Some years ago, some villagers in my parish, faced with the closure of their small church, rallied and organised themselves to see what could be done to make it viable. A retired civil servant listed the various tasks which he had arranged to be done, and he had achieved a great deal. He said that the practical tasks were within his ability but he couldn’t help with discussions about the nature of the universe or of God. I was taken aback by his view that our primary task was to conduct philosophical discussions, like early twentieth century French philosophers, and that anyone would want to join a church where this was being done!
The nature of God as a philosophical problem has never really engaged me, it belongs to the world of crosswords or sudoku. I appreciate the skill these things take, but I really don’t see the point. I can say that God has these qualities, say green eyes, and someone can say God has brown eyes. At the end of the day, so what? Who cares?
Now if I say that my green-eyed God revealed to my green-eyed people that the land you are standing on was given to us from the dawn of time, suddenly it matters. If I go on to say that you can remain on this land we’ve been given, but you won’t have the same employment opportunities, or your children won’t have the same life-chances as green-eyed people, it matters even more. You don’t have to go far with this idea before you begin to see resonances in nineteenth-century plantations in the deep south of the United States, twentieth-century unrest in Northern Ireland, and the ongoing wound which is Israel/Palestine. The list goes on and throughout history that engaging God in the cause of our tribal identity not only diminishes God, but gives us leave to commit all sorts of acts in the name of our tribal God.
If we believe we act in the name of the purposes of our God, then anything which opposes us is heresy. It might not make a difference if we have no power to act on what we believe other people to be. When Hitler wrote Mein Kampf, he described Jews as a disease, as germs. The idea remained for a few years, until he had the power to do what you do with disease or germs, which is eradicate them. If we feel our God is not acting quickly enough to eliminate those who believe heresy, or other religion, then if we have the power, we might help things along a bit and begin to try to eradicate these people. If the weapons we have are powerful enough, we may even eradicate ourselves in the process, but if we believe we are going to heaven, then we might go ahead anyway.
Jesus taught his disciples to pray ‘Our Father’, which implicitly identifies a shared God, a God of all. To see God in the face of your enemy is a much more difficult task than it is to simply write her/him off. To share God with your enemy means that you may have to acknowledge your kinship with someone whom you might find it easier to condemn. It may be that some of the evil characteristics your enemy has may also be in your own soul, but it is easier to put them out on someone else. To begin on the journey of understanding the God of everyone, we have to begin by seeing why we are compelled to make our enemy less human than us. This may be through fear of what lies within each of us. In other words, the path to reconciliation may begin with self-knowledge, of owning up to the darker characteristics of ourselves and our tribe.
Two months ago I was in a group of professionals involved in my community. I asked the question why our work hurt so much? It was the policeman who answered by saying that, to do his job properly, when he puts a prisoner in a cell, he has to understand that if his own life had been just slightly different, he could be that prisoner. He said he has to see himself in the face of the other. I had a similar experience a week or so later when I caught one of our heroin addicts trying to force a money box in church. I didn’t have to think for long to see how my life could have ended up like his.
So it matters very much what we believe God to be like. At worst, it can send us on holy war, whatever our religion; at best it can lead us into a path of self-discovery, with the possibility of learning that we all might be more alike than we are different, and all children of the same Spirit of Life.