oppressive images of god

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Jun 03, 2007



Tim Radcliffe is moulting again. From his Ascension homily:

But let's be honest. It does not always feel like home. Lots of people do not feel at ease in the Church. This may be because we feel that God does not want us here. If that is the case, then we are living with some image of God that needs to disappear. Maybe we still have God as the celestial policeman, the accuser of sins, God as the eternal parking attendant, waiting to catch us out, or God as the great President of the Universe. In which case, we have not yet fully celebrated the Ascension. We must let these images of God disappear, fade away, so that we can discover the God who delights in our very existence, and dwells at the core of our being.

Or maybe it is other people who make us feel ill at ease, not at home. I think that this may be something this congregation has experienced from time to time! We may feel that we are not proper Catholics or second class because we are gay, or divorced and remarried, or poor, or because life has just taken unexpected turns. Most lives do! In which case rather than be angry or internalise that rejection, we must be compassionate for those whose lives are haunted by oppressive images of God.

Radcliffe, the former Master General of the Dominicans, has a remarkable talent for taking two distinct ideas and fusing them into a single blurry one. It's a kind of anti-theology, a Thomism-in-reverse. He has a good ear for the fetching quotation, though, and skilfully manages to stagger reassurance and flat error.

"We may feel that we are not proper Catholics or second class because ..." A sentence like that ropes the reader onto the author's side even before the mid-way point, pretending to a kind of modesty and providing manipulation in the place of an argument. It's effective. After all, do we want to classify other Catholics as improper or "second class"?

Well, I do. If a man has freedom in the matter, and deliberately chooses to ignore what his Catholic faith teaches in order to satisfy some personal desire, then he has put the Church in second place (at best) and it is no injustice to recognize him as a second class Catholic. This is true of a businessman who chooses to loot his employees' retirement fund and it's true of a cop who lies under oath to protect a brutal colleague and it's true of a professor who walks out on his children in order to shack up with his research assistant. When the prof gets a crayoned letter from his five-year-old -- "Daddy please come home" -- and he feels guilty about it, are we to put our pastoral arm around his tweed shoulder and purr, "There, there. You have to get beyond this notion of God as celestial policeman; he delights in your very existence -- even when your kids are crying themselves to sleep"?

Doesn't work. That's because Radcliffe's not doing theology, but giving a slide-show of reliably well-chosen sentimentalisms in order to help us discard those teachings he finds overly confining. Check out his oh-so-cute conclusion:

The apostles who witnessed the disappearing of Jesus still clung on to images of God that took time to go. It took them time to realise that the God who only wanted to have Jews in his community was gone and that we Gentiles also are at home. We are all learning. The chapel of the Ascension [outside Jerusalem] is both a Church and also a mosque, a shared holy place for Christians and Muslims. It is a sign of God's unimaginably spacious home.

I'll just bet it is. Try delivering Radcliffe's homily therein -- to the Christians or the Muslims -- and watch the tears of ecumenical remorse well up in their eyes. They'd make the chapel even more spacious, and quickly.

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