Monday, March 31, 2008

What do we mean when we speak of God?

I had a letter from a friend who confessed he was “annoyed at the Almighty ” because a person who had offered to donate a kidney was found, due to one of the many tests made before a donation can be okayed, to have a medical condition that precludes giving up one of her kidneys.

This letter promoted me to think once again about what we mean when we speak of God. What, in a particular person’s use of the word, is he/she talking about?

This has been on my mind for nearly half a century, since I read Maxim Gorki’s memoir of his early years, Childhood, in which the reader hears his vivid account of his grandparents in prayer in the icon corners of their adjacent rooms.

We find grandfather praying to a God whose everlasting work it is to punish people, a God who welcomes all updates that come his way regarding who is in need of punishing and appreciates advice about what form that punishment might take. Grandfather’s God is more the deity of hell than of heaven.

Meanwhile grandmother’s prayer reveals her as a person whose God is mercy beyond mercy, though she is alarmed enough by her husband’s volcanic god to think she may need to pray that God will please ignore her husband’s advice. Thus she sometimes brings into her prayers an explanation of what prompted this or that person to behave badly.

As I think about the donor who in the end can’t make the donation she wanted to, I find God in the midst of the prospective donor’s act of readiness to give away part of her body for the well-being of another. That in the end it turns out there is a medical reason why this action would not be prudent is not, for me, the heart of the story nor a revelation of the capriciousness of God, a creator who toys with us as cats toy with mice and birds before administering the fatal bite.

Neither have I an attraction to another popular image of God -- God the Divine Baby-Sitter, whose job it is to keep us from driving off the edge of road. For better and (not or) for worse, we bear the awful weight of having to hit the brakes ourselves. Often we fail to do so, and the results can be truly catastrophic.

Another way of putting it: God calls us to be peacemakers but never forces anyone to be peaceful.

(The photo for this posting is a stone carving of Christ with Adam found on the ceiling of the cathedral at Chartres. Double-click to see it in higher resolution.)

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