Br. Robert Sevensky
RCL - Palm Sunday B - 05 April 2009
There is a quotation attributed to Rabbi Abraham Heschel, the great 20th century Jewish teacher: “God is not nice. God is not an uncle. God is an earthquake.”
In truth, however, much of contemporary religion and spirituality is, in various guises, precisely about being nice.
Christian Smith and Melissa Denton, in a sociological study titled Soul Searching: The Religion and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford University Press, 2005), shared the results of their extensive interviews with hundreds of American young people regarding their faith and values. The results were surprising. Across the religious and denominational landscape and across the political and geographic spectrum, most, if not all, young people seemed to share a set of basic core values about their faith. Smith and Denton summarized their findings as follows: “We suggest that the de facto dominant religion among contemporary teenagers in the United States is what we might call Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”
The characteristic core doctrines of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism included these shared beliefs
- A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
- God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
- The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
- God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.
- Good people go to heaven when they die.
Now it is unlikely that any individual teenager would identify Moralistic Therapeutic Deism as his or her faith, and most would be hard-pressed to express themselves in precisely these scholarly terms, but the same elements appear and reappear throughout the youth culture and beyond. And on the surface, it can all sound OK. In fact, I have to confess that it sounds like what I have sometimes believed and often told others. And there can obviously be some desirable points to this faith stance.
But Moralistic Therapeutic Deism can be terribly self-serving, self-referential and self-absorbed. It can be, and all too frequently is, all about being a nice enough person, not making waves, working on self-improvement, being as successful as you can be and having a good self-image. If God gets involved at all, it’s only to straighten out some difficulties or messes or crises and bring us back to equilibrium, planting us firmly back on our own two feet. But most of the time for most adherents of this creed, God is not much involved in our lives at all, and most of us are pretty content with that, thank you very much.
Fordham theology professor Mark Massa, SJ, sees these five basic beliefs underlying Moralistic Therapeutic Deism among his many bright college students, both Catholic and non-Catholic, and he summarizes them in rather less scholarly but more trenchant terms:
- God is nice.
- Most people are nice.
- Most people—except for Adolf Hitler—go to heaven.
- All other theological and ethical statements are relative, being true primarily if they work for you.
God is an Earthquake.
And God is Fire.
And God is Light.
And God is Righteous
And God is Holy.
And God is Just.
And God is God.
And I am not…
And neither are you.
The dominant religion of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism may work well enough much of the time… at least until it comes up against the disturbing realities that resound throughout Holy Week, realities that constellated around Jesus and that constellate around us, human beings everywhere: misunderstanding, rejection, betrayal, slander, threat, denial, abandonment, violence, suffering, pain, death.
No… God is not nice. And people are, I’m afraid, not nice, at least not always, and maybe not even as often as we think. And what we believe and how we behave does have consequences… both for ourselves and for others, both now and in eternity.
That’s the hard truth of Holy Week. And it is a great scandal and a great disappointment for many. And it would, I fear, be a cause of general despair, were it not for one other central fact and one saving truth. And that fact and that truth is that God has stepped into this very un-nice picture, into our human situation, and willingly and out of deep love bore the worst it could offer. God stepped in to call us back to our right minds. God stepped in to mend our wounded hearts. God stepped in to show the way. God stepped in to redeem us, to save us, to effect a reconciliation that goes beyond human expectation and human understanding. God stepped in, wresting meaning out of pain and life out of death and victory out of defeat.
How did God this? He did it in Jesus. He did by the whole wonderful mystery of a life lived for others and poured out for others and raised up for others. Who can explain it? Who can understand it? I surely can’t. And perhaps we don’t have to. What we need to do rather is to bear witness to it once again. Proclaim it. And submit ourselves, our lives and our puny faith to its fiery power.
St. Gregory of Nazianzus speaking in the fourth century said: “Humanity had to be brought back to life by the humanity of God. We had to be summoned to life by his Son. Let the rest be adored in silence.”
We will soon bless our palms and carry them in procession and proclaim Christ as our King and Guide and Lord. But another ancient writer [Andrew of Crete] counsels us: let us not spread before him olive branches and palms that will fade in a few hours or garments that will wear out in a few seasons, however stylish and well made. Rather, let us spread out our very selves before him: “We who have been baptized into Christ must ourselves be the garments we spread before him…. Let our souls [lives] take the place of the welcoming branches as we join today in the children’s holy song: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the king of Israel.”
Assist us mercifully, O Lord God of our salvation, that we may enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts, whereby you have given us life and immortality; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. [BCP, p. 270]