The nature of God


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Geoffrey’s recent posts on the nature of God, and our several reflections on heaven and hell and love, prompt some further thoughts on what can be known about the ineffable – that is God and his nature.

We have to begin by acknowledging that the moment we think we have captured that nature, whatever it is we have captured is not God; St Paul was right about seeing through a glass darkly. But from Scripture, and most of all from the self-revelation we get through the Incarnation, we can put together some thoughts.

Every now and then someone on a newspaper blog or an Internet site will weigh in with the ‘your God is a monster’ assertion. This will be followed by various Old Testament verses designed to show God is a vengeful tribal god who wants his enemies slaughtered and who rewards his people with victory and spoil. It must be admitted that there are times when some of the OT writers seem to have seen him as such – but the record does not suggest that that is what he is – the fate of the Jews, and indeed of the Christians over the centuries does not suggest a one on one correlation between believing in God and prosperity.

There are certainly Christians who will advance the idea that since God can punish us, we should worship him – a form of preemptive cringe. But there is no sign that that is what God wants from us, and if he did, it becomes impossible to imagine why he should have sent Christ into the world as he did; it becomes equally difficult to account for Christ’s mission if fear were sufficient to win us for God.

In all of this there is something about the individual reading of Scripture which is off-kilter. It is almost possible to understand why, in the Catechetical Lectures of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, catechumens were not allowed to read the Sacred Texts. This was not, as some people would have it, because priests were trying to keep knowledge from the people, but rather the result of the belief that, read without proper catechesis, people would misunderstand what they were reading;it is hard in the age of the Internet not to thik they had a point.

The Old Testament must be read in the light of the New Testament. If we take it purely in its own terms, we read it as faithful Jews might. But we are not devotees of Judaism, we are Christians and, oddly enough, we are able to distinguish between what the Jews of old believed about God with the self-revelation offered in the NT. So, whilst it was natural for those Jews to see the Father as a vengeful tribal God, that reflected their own limitations, not those of God. Only in the Christian revelation do we see something more of His True Nature.

Christ did not save us by coming in Power and smiting His enemies, but by being the suffering servant who took on Himself our sins. That is the Christian God, and that is why we believe in Him, love Him, and worship Him.



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With the Synod on the family about to start, already the rumour mill is doing overtime with conspiracy theories. It was, alas, ever thus, although in times past it was only among the bishops and senior clergy, and most of the faithful got to know about it, if at all, years later.  If we look for a moment at the first great schism in the Church, we shall see how it was them.

In A.D. 451 at Chalcedon, the Fathers of the Oriental Orthodox argued that the Council had agreed to a definition of the Two natures of Our Lord which was novel (in that it needed the use of new, and non-Biblical language to define it); they declined to accept it. Over the next century and a half, despite many efforts, the split proved impossible to heal and goes on to this day. The Oriental Orthodox argue that they have changed nothing; it is everyone else who has added to the ‘faith once received’. In the end this, as with all theological arguments, comes down to a question of authority: who defines what is orthodox and by what right?

The Orthodox, Chalcedonian and Non-Chalcedonian, argue for the Monarchical bishop on the Ignatian model; where the people are gathered around the Bishop, there the Church is. But what happens when Bishops fail to agree on points of doctrine and dogma? That question was regularly asked and answered in the early Church; a Council would decide. But as Chalcedon showed, there were limitations in that – what did you do when a whole section of the Church rejected the majority view? That question has never been answered.

The Catholic Church, whatever shortcomings are laid to its charge, has an answer to the question: in the final analysis the Pope is the arbiter; he speaks with the authority given to St. Peter by Our Lord Himself. Leaving aside, for now, those Churches and ecclesial communities which reject such a view, the question arises as to why the Catholic Church itself is beset with dissident groups?

In an article in the Daily Telegraph, Peter Stanford collected a set of dissident voices and assembled them into a piece questioning the whole Curia and the Pope. Those quoted, including a journalist who cried when Benedict XVI was elected, represent a not insignificant number of British Catholics whose attitude towards much of the teaching of their own Church appears close to contempt. They don’t like opposition to women priests, gay marriage, they do like opposition to celibacy and an all-male priesthood. Quite how this differs from much Protestantism seems hard for me to tell; it bears the main hall-mark of it – dissent from the authority of the Pope. All that has now changed for them is that the current Pope seems, to them, to be in agreement with some of their agenda. That he is not in complete agreement is something they tend to disregard, but which may be significant all the same.

No doubt such people would regard their dissent as ‘licit’, even as those in the SSPX would also apply that therm to themselves; has there ever been a religious dissenter who regarded himself as ‘illicit’? If, as is the case in the Catholic Church, there is a clear authority which decides this question, what are we to make of those who glory in the name of Catholic but disregard it? Are those who once supported the Pope in the form of St John Paul II and Benedict XVI now to swap places with the Stanfords of this world?

Gospel: 27th week in OT: Year B

Sermon on the Mount

Mark 10:2-16

Tertullian begins by pointing out that God could have given Adam and infinite number of partners, but he gave him just the one, thus enshrining the law of monogamy in our very origins. One man and one woman, that is the relationship which the church cements in marriage. As Origen tells us, the mystery of the one man and the one woman becoming one flesh is viewed, by analogy, to the joining of God and humanity in the Incarnation. St Augustine adds that it is also the protoype of the union between Christ and the Church.

Clement of Alexandria commented that guilt in divorce lay not only with the man who initiated the divorce, but also to the man who took on a divorced woman – a second marriage is ‘veiled adultery’, Athenagoras adds. The tempter promotes a more permissive view of marriage and remarriage, but this is not what Christ tells us.

Both woman and man are equally bound by their marriage vows, and no further union is possible without the implication of adultery, St Augustine wrote. God created marriage, and as the union of one man and one woman is from God, for divorce is of the devil. Divorce is allowed only for adultery, since it means that one or more of the two never wished to preserve conjugal fidelity.

Origen commented that Jesus was not vexed when he was challenged by deceptive questioners who were really hoping to trap him; he was always able to turn the tables.

Heaven and Hell


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We’ve given a good run this week to questions about hell – and by implication, heaven. I think we’ve no choice other than to accept the position we’ve outlined that God alone knows who goes to hell, but I think we have given a good answer to those who argue that God must be a sadist for sending people to hell. That, we have suggested, is the choice of the individual, and it might well be, a C suggests, that for a proud and inveterate sinner, the sight of God’s mercy would, itself, be a form of hell. We know only that God’s mercy is without limit, and that his love is infinite – he loved us first; but not everyone will respond to that love, and those who don’t may well wish to blame others for their eventual plight.

Less has been said about heaven, and that’s not surprising, since we know even less about it. At the end of time, as I read it, Jesus will come again to the living and the dead and his kingdom will be established. I don’t read what the Bible says as implying some place in the sky with us all in night-shirts with wings. We are told we, and everything will be transformed, and we look forward to living in God’s presence for ever more; for that to be at all possible, we shall indeed have to have been transformed into that image of God in which we were made, so I am assuming that, too. But I can imagine that about as well as I can God – which is to say through a glass darkly.

Bosco responded to my post on ‘What is the point of Christianity’ with this: ‘Saved is short for”saved from the wrath of the great and terrible God’. I am sure he speaks for many here, and he would once have spoken for me, but no more. The ‘great and terrible’ God is omnipotent. He could have ‘saved’ us anyway he chose – if not, he’s not God because he’s not omnipotent. He did not choose to save us by coming down in all his terrible glory and making it perfectly plain to us that we either followed his commands or we went to hell. He could have done that, and given what is at stake – the eternal salvation of his children – we might well wonder why he didn’t? An appearance every generation or so and surely all but the most recidivist among us would be there saying ‘yes. God, I will do as I am told.’ But we’d be doing that because we were frightened. What father among us would want our children to do as they were told because they were frightened of our wrath. This line of thinking is why Dawkins and others think there is something wrong with Christianity and Christians, and if that was why I obeyed God’s precepts, they’d be right.

I obey them because I know God loves me and wants what is best for me. I know from simple observation that if I do what he wants, it is good for me and those I love, and that departing from them tends to lead to trouble. I am grateful that he will forgive my foolish ways when I err, but if I thought I was doing his will out of fear, I would wonder what sort of heaven it would be to spend eternity with such a being? But then such a being would not have become incarnate and been crucified, so I shall dwell with the Lord, and hope that at the end he will receive me.

The world and the Pope


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pope in philly

The temptation to remind us that Jesus said the world would hate his disciples, and then comment on the disjunction between that and the Pope’s reception in America, has not always been resisted, and, with the Synod on the Family almost upon us, one can almost touch the tension; whatever the Pope’s achievements, making his flock feel as though they were safe from wolves appears not to be one of them. We should, I think, beware of seeing things in terms of the American ‘culture wars’ however tempting that is. To say that a man opposed to abortion and same-sex marriage is a ‘liberal’ is a strange definition of that word. It would be a brave person who said they knew precisely what the Pope wants on the issue of marriage, but in so far as I can work it out, it looks rather as though he’d like to make it less difficult for people to get a decision on whether their failed marriage was valid or not, whilst tightening up on marriage preparation; that might not pleases everyone, but it seems an over-reaction ot see it as Catholic approval of divorce; but then over-reaction is something Pope Francis attracts in the way wild flowers do honey bees.

Everything we see of the Pope is through the media, and the media always has its own agenda; that he speaks in Spanish and that the media in pretty illiterate when it comes to Catholic teching, all combine to make the problem of public perception even more difficult. It seems unfair to criticise Francis for talking about the need for ‘love’ and ‘mercy’ by saying the Church has always preached that, when nothing he has said implies the opposite. It would be equally unbalanced to say that the Church has always practised what it preached; much as those of us here who are Catholics dislike the tone of much that Bosco says about the Church, it is a reminder that some of the things it has done has made such smears easier to believe.

Would it be better for the Church if the Pope were hated and despised? It would, I suppose, depend on what he was being hated for? Those committed to a totalitarian view of same-sex marriage will continue to hate the Pope because he upholds Catholic teachin; the same will be true of those hoping for women priests (not, one would have thought, a hugely popular cause outside Catholics of a certain age?) or for Catholic approval of divorce. Whatever alarmists claim, these things are not going to happen; they cannot as they run counter to the teaching of the Church.

Is it possible, as in the area of declarations of nulluty, to make changes which might be helpful from a pastoral point of view? Yes, it is, and if there are other areas, then the Church has a duty to explore them and to see what can be done. The world has changed, and the pressures it puts on ordinary Catholics are greater in some ways than ever before. Divorce is at an all-time high, family life more complex, and the temptations to which people are exposed likewise. For the Church to react by adapting to these things by accepting them, would be wrong; but it would be wrong for it not to consider how to react to the places in which so many Catholics find themselves. If it is mindful of its own failures in catechesis, that will help.

So yes, it is easy and tempting to imagine that if the world seems to love the Pope, the Pope must be wrong, but we should resist temptation.

Spiritual hunger?


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St Isaac sand

It is clear enough that in the West the tide of Christian faith is ebbing – and equally clear that in Africa and Asia it is rising. But that does not mean that people in the West are only interested in materialism – as a quick tour of any book shop will show you. There are growing sections dealing with ‘spirituality’, and it is not only in Hollywood that Buddhism is fashionable; the vogue for ‘eastern mysticism’ or ‘new age spirituality’ shows little sign of waning. But how many of those who slake their appetites here really know much about the true aastern mysticism which has been engrafted in the West these many millennia? Christianity did not originate in the West. As Betjeman’s poem, ‘Christmas’ reminds us, no earthy pleasures ‘Can with this single Truth compare / That God was man in Palestine / And lives today in Bread and Wine’. Yet how many of us read the Christian mystics which are part of our tradition?

One of my own favourites, and I passed the taste on to Jessica is St. Isaac of Nineveh, (or the Syrian). A seventh century hermit who was briefly a bishop (and gave it up for the good reason he felt it took him further from God), his writings have survived and been translated by the great Syriac scholar, Sebastian Brock. But they are not readily available. The Russian Orthodox bishop and scholar, Hilarion Alfayev, has produced an excellent study, full of good quotations here:   There is a good website here:

St. Isaac understood, as perhaps few have, the depths of what St. John meant when he wrote that ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8):

If zeal had been appropriate for putting humanity right, why did God the Word clothe Himself in the body in order to bring the world back to His Father using gentleness and humility? And why was He stretched out on the Cross for the sake of sinners, handing over His sacred body to suffering on behalf of the world? I myself say that God did all this for no other reason, except to make known to the world the love that He has, His aim being that we, as a result of our greater love arising from an awareness of this, might be captivated by His love when He provided the occasion of this manifestation of the kingdom of heaven’s mighty power – which consists in love – by means of the death of His Son

It is our response to this love which God seeks to draw forth. We come to Him because He loved us first, not because we fear Hell. As Mar Isaac reminds us: ‘Among all God’s actions there is none which is not entirely a matter of mercy, love and compassion: this constitutes the beginning and the end of His dealings with us.’ [Part II, chapter xxxix, 22]

Mar Isaac come close to universalism, but stops short, simply saying that in the end we cannot be sure who will and who will not be saved, or, indeed, know that we will not all be in heaven, with the sinful experiencing it as hell – the burning that comes from being in God’s presence – and hating it because to them his perfect love is unbearable. They perceive all things in their image, and to their eyes, a God who is perfect love and mercy is not what they wanted from their God. It is an interesting speculation – and Mar Isaac claims no more for it than that. But he reminds us that there were all sorts of ways God could have redeemed us – but none which would have shown us how powerful his love was than by sacrificing his only Son for our sin. Love that immense should, and can, call from us a response of love.

What’s the point of Christianity?


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The Batlló Crucifix. Barcelona © National Art Museum of Catalonia (MNAC)

The Batlló Crucifix. Barcelona © National Art Museum of Catalonia (MNAC)

I agree with what Chalcedon said yesterday about the need to find a balance between an emphasis on hell-fire and the fact that God is love. A God who is love is not going to create millions of folk just so they can burn in hell for eternity; but that does not mean that millions of folk will not do just that – simply that is not what God created them for. There is a central and disturbing fact at the centre of our faith – Christ on the cross. In having Him on their crucifixes, Catholics rightly focus our attention on His sacrifice. But what is the use of it, what is its point if there is no hell? Just what are we being saved from? Why did Jesus need to become incarnate? Why did he need to atone for our sins on the Cross? If we do not believe in damnation, not only do we deny the many times Christ talked of hell, we deny the reason for his sacrifice. I repeat – what is it we are being saved from?

Those who doubt the reality of hell, do they also doubt the reality of the Incarnation and the Resurrection? I know some do (I have Anglican acquaintances who are very consistent as they take just that view), but for those who do not, I am not sure what it is they think that whole Christ getting born and dying on the Cross was for? If Christianity is no more than a call for social justice (whatever that may be) then why did Jesus have to be born and die? We can, as many atheists (rightly) remind us, be decent human beings, be kind and compassionate without any religious faith. The question we Christians often ask – but what canon do you use to measure ‘goodness’? – can be by-passed by their simply pointing out that treating other human beings decently is not a Christian prerogative (and if they want to be provocative, adding it is sometimes not a Christian practice either). We can have peace, good-will and harmony (somewhere?) without Christianity, just as we have had Christianity and none of those things. Our faith is, if anything, a call to go beyond the obvious criteria we use as humans: walking extra miles, loving our enemies, turning the other cheek and the rest of it are all very radical. But those things are all part of whhat is at the heart of our faith – a radical personal transformation of the heart.

The refiner’s fire burns away (over time) the dross in us, the image of God in us, marred by sin, is cleaned up, and we should become more as God intended us to be. But not all will do that. That’s where I part company with Bosco. It seems to me Paul is writing to those in Corinth and Galatia who considered themselves born again, and he is telling them that what they have gained can be lost. Why is Paul so urgent? Why are John and Peter and Jude all so keen that born-again folk should receive the right Gospel? Why does the early Church care so much about orthodox belief? In our bloodless age we tend to go on about how beastly some of those early Christians were to each other, but we forget why that was. It was because they believed something really important was at stake – our salvation. A man who believed wrongly, or who followed a false prophet was not just going wrong in this life, he was in danger of hell-fire for ever. That being so, they didn’t go ‘meh, whatever, as long as you are a good person’, and they didn’t because they cared.

Jesus became incarnate, was crucified, died, was buried, descended into hell and rose again on the rid day to redeem our sinful selves – to redeem us from hell. I have no idea what hell is like, but I know someone who died so I could be redeemed from it. I don’t say it should be at the forefront of all we say and do, and I do agree a balance in which we respond with love to the love God first showed us in necessary. But I do say we should think on those last things and before succumbing to universalism, ask again, what is the point of Christianity if it is not that we should be saved from the fires of hell and come to the beatific vision?

What about sin?


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Geoffrey reminded us to reflect what it means to say that ‘God is love’. That is not a topic missing from our sermons and homilies – unlike sin, which is not a fashionable topic. Sin is the most popular hobby mankind has. There could be a connection between the two phenomena; who wants to condemn what everyone does? I certainly can’t recall the last time I heard a sermon on the subject of sin. It smacks of judging others, and the whiff of hell-fire invites a counter-charge of bigotry; there is something profoundly distasteful about the notion that unless I love God, He will consign me to Hell.

But, however much we might dislike it, Christ talks frequently about judgement and Hell; His whole message is the urgent one of repent and be saved. That is an invitation to abandon our sinful ways and to follow Him. No one ever liked being called a sinner, and in the modern West we simply have life-style choices, some of which are firmly classed as sinful by the Church. This presents Christians with a dilemma: do they simply pass by on the other side and say nothing when they know that, according to the teaching of the Church, their friends are in mortal peril?

Perhaps one way to approach this is from the point of view expressed by St. Isaac of Syria. He comes pretty close to believing that Hell ought to be empty, but turns away from universalism by acknowledging that individuals endowed with free-will can make the choice to reject God’s love. His emphasis is on God’s love, and it is the individual who, by rejecting it, consigns him or herself to Hell.

That would certainly explain the urgency of Our Lord’s summons. The choice belongs to us. We judge ourselves. Christ taught us to call God ‘Abba’, which is not just ‘Father’ but closer to the familar ‘dad’. This is because we are His children. But like all children, we grow up, and we can reject our parents. That does not (usually) stop them loving us – but if we go astray, they cannot stop us.

That is why the parable of the Prodigal is so important. There Christ tells us that God’s love remains constant. He is always there, wherever we are. If we will but repent and turn to Him, He is there, waiting, and comes out to meet us. How far is that from the image, preferred by some, of the stern Judge. He is the only Just Judge, and He judges us with love and mercy. He does not condemn us to Hell and separation from Him – we do that to ourselves.

Are we fearful of mercy & love?


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MercyChalcedon once told me that some of the best parts (as well as the worst parts) of this blog were the comments column, and this, from his friend, Cathy, caught my eye, not least against the backdrop of some of the reaction to the Pope’s visit to the USA. She wrote this comment:

To me the firm ground and foundation of our faith is sacrificial love; Love of God for us as revealed supremely on the cross, and given to us in such abundance that it overflows to those around us, and prevents us doing anything other than offering the same acceptance that the Lord gave us when we were yet sinners; serving those around us as Christ served his disciples. Love of God, love of neighbour; the same love.
When we despise our neighbours, when we think more of their sins than their virtues, when we revile them in any way, we do this to the Lord himself.
This particular idiot is happy to think everything else negotiable, as long as these two principles remain firm. This is not to negate the creeds; in my view these principles are the foundation of the creeds and all that they say, in the same way as they are the foundation of the Law and the Prophets.

Now that seems to my way of thinking to be one of the best statements of Christianity I’ve come across. She focuses in on loving God and our neighbours – the pillar and foundation of the law. She says nothing about Canon Law, narrow gates and lakes of fire. If she won’t mind my saying so (and if she does, I doff my cap in apology) she sounds a bit like the best bits of Pope Francis talking about the joy of the Gospel. Yes, we know the gate is narrow, but we’re not told that ticking boxes is the way to heaven. It seems to me sometimes we treat the road as though it is an obstacle course – when the main obstacle may well be our mind-set. It seems to me at times as though we’re frightened of mercy and of love and are more comfortable with fear of hell-fire and the need to keep to the narrow way. Yet, in doing that, if we end, as Cathy perhaps implies (and I’d say we do) by emphasising to our neighbours their sins, are we not disobeying the greatest of the commandments?

It irritates me beyond the bearing when folk respond that ‘real love’ consists in telling our neighbours they are transgressing; ‘tough love’ is too often simply an excuse for being unkind to folk. As regulars will know, I oppose abortion, but I don’t think that telling abortion providers they are ‘murderers’ or making youngsters who get abortions feel bad is a sensible way of proceeding. Has it actually worked? Is it not better to show the latter the love we have for them, despite their sin? As for the former, again, are we not just hardening their hearts further?

Again, I take the historic Christian line on divorce, but it is a fact of life on a scale unprecedented, and if Francis and co are looking at ways in which the yoke on their flocks can be lessened, why condemn them? If we really think God is going to send divorced people who remarry to hell, I can see why, but is that the God we see in Christ?

It seems to me Cathy makes an important point in her comment. We can’t change the world around us unilaterally, but we can change our behaviour. Is it the love of God or the need to be judgmental which moves us? I’m certainly prone to compound for the sins I commit by being hard on the sins of others, though, I hope, far less hard than once I was. The older I get, the more conscious I become of God’s mercy to me and how little I deserved it, and the more I feel that my faith commands me to help others, not in a way that satisfies my needs, but their needs. His goodness and mercy have followed me, is it not my job to help others know that joy? In so much of the comments in some Catholic quarters on the Pope I see little sign of the joy of the Gospel and a great fear that some law or other will be transgressed; but little recognition that such an attitude might, itself, transgress the need to love our neighbour. Jesus does not, after all, say love your neighbour as long as he’s behaving himself. If we see the image of God in others, let us remember they see it in us, and watch the witness we give.

Cathy’s words are worth pondering.


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