Homily for 14th Sunday of Year 2007

The "dumbing down" of God.

Would that we could hear the first reading for toay as directed to the new Jerusalem, the Church gathered here. Just replace the word "Jerusalem" with "St Joseph's" and pray it again. "Rejoice, St Joseph's be glad for her, all you who love her! Rejoice, rejoice for her all you who mourned her! That you may be suckled, filled, from her consoling breast..." Is St Joseph's like the ideal Jerusalem from whom we can receive nourishment for soul, mind and body?

You do not need to hear of the conflicts in the Middle East or India or the Philippines to know that religion can be divisive. The bitter disputes that take place at times within the Catholic Church here in Australia is enough evidence of that. So I would like to repeat what I quoted a few weeks ago and which I will never tire of repeating: "There can be no Eucharist in a community whose members do not love one another" (Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, OP. Jerome Biblical Commentary, p809).

But at the same time it is now pretty clear that much of the conflict in the Middle East, while it has an appearance of one religion or sect fighting angainst another, much of it is about power and land and resources. Past religious grievences such as the crusades become an easy pretext for war.

This is preliminary to reflect on what is an entirely unsurprising attack on religion in general in recent years. The state of the world does give the impression that religion is "The Root of All Evil" as the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins describes it. Even though I did not see the TV show or read his recent book "The God Delusion". I have read and heard enough to know the trend of his complaint. He, of course, is only one of a number of people saying such things about religion in general and Christianity in particular, but he is the most vocal and militant kind of athiest today. Yet people like that can be of great service to us as they force us to reflect on what we believe and why. They challenge us out of complacency.

Richard Dawkins may be an expert evolutionary biologist but he seems to deny the possibility of any other kind of knowledge unless it fits within the restrictions of his understanding of the scientific method of coming to know truth about the world.

When it comes to religion and religious texts such as the bible he seems to read them in just the same way as the most literal fundamentalist Christian would read them. He shows little understanding of the Bible as the record of a peoples experience of God and the cultural and social background of it. That it is first a human document and through that work becomes the inspired Word. We should not blame Dawkins for reading the Bible in a simplistic way when many Christians believe that is just how you should read it. A fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible or even of Catholic doctrine or the stupid statements of some religious leaders make religion an easy target.

Fundamentalists of all kinds have effectively achieved a "dumbing down" of God, if I may put it that way. They claim to know God. They claim to know what God wants in every circumstance. They claim God will do their bidding. Such a god is not the God of Jesus Christ. Such a god is not God at all. Their god is a creation of their own imagination. And therefore, is a very dumb god!

By way of illustration consider the Catholic doctrine of the infallability of the Pope. As you know this is as far as the Catholic Church goes in claiming certainly about particular truths of faith. An infallable statement is one in which the Pope proclaims a belief in union with the whole Church on matters of faith or morals to be without error. Some fundamentalist Christians claim much more certainty than the Church ever has. An infallable statement is infact a negative statement. It claims no more that that the statement is not in error. That it is consistent with revelation. The Church does not claim that a particular proclamation of a doctrine is all there is to know about the subject. Nor does it claim that further reflection by the Church cannot discover further spritual depths of an article of faith. Of course, some would like the Pope to speak infallably more often than the few times he has. Wisely, he does not.

Dawkins is being very serious when he describes the God of the Old Testament in this way: God he says is "petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vidictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capricously malevolent bully"and a "psychotic delinquent" (cf The God Delusion, p 38). I would credit any Catholic who comes to Mass regularly with a far richer knowledge of the Old Testament understanding of God than that.

You can certainly find God described as acting in those kinds of ways at different occasions in the Bible. But a Catholic and mainstream Christian understanding of the Bible knows full well that we cannot know God. The Bible exhibits a growing understanding of how God acts. The prophet Isaiah speaks of God in this way:

"For my thoughts are not your thoughts,

nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.

For as the heavens are higher than the earth,

so are my ways higher than your ways

and my thoughts than your thoughts" (Isaiah 55:8, 9).

The bible is story of a people of faith seeking to understand God and finding out that God is very different from what they expect. In the process they, like we, end up in many dry gullies. The responsorial Psalm for today reflects a more mature understanding of the way God relates to us when it says, "Come and hear, all you who fear God. I will tell what he did for my soul. Blessed be God who did not reject my prayer nor withhold his love from me" (Psalm 65).

Fr Graham