The Life and Times of Radical Post-Modern Catholic Theology; or, How to be God Without Really Trying

The Temple
February 21, 2008
That Old Boat
February 28, 2008

On the wall next to my closet hangs a poster of the Last Supper. It’s the traditional print, recuperated from da Vinci’s masterpiece that was painted hundreds of years ago. It’s paragonically Christian; more so, it’s typical of the Catholic propensity for icons.

On the door to my apartment hangs another poster—this one a medieval-style rendering of Christ and a companion, titled “Le Christ et son ami,” Christ and his friend. It was a fitting image to have on my door, I once thought—a reminder that I’m a friend to Christ regardless of what I do. It was intended to give me peace of mind as I left for work everyday, or out to face the many day-to-day engagements of my life.

As I listen to the sermons at my church, the not-so-typically inclusive St. Paul, I am beginning to refigure my perception of these pictures, and my whole theology with them.

I once spouted some thoughts on a radical shift in my theological viewpoint. Now, I’m tempted to laugh at the whole business. In typical high Catholic fashion, I treated the business as a creation-wide alteration of systems. Rather, belief system. No more talking of God as an abstract Father in the big blue sky, I proudly proclaimed—He is everywhere and in everything.

Hardly revelational, if you’ve spent 30 seconds listening to a moderately liberal Christian sermon, and a fair many are these days I think, at least in the United States. My passionate awakening has less to do with hearing the news of an omnipresent God for the first time, and more with the final connection between understanding it intellectually and understanding it spiritually. I can’t tell you how, but something moved in me to facilitate that understanding. Which, I thought, was still missing from the rest of creation. Hence the proclamation.

But I have another addendum to this great theology of mine. One that I will likely laugh at in months to come, or brush under the table, or try to stuff into the garbage can. For now, though, it seems truly worthwhile to share—not as a proclamation of performative change within the ranks of all believers, but rather as a new insight into this quirky, complex thing called faith.

First, let’s ditch the world “theology,” shall we? I’ve used it incessantly the last few years, and it has done little more than make me feel exclusively elevated, and complicate matters than should be presented in far more prosaic terms. I consent (and have before, though without special attention) that language is problematic in the whole faith business, mostly because we desire a way to express ourselves, but find that language as a means is somewhat lacking. Absent any better alternative, we stick to what we know and build on that. So, for the nonce, I will call the essence of my belief sometimes God, sometimes He, sometimes She, sometimes Love, and sometimes a thousand other permutations of the English language. Suffice it to say, I do not mean to impose a Christian framework on my articulations of faith, but that it is what I know, and so I use it. Therefore, let’s call these ideas and thoughts what we know they are: ideas and thoughts.

Second, let’s take the Bible, the Koran, the Torah, and any other holy books and give them a good, long (wide frame) look. I think we can safely say that each, in many complex and varying ways, depicts a relationship between creation and creator. How each is defined and how each is meant to act differs, sometimes greatly, but this is a fundamental similarity among them. They are about relationship.

Now, allow me to play devil’s advocate. As human beings, we have witnessed ourselves create. We put legos together to make a castle, we nail wood together to build a house, we throw ingredients in a pan and cook them to make a meal—we create. At the same time, we’re not very sure how much of our ability to create is self-generated. Something must have put the seed into nature for humanity to get going, right? And then, something or someone must have developed the genetic code that predisposes us to certain character traits. And what about personality? Is there more to that than family and environment? It’s definitely possible. So, there must be (an)other creator(s).

Where does that leave us? We’re both creator and created. Does that mean, according to our many holy books, that their stories are about interaction among ourselves, even within each individual? Why not? Yes, yes, I know what tradition says, and what dogma affirms and doctrine preaches, but set that aside for a minute and look at what you know, what you experience. Would this make sense?

Take it a step further. If we’re created and creator, and the relationships developed and detailed in the Bible, the Koran, etc. are examples for us to follow as much as they are records of our history, then who’s to say we aren’t living out similar relationships right now? It brings to mind the limitations of writing—it’s finite. The Bible, inspirational though it is, cannot contain the unending saga of man and God. But, if you’ll allow me the God language, it does in the life of creation.

You see, as I have come to understand, mankind has been in a perpetual state of maturation since he (and she) first started procreating. Their early spiritual, mental, and emotional selves needed something to grasp onto—a physical, tangible presence that reminded them constantly of the interaction between creator and created. Hence, we have tomes like the Bible and the Koran. But if we give ourselves enough credit, we might just see that these days such a book isn’t always a helpful reminder of relationship, but a weighty hindrance that keeps us tied to our past. I wonder sometimes, if we wouldn’t be better considering our everyday lives as the next chapter of our holy books—though less tangible than their predecessors. Do we really need ink and paper to keep us living our faith?

I recognize the irony in saying as much; I’m sitting here writing you these thoughts while I tell you you shouldn’t need to read them. But the truth is, some of us do. And, some of us need a push to get away from it. Should we abandon the written holy books? No. They still provide us inspiration, they still remind us of where we came from. But we should remember that we are writing our own chapters, even as we read others’.

Which brings me back to the Christ figures hanging on my wall. It occurred to me recently that it might be healthier to see Christ, not only as the Son of God, but as the type of Christ. That is, a person whom we can imitate. Not robotically, of course, but in the manner in which he lived. There is little doubt, as I look at the Last Supper now, that Christ is not as dependent on his twelve apostles for support as they are on him for salvation. It blurs the lines between savior and saved; it reminds me of the part of myself that has always been, and always will be, divine.

And then there’s Christ and his pal. I used to see myself in the role of the friend. But what if I became the Christ figure? What if I am the shelter for someone in distress, the hope for someone who is lost? The vision offers me a feeling of passionate hope that reminds me why I continue to follow my faith.

You ask: Isn’t there a danger of developing a God complex? Certainly. As much of a danger as there is in damning yourself to eternal perdition and boundless indentured servitude if you supplicate too quickly, being constantly sinful and forever wrong (which, I’ve learned, we’re not). I have tended toward the latter; I intend to bring both into balance. The world would be better if I were free to use my gifts, rather than exhausted from watching me deprecate myself. Such a waste of creation that has been.

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