Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of May 7, 2007
God's true voice is an invitation, not coercive
By FR. RON ROLHEISER, omi
Where does God speak in our world? How does God speak?
Whenever you hear a voice that sounds coercive, threatening, overbearing, that is somehow loud and in your face, you can be sure that, no matter how religious and holy it might claim to be, it is not God's voice.
God's voice in this world is never coercive or overbearing, but is always an invitation and a beckoning that respects you and your freedom in a way that no human institution or person ever does. God's voice is thoroughly underwhelming, like a baby's presence.
Sadly whenever someone teaches this, there are immediate objections, often angry and bitter: What about God's judgment? What about God's condemnation of sin? What about God's anger?
Scripture does, on the surface, give us the impression that God is sometimes angry and full of condemnation. But these are anthropomorphisms (a way of speaking about God that reveals how we feel about God when we are unfaithful, sinful and violent).
God's voice does judge and it does condemn, but it does so not by coercive force, but in the same way that the innocence of a baby judges false sophistication, in the way that generosity exposes selfishness, and in the way that big-heartedness reveals pettiness.
God's voice judges us not by overpowering us but by shining love and light into all those places were we find ourselves huddled in fear, shame, bitterness, hostility and sin.
But this is not something we learn easily. Already way back, before the birth of Christ, sincere religious people were yearning for God to come into the world in power. What they wanted, and prayed for, was a physical superstar who would come into the world and cleanse it by overpowering sin and evil and rooting them out by force.
What they wanted in the Messiah was a morally superior violence that would give evil no options, but force it literally to acquiesce. What we got instead was a helpless baby in the straw who overpowered no one.
Twenty centuries later, we are still struggling to accept this. Too often the Christ we try to incarnate and preach is still that ancient, longed-for, overpowering Messiah who aims to cleanse the world through flat-out coercion.
We see this most clearly in Islamic extremists who, like well-intentioned Christians in the time of the Inquisition, sincerely believe error has no rights and that, in the name of God, we must use force, violence if necessary, to bring about God's will on earth.
In this view, murder and violence may be done to further God's purpose because God wants his will imposed upon this world, whether the world wants to accept it or not. But this is the antithesis of true religion.
We need to view God, always, as non-coercive, as an invitation. This has immense implications for everything to do with Church and religion, from how we preach, to how we catechize, to how we do liturgy, to how we reach out to those who don't share our beliefs, to how we approach divisive moral issues, to how loud we turn up the sound system in our churches.
God's voice is not a loud, coercive, overbearing, threatening voice. Rather, God's voice invites in, beckons, leaves you free, and is as non-threatening as the innocence and powerlessness of a baby - or a saint.
We are too prone inside our Church circles to blame the world's resistance to God's message simply on its hardness of heart, sin and indifference. Partly that's true, but a large part of that resistance has its root too in another source, namely, our own preaching, pastoral practice, moral fever and elitism.
Too often, however sincerely we might be doing this, the voice we try to give to God is too laden with threat, manipulation, violence, harshness, our own fears, our own wounds, and especially our own egos to bear enough resemblance to the divine kenosis and free invitation that Jesus gave voice to in his birth, life and message.
Sometimes, after just having given a talk or a homily, I am told by a well-meaning person: "You should raise your voice more! Speak louder! You're speaking too softly!"
I don't think so! We need, I believe, to lower our voices whenever we purport to be speaking in God's name because God's voice never overpowers. Indeed, as Mary Jo Leddy says: We need to find the few words that are truly our own - and then speak them, clearly but softly.
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 -- Western Catholic Reporter
Our mission: To serve our readers by bringing the Gospel to bear on current issues in the Church and in secular culture through accurate news coverage and reflective commentary.