Not frightening any longer? (Google Images)
BY GARRY EVERETT
A number of seemingly un-related events caught my attention recently.
Firstly, I was discussing parish life, in a parish not my own, with some senior parishioners. One gentleman in his 80s asked me why we don’t teach the fear of God these days.
Then that night I was reading a book by respected Australian theologian, Fr Denis Edwards, who was expounding his views about possible natural explanations for most of the miracles worked by Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels. (Fr Albert Nolan had offered a different natural explanation some years ago.)
Later I read an article in this publication about the demise on the teaching of the fear of hell, which the author claimed had motivated the highly successful Crusades (to kill all the opponents of orthodox Church teaching!) (CathNews Perspectives, How did we forget about hell? http://www.cathnews.com.au/article.aspx?aeid=34603)
Finally, I was struck by some of the expressions in now Pope Emeritus Benedict’s Lenten message, especially the claim ‘that Faith and charity can never be separated.’
I began to wonder what do I believe and why? In what ways are the four examples above, indicative of the struggles we find in our own faith journeys, and in the struggle to evangelize?
The journey of faith, of believing, is a mysterious one. Fowler and other scholars have attempted to map it as some form of a staged process, beginning from unquestioning acceptance of teachings, and progressing to some form of transformative presence in the world i.e. in being for others.
The notions of self-awareness and of accepting responsibility for one’s choices, are important dimensions of this progression.
What has all this to do with the four matters raised in the opening paragraph? Firstly, the elderly gentleman who was somewhat distraught because he could not see any emphasis on the fear of God in Church today, was worried about his faith and that of others.
He told me that he thought he was ‘out of touch and didn’t understand Church today.’
He also felt that young people were too blasé, and didn’t have a real appreciation for the majesty of God. He may well have been correct on both counts.
His views are not that far from those of the writer who is concerned that Catholics have lost the sense of the fear of hell. But the two uses of fear are, of course, different.
The first, fear of God, is probably better translated as ‘awe’, as in the sense of wonder we might have at God’s love and power.
The second seems closer to the psychological state that motivates us to avoid danger.
The first type of fear would seem to be healthy, and still operative in much of what the Church believes today. The second type does appear to have waned in influence in the last 50 years or so.
The key question perhaps, is whether the loss of belief in either or both expressions of fear, seriously damages one’s faith?
Let’s suspend judgement here for a moment, and look at the miracles issue.
Most Catholics would accept that Jesus worked miracles, which are understood as some form of divine intervention in normal experiences of life, in order to show the power of God. To argue otherwise, would be to strike at the heart of faith in Jesus!
In other words, if Jesus didn’t work miracles (as acts of God’s intervention), then in what sense was Jesus God?
The explanation offered by Fr Edwards is complex and requires close consideration of his arguments—whether you agree with him or not. Edwards notes the comment of Jesus ‘Your faith has saved you’ as significant in trying to understand what transpired in a miracle.
The issue for us is, would our faith be totally destroyed if we found that there were other explanations for the miracles than the ones we have always believed? Or put another way, would we be too afraid to believe in something different?
This brings us to the statement by Benedict XVI about the inseparable relationship of faith and charity. Benedict was teaching that faith without goods works is not enough for a Christian, and nor is good works without faith.
Yet we can ponder on two interesting examples.
In Jesus’ story of the exercise of neighbourliness, he chooses as the example of good works, a Samaritan, not a Jew, and one usually regarded as not having religious motives.
The Good Samaritan is, in fact, an example of one who does good, without having (overtly), a strong faith in God.
Remember, this is a parable, and not an account about someone who met Jesus, and whose new found faith transformed that person.
The other reflection concerns the large number of Catholics who have strong faith, but who do not commit to regular expressions of that faith in good works.
They attend Mass, they pray, they lead ‘good’ lives, but they are not involved in charitable works of the kind the Pope seems to have in mind. In brief, it would seem that faith and charity can co-exist without the bond of inseparable inter-dependence.
However, this is not to deny Benedict’s claim of the ideal: ‘faith is genuine only if crowned by charity.’
The above reflections are all incomplete, and require that we each consider more deeply what we believe and with what results. Changing some of our beliefs might not necessarily be deleterious to our Catholic identity.
The Blessed John Henry Newman reputedly said: ‘To be perfect is to change often.’
The processes of physically ageing are often regarded as being those of gradual diminishment.
The processes of spiritually ageing may just be quite the opposite! Our faith may grow as we age because we no longer ‘think like a child’, but have come to a new-found freedom, in which faith unfolds the truth about the God of surprises!
Garry Everett is deputy chair of Mercy Partners in Queensland and a former Deputy Director of the Queensland Catholic Education Commission and previous chair of the Brisbane Archdiocesan Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace.
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