Bland secularism blurs our life-vision
So, to overcome our loss, we have to learn anew to interpret with a transcendental meaning and value everything we meet in our lives.
Using the mirror of history to look at ourselves as fully modern people we tend to find much to like, but are often suprised to discover flaws in our appearance. One is a conceit, an arrogant individualism that we have been trained to admire, but which in our heart of hearts we know is depressing individual well-being and putting the whole planet at risk.
With that in mind, join me in considering these ideas on "the great program of modernity":
All of us, whether we want to or not, whether we know it or not, we are immersed in the assumptions of modernity:
“Auto-nomos” —I’m my own law. [We say:] I tell you what I think. I tell you what my values are. How important [it is] today that my voice is heard, that you listen to my story.
Now there's something to that..., but nevertheless, that is not the assumption of the Bible. The opening word is not, “Hey, listen to me. Hear my voice.” The opening move is "Shema". Listen.
Adam's problem was he didn't listen to the command of the Lord and from that inattention followed the sin that destroyed the world.
Abraham is the founder of the holy people Israel. Why? Because he listened. Because he heard a higher voice, a voice beyond his own autonomy, beyond his own self-assertion.
Shema, listen, listen. Hear, O Israel. “Sh'ma Yisrael.” Israel—you know what it means? “The people that wrestle with God.”
What's the trouble with secularism? It's a bracketing of God. Even if I believe in some kind of vague first principle, I don't take God seriously. I just maybe vaguely acknowledge his existence.
But Israel, this people that listened to God's voice then became a people that wrestled with him—that great image of Jacob wrestling with the angel. That's what it means.
That you take God and God's demands with such seriousness that you wrestle even when you don't understand them. Even when it's not making sense to you, you wrestle with God. Don't give in to the blandness of secularism that brackets God.
You can look at God philosophically as a prime mover or a first cause, an abstract principle. The Bible's got no trouble with that.
But, and it's a big but:
The Lord your God, Adonai, the Lord. The Lord. That means the commander. That means the one who is commanding your will. The one who wants to have a directive role in your life. The one to whom your will and your plan should be submitted. God is not satisfied to be in the deep background of one's life.
What's it like to be a servant of this divine Lord? That's biblical religion.
Think of so much of modernity predicated on people like Isaac Newton or Thomas Jefferson or maybe Ralph Waldo Emerson in our setting, where God at best is a distant deist force. That is not the Bible.
Hear, O wrestlers with God. The Lord, your God. That's how to be in the right relationship.
Now what do we hear about the Lord, our God? The Lord is one. The Lord is Lord alone.
Is it a statement abstractly and philosophically of monotheism? Sure. That there's one God. Israel bequeathed to the world, bequeathed to our Western culture certainly, this belief in the unity of God, the unicity of God. So at the theoretical theological level, a very important claim of monotheism.
But [...] the unicity and unity of God is not just a theoretical statement. It's of enormous spiritual and existential import.
Why? When you say, ‘Hear, listen, O wrestlers with God, the Lord your God is one,’ that means that there's no competition. That means that nothing else can possibly be construed as absolute. That means no country is God. That means no politician is God. That means no political power is God. That means no human being is God. That means nothing in nature. That means the universe is not God. There's only one God and that's the Lord God.
[I]n a way, the whole spiritual life hinges upon this. What do you worship? What's God to you? What's of highest value?
It can't be anything other than the Lord God of Israel. It's a statement of enormous clarification spiritually speaking.
Now from all of this —"Listen, O wrestler with God", is "The Lord, your God is one". Following from that is this great ethical or behavioral implication, that we must love the Lord our God.
With the entirety of our being. With the whole heart. The heart's the seat of the passions and the emotions. With every emotion in us.
With our whole soul. That's the highest spiritual dimension of the person. That's the spiritual dimension that organizes the whole of the self. That must be directed to God.
And with all of our strength. That means every gift that I've got, every capacity I've got, should be directed to God.
Well, how do you do that? Unless you become a Trappist monk who's just utterly, utterly devoted to God every single minute, how could you possibly respond to this?
Isn't it unrealistic? I mean, can't we give God some time and some of our energy, but not all of it.
Well, here's the solution.
Remember [...] God is not competitive with us, is not competitive to the world. God is not one of the beings within the world. God's not one thing among many, but as Aquinas says, God is “ipsum esse”.
That means he's the sheer act of ‘to be’ itself. God is that infinite source from which all of created matter and energy and objectivity comes. Therefore, God's not competing with creaturely things for space on the same background.
No. God is that which lies behind and shines through all things.
So, I'm attending a baseball game and I'm finding it beautiful and entertaining. But, if I've got the Shema in my mind, I've got this prayer in my mind, I see the beauty and the enjoyment of that game as coming from, even now, a divine source.
God's the creator of all things. More to it, the beauty of that game anticipates the fullness of beauty that I'll experience in heaven.
I sit down for a good meal and I'm enjoying it. It comes from the creative hand of God and the enjoyment of that meal is an anticipation of the banquet of heaven.
I fall in love with another person. And I see that person with all of her beauty and all of her qualities coming from God. And then she becomes for me a sign and a symbol of the ultimate love that I'll experience in heaven.
Do you see what I'm driving at? I can love the Lord, my God, with all my heart and all my soul and all my strength because I see God and I appreciate God and I love God in and through all things.
It's not a zero-sum competitive game. But once I get the implication of the Shema, yes, indeed, the whole world now lights up with this spiritual luminosity.
Writers from many hues of spiritual background have identified the loss of this quality of seeing God among us as one of the most significant injuries suffered by those captured by "modernity". They often term this lost quality "enchantment", which is not a simple-minded belief in goblins and fairy godmothers, but a deep-seated ability to interpret with a transcendental meaning and value everything we meet in our lives.
Whether it is focused on what is ordinary or on what is of the highest significance, the exercise of our God-given capacity to be "enchanted" means we have a spirit that can be awake to God present, sustaining and loving.
As with Jews beginning and ending their day reciting the Shema, we need to train ourselves to be God-conscious. We must put all our mindfulness training to good use: to pray, praise, and thank God for all that is, and all that happens—and to watch the whole world light up.
💢 It demands working on what is a countercultural task: "Don't give in to the blandness of secularism that brackets God".
💢 It means practicing being alive in a new way: "God is not satisfied to be in the deep background of one's life."
💢 Finally, it gives us new meaning and direction in all elements of our lives as we recognise the power of our soul: "That's the spiritual dimension that organizes the whole of the self. That must be directed to God."
Ω With everlasting thanks to Bishop Robert Barron, of Santa Barbara. His words are taken from his video sermon for the Thirty-first Sunday of Ordinary Time (October 31). View it here. The Shema is at Deuteronomy 6:4-6.
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