Articles by Michael Fallon

The Tsunami and God

I offer these reflections to contribute to the many things have been said about God and the recent catastrophic tsunami.

1. In every culture and in every person we observe a sense of the sacred. We human beings sense that there is more to reality than the surface that we see and hear and touch and can measure. We sense a mysterious presence in the forest and the stream, in the star-studded heavens, the vast desert and the ocean, and in the wonder of love, and the ‘miracle’ of a newborn child. Writers on religion speak of the ‘numinous’ in relation to the sacred mystery that we sense outside ourselves. They speak of the ‘mystical’ in relation to the sacred mystery that we sense within. It is within this context of our experience of the sacred that we speak of ‘God’.

2. Another key factor is our recognition of our own dependence. We know that everything that we experience shares in this dependence. Reality as we experience it is not self-explanatory. Everything is passing. Philosophers speak of the ‘contingency’ of things. It is a small step to the idea that the existence of our material world is dependent on spiritual powers that do not share our mortality; in other words, on the so-called ‘gods’.

3. I use ‘gods’ in the plural advisedly, for our knowledge of human cultures teaches us that people thought of ‘gods’. The piecemeal nature of people’s experience, as well as tribal cohesion and constant conflict gave no grounds for awareness of the inter-connectedness of reality. People thought in terms of the gods of the forest, and the gods of the streams, the god sensed in the moon and the god sensed in the sun, the god of our mountain, the god of the storm.

4. Many peoples thought of a hierarchy of gods, and of a chief God, but polytheism remained the norm. Since the gods were thought of as powerful, negative experiences were seen as expressions of divine displeasure, and positive experiences were thought of as expressions of divine favour. What happens on earth was seen as under the control of the various gods. Cults arose to win their favour, and all kinds of superstitious practices can be observed in the hope of doing the will of the gods and earning their protection.

5. We find imperfect early glimmerings of monotheism in the ancient world, notably in Judaism; ‘imperfect’, because based on a certain possessiveness. It was not a recognition that everything depended for its existence on the one mysterious source, and so a recognition that every single thing is essentially sacred and to be respected as such. Rather it was an understanding that our God is the only true God. Along with this went the thought that our enemies are God’s enemies and so are as valueless as their false gods. Islam inherited this understanding of God from Judaism. It was assumed that the all-powerful God who created the world controls everything that happens. Love and mercy are key concepts, but so are anger and punishment.

6. A true monotheist sees that everything belongs to everything else; that there is only one source holding everything in existence. There have been true monotheists within all the great religions of the world. Within Judaism there was Jesus. A true monotheist will talk to a Samaritan woman at a well, will embrace a leper, will eat with sinners, and will be able to say to a criminal dying on the cross beside him: ‘Today you will be with me in paradise.’ We know a true monotheist by the way he or she treats every person, indeed, everything. A genuine monotheist sees one and the same sacred mystery at the heart of everything.

7. It is clear from the New Testament that Jesus knew and revealed God as love. This idea is found also in some of the prophetic writings and psalms, but it is mixed in with a jumble of human projections. Jesus cut through these and presented God as love. You remember the story of the man born blind (John’s Gospel, chapter 9). The others understood his blindness as divine punishment and asked Jesus whether the man himself had sinned, or his parents. Jesus dismissed their question and spoke rather of taking the opportunity to reveal God’s love,. The story is about enlightenment. It is true that Jesus drew for his parables on people’s real experiences, including their experiences of power and control exercised (often abused) by those in authority. He used these examples to underline the fact that what we do matters and that we cannot pretend to avoid the consequences of the decisions we make. If we project onto God the attitudes and actions of the often sinful human kings who feature in his parables, the problem is our misunderstanding of Jesus’ use of parables. Jesus constantly revealed God as a God of love.

8. Now comes the key point of this reflection. When, as adults, we experience someone attempting to control us, we do not experience this as love. I am not saying that love is not demanding. Nor am I saying that someone who truly loves us will not be willing to challenge and correct us. However, love never controls. Love respects us as sacred and respects our freedom. Love does not (cannot) protect us from suffering the consequences of our misuse or abuse of freedom, for it does not take over control. Love loves; it does not control. The idea of God controlling is so embedded in our psyche that we have to be determined if we are to really listen to Jesus and watch him reveal God as precisely not controlling. It is not that God is doing nothing. God is loving. God is inspiring us all to love and offering us the grace to do so. God, the creator, enables us to co-create – that is to say, to love. As Paul says in the famous passage in his First Letter to the Corinthians: ‘Love has space enough to hold and to bear everything and everyone. Love believes all things, hopes all things, and endures whatever comes. Love does not come to an end’(13:7-8).

9. A further implication. The above is true of us human beings. It is true also of the material creation. The world is free to evolve according to its nature – including earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis. The God of Jesus does not intervene. God loves. Of course we have to widen our perspective to infinity. We cannot limit our thinking to this side of death. To do so would open ourselves to Jesus’ retort to the Sadducees: ‘You are wrong. You understand neither the Scriptures nor the power of God’(Mark 12:24). God embraced Jesus from the cross into an eternal love-communion.

10. The crucifying of Jesus is one among many acts performed by sinful people who were not open to God’s inspiring love, but were locked into their own sinful agenda. Such evil acts continue to haunt our world. God does not stop them, for God respects our freedom. God loves the victims of injustice and inspires all of us to turn from evil and do good. The recent tsunami is one among many catastrophic events that are part of a world in process. God does not stop them, for God respects the processes of the world. God loves the victims as God loved the crucified Jesus, and God inspires us all to respond to their plight with love. We have seen what this can mean when people open their hearts to this inspiration.

11. We are called to respect our sense of the sacred – in the world around us and in the depths of our own being. We are in a position today to recognise authentic monotheism, for it is clear to us that we all belong. There is no place for self-centred religion. Jesus revealed God as love. As the medieval song says: ‘Where there is love, there is God.’

12. It is important to stress that I have been speaking of Jesus’ revelation, not of historical Christianity. At their best, the followers of Jesus grasped his revelation, lived it, and continue to live it often in heroic ways. We find heroism and sanctity in Judaism, in Islam, indeed, everywhere in this world, wherever people are open to the inspiration of divine love. However the message of Jesus, including his message about God, has, throughout the centuries, been blunted and accommodated such that Christians – and not only in the past – have blunted and distorted Jesus’ revelation. In a half-converted way, we have overlain Jesus’ words and deeds with our own prejudices and projections. Some still want God to intervene when what we should be doing is opening ourselves as fully as we are able to love, and helping others to do the same. If we were to do this, think of the ‘miracles’ that would happen in this world: miracles that only love can make possible. Jesus revealed God as love. God is all-powerful, all-powerful with the only power that deserves the name: all-powerful love. The only miracles that happen are miracles that happen when love is not thwarted. We can pray, like a child, for whatever it is we desire, so long as we open ourselves to love and allow love to work its purifying and energising effect in us and so in our world. Finally, we have every hope that beyond death and beyond suffering there is the promise of an eternity of love-communion that is for us, provided we do not obstinately reject it.

13. In the meantime, shocked as we are by the catastrophic tsunami, we might be awakened to the fact disclosed in a report from the United Nations, that 29,000 children die every single day as a result of avoidable diseases and malnutrition. That is over 10 million children a year! As Rabbi Michael Lerner says: ‘The difference between the almost non-existent coverage of this on-going human-created disaster and the huge focus on the terrible tsunami-created suffering reveals some deep and ugly truths about our collective self-deceptions’(03.01.05). Jesus experienced a profound sense of being abandoned as he suffered his excruciating death, but he continued to cry out to one he called ‘My God’, and his cry was heard. This is a source of hope for us all. Faced with suffering we are called to open our hearts to the compassion of God and respond in love. If we did nothing else, what a world this would be!