I come."
R. Here am I, Lord; I come to do your will.
"In the written scroll it is prescribed for me,
to do your will, O my God, is my delight,
and your law is within my heart!"
R. Here am I, Lord; I come to do your will.
I announced your justice in the vast assembly;
I did not restrain my lips, as you, O LORD, know.
R. Here am I, Lord; I come to do your will.
David was remembered in Israel’s history for the intensity of his relationship with the LORD, an intensity captured in the deeply personal and emotional language of so many of the psalms. David uses strong language to emphasize that merely going through the formalities of worship does not satisfy God’s will for us:
Sacrifice or offering you wished not,
but ears open to obedience you gave me.
Holocausts or sin-offerings you sought not;
then said I, "Behold I come."
The words are not to be taken strictly literally—both Samuel and David worshipped God in the public liturgy and offered sacrifices as prescribed by Moses. But external worship is not pleasing without the interior and personal consent of our will. Obedience to God’s will, the embrace of his purpose for our life—these are fundamental:
To do your will, O my God, is my delight,
and your law is within my heart!
Samuel says something similar (1 Samuel 15:22):
Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.
God is not satisfied with "going through the motions."  The relationship God desires for us is so profoundly intimate that the Scriptures speak of it using the image of marriage, and St. Paul draws out the implications for our sexual activity:
Reading 2: 1 Cor 6:13c-15a, 17-20
Brothers and sisters:
The body is not for immorality, but for the Lord,
and the Lord is for the body;
God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power.

Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?
But whoever is joined to the Lord becomes one Spirit with him.
Avoid immorality.
Every other sin a person commits is outside the body,
but the immoral person sins against his own body.
Do you not know that your body
is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you,
whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?
For you have been purchased at a price.
Therefore glorify God in your body.
Contemporary atheist culture views sex as merely a physical act whose purpose is pleasure. The result is that people in modern society experience sex with more and more partners, but with less and less love. In the words of Tina Turner, “What’s love got to do with it?” If we are all just cosmic accidents, what meaning can love have anyway? Only real persons can love. Biological machines accidentally descended from an amoeba can’t love, they can only follow biological urges to reproduce their selfish genes.

The Bible obviously does not view sex this way. In the Scripture, sex is a physical act with a personal meaning. The meaning is a total gift of self. Even in the Old Testament, a sexual act obligated a man to marry the woman he slept with (Exod 22:16). He had to live up to the meaning of the statement he had made with his body.

Sex has a spiritual dimension—it is the uniting of persons, not just bodies. Through baptism and the Eucharist, all of us are wed to Christ first and foremost. We are joined to him body and spirit, and not free to “share” ourselves with others. We belong to Someone who knows, loves, and desires us personally. Love has a great deal to do with it, Tina!

The Gospel Reading emphasizes the personal call of each of the disciples:
Gospel Jn 1:35-42
John was standing with two of his disciples,
and as he watched Jesus walk by, he said,
"Behold, the Lamb of God."
The two disciples heard what he said and followed Jesus.
Jesus turned and saw them following him and said to them,
"What are you looking for?"
They said to him, "Rabbi" - which translated means Teacher -,
"where are you staying?"
He said to them, "Come, and you will see."
So they went and saw where Jesus was staying,
and they stayed with him that day.
It was about four in the afternoon.
Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter,
was one of the two who heard John and followed Jesus.
He first found his own brother Simon and told him,
"We have found the Messiah" - which is translated Christ -.
Then he brought him to Jesus.
Jesus looked at him and said,
"You are Simon the son of John;
you will be called Cephas" - which is translated Peter.

Jesus not only knows Peter’s name—“you are Simon, son of John,”—he also gives Peter a name (“Cephas,” Aramaic for “Rock”), the mark of a close relationship. Usually only parents give us our names—or perhaps a spouse creates a nickname for us.

It is not just Peter who receives “a new name” when he encounters Jesus—in a sense, we all do. Revelation 2:17 promises:
To him who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone which no one knows except him who receives it.’
The idea of a “new name” in Christ is represented in the liturgy when, for example, we adopt “a new name” for the Sacrament of Confirmation.

A friend of mine has several endearing nicknames for his wife that he uses in public, but I would never call his wife by those nicknames! That would be inappropriate—the nicknames are a personal thing between himself and his wife that convey the affection and closeness between them. My wife Dawn and I have our own “pet” names for each other.

The idea of a “new name” given by Christ expresses the intimacy of our relationship with him.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus does not call some random person to be the foundation “Rock” of his Church. He calls Simon son of John, a fisherman in first century Galilee with a strong personality and impulsive temperament. He accepts him with all the virtues, foibles, and peculiarities that make him unique, that make him “Peter.”

The Bible insists God is no impersonal “Force.” He is the person, Jesus Christ. He comes to us in this Mass and gives his body for and to each one of us. He calls us by name and commissions us for a path of service unique to each one. May we each respond, “Here I am, Lord, I come to do your will.”


Nick said...

The problem with the idea of God as a force is that, while it sounds rational, in the sense that God is perceivable with the senses, much like everything in the Universe, nonetheless God is simply the Universe, or, if outside of the Universe, than just like the Universe, which begs the question of ultimate reality: where is reality, self-sufficient reality, itself? Because the Universe isn't self-sufficient. So you either get natural pantheism, where God is the force because God is the Universe, or you get infinite regression, where you don't know what ultimate reality is - especially since a force is a natural product of the Universe, even in the sense that one might claim God is like a force but not exactly a force in and of itself. Which still begs the question of ultimate reality. So it's really just a non-answer to the question of God's nature and the Universe's origin. But it's seemingly the most popular answer out there, unfortunately. Probably because, at least in part, of agnosticism and of poor Catholic catechesis, the former indifferent to God and the latter confusing doctrine.

John Bergsma said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Nick. I have another post relevant to this issue coming on Tuesday morning. Thanks for reading the blog.

Anonymous said...

I second that, Nick. Another reason why God cannot be compared to 'the Force' is that 'the Force' has a bad and good side that are always fighting, both at war, and one is not stronger than the other. This is waayyy closer to Taoism than to Christianity!

God is not divided, and cannot be evil. He is Goodness Itself. Also, it is false to say that evil and goodness are both equally strong. Just as darkness is scattered by light, so evil is defeated by goodness. God is more powerful than all evil in its entirety.