RonRolheiser,OMI

God’s Exuberant Energy

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All things considered, I believe that I grew up with a relatively healthy concept of God. The God of my youth, the God that I was catechized into, was not unduly punishing, arbitrary, or judgmental. Granted, he was omnipresent so that all of our sins were noticed and noted; but, at the end of the day, he was fair, loving, personally concerned for each of us, and wonderfully protective to the point of providing each of us with a personal guardian angel. That God gave me permission to live without too much fear and without any particularly crippling religious neuroses.

But that only gets you so far in life. Not having an unhealthy notion of God doesn’t necessarily mean you have a particularly healthy one. The God who I was raised on was not overly stern and judgmental, but neither was he very joyous, playful, witty, or humorous. Especially, he wasn’t sexual, and had a particularly vigilant and uncompromising eye in that area. Essentially he was somber, heavy, and not very joyous to be around. Around him, you had to be solemn and reverent. I remember the Assistant Director at our Oblate novitiate telling us that there is no recorded incident, ever, of Jesus having laughed.

Under such a God you had permission to be essentially healthy. However, to the extent that you took him seriously, you still walked through life less than fully robust and your relationship with him could only be solemn and reverent.

Then, beginning more than a generation ago, there was a strong reaction in many churches and in the culture to this concept of God. Popular theology and spirituality set out to correct this, sometimes with an undue vigor. What they presented instead was a laughing Jesus and a dancing God, and while this was not without its value, it still left us begging for a deeper literature about the nature of God and what that might mean for us in terms of a health and relationships.

That literature won’t be easy to write, not just because God is ineffable, but because God’s energy is also ineffable. What, indeed, is energy? We rarely ask this question because we take energy as something so primal that it cannot be defined but only taken as a given, as self-evident. We see energy as the primal force that lies at the heart of everything that exists, animate and inanimate. Moreover, we feel energy, powerfully, within ourselves. We know energy, we feel energy, but we rarely recognize its origins, its prodigiousness, its joy, its goodness, its effervescence, and its exuberance. Moreover, we rarely recognize what it tells us about God. What does it tell us?

The first quality of energy is its prodigiousness. It is prodigal beyond our imagination and this speaks something about God. What kind of creator makes billions of throwaway universes?  What kind of creator makes trillions upon trillions of species of life, millions of them never to be seen by the human eye? What kind of father or mother has billions of children?

And what does the exuberance in the energy of young children say about our creator? What does their playfulness suggest about what must also lie inside of sacred energy? What does the energy of a young puppy tell us about what’s sacred? What do laughter, wit, and irony tell us about God?

No doubt the energy we see around us and feel irrepressibly within us tells us that, underneath, before and below everything else, there flows a sacred force, both physical and spiritual, which is at its root, joyous, happy, playful, exuberant, effervescent, and deeply personal and loving. God is the ground of that energy. That energy speaks of God and that energy tells us why God made us and what kind of permissions God is giving us for living out our lives.

God is ineffable, that is the first truth that we hold about God. That means that God cannot be imagined or ever circumscribed in a concept. All images of God are inadequate; but, that being admitted, we might try to imagine things this way. At the very center of everything there lies an unimaginable energy that is not an impersonal force, but a person, a loving self-conscious mind and heart. From this ground, this person, issues forth all energy, all creativity, all power, all love, all nourishment, and all beauty. Moreover, that energy, at its sacred root, is not just creative, intelligent, personal, and loving, it’s also joyous, colorful, witty, playful, humorous, erotic, and exuberant at its very core. To live in it is to feel a constant invitation to gratitude.

The challenge of our lives is to live inside that energy in a way that honors both it and its origins. That means keeping our shoes off before the burning bush as we respect its sacredness, even as we constantly receive permission from it to be robust, free, joyous, humorous, and playful – without feeling we are stealing fire from the gods.

Go Crazy or Turn Holy

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In a poem Serenade, Brazilian poet Adelia Pradospeaks of a painful ache we feel inside us as we forever wait for something or someone to come and make us whole. What are we waiting for? Love? A soulmate? God? No matter, the frustration eventually pushes us towards a choice, go crazy or turn holy:

I am beginning to despair

And can see only two choices:

Either go crazy or turn holy.

And when that someone or something finally does come:

How will I open the window, unless I’m crazy?
How will I close it, unless I’m holy?

Either go crazy or turn holy. The older we get the more we realize how true that is, how eventually that’s the choice forced on all of us, both by the way we are built and the limitations inherent in life itself. Why? Is there something wrong with life and with us? Why can’t we find a peaceful space somewhere between crazy and holy?

Well, the biblical preacher in the Book of Ecclesiastes offers a reason. After penning that beautiful, oft-quoted text about how there is a time for everything – a time to be born and to a time to die; a time to plant and a time to harvest; a time to break down and a time to heal; a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance; a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to keep silent and a time to speak; a time for love and a time for hate; and a time for war and a time for peace – he offers us this. God has laid out a beautiful rhythm for life and has made everything beautiful in its own time, but God has put timelessness into the human heart so that we are out of sync with the seasons from beginning to end. God has established a beautiful rhythm to nature; but we, unlike the physical elements and the plants and the animals who don’t have timelessness in their souls, never quite fit into that rhythm. We are overcharged for life on this planet. (Ecclesiastes 3, 1-11)

You find expressions of this in literature everywhere in both religious and secular circles. For example, the renowned German theologian Karl Rahner used to affirm that in the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable we learn that here in this life there is no finished symphony. In that, he echoes Saint Augustine’s famous line that is as true and apropos today as it was seventeen hundred years ago when he wrote it: You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you. That single line expresses both a non-negotiable understanding of the human person and a non-negotiable path he or she must walk. We don’t have a final home here and that’s why at the end of the day there is no option other than going crazy or turning holy. It’s no surprise that Ruth Burrows, the renowned spiritual writer, begins her autobiography with these words: I was born into this world with a tortured sensitivity and my path has not been an easy one.

While this motif is everywhere present in religious literature, it is also present in the thought of many secular poets, novelists, and philosophers. For instance, after he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Albert Camus, a professed atheist, was asked by a journalist if he believed in God. He answered: No, I don’t believe in God, but that doesn’t mean I am not obsessed with the question of God. Why that obsession? Because in his thought he could not make sense of the world, nor find a fully sensible place in it for humans, unless there was a God. Without a God, human existence cannot make peace with itself. He likened the condition of someone in this world to that of a prisoner in certain medieval prisons, where they would put a prisoner in a cell that was so small that he or she could never stand fully upright or ever fully stretch out. The perpetual feeling of being cramped, it was believed, would eventually break the prisoner’s spirit. For Camus, that’s our situation in life. We can never really stand up fully or ever stretch out fully. Eventually, this breaks our spirit – and we either go crazy or get holy. That’s also the basic view of other atheistic existentialists like Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre.

Go crazy or get holy! Richard Rohr offers us a third option, get bitter. He submits that once we get to a certain age, we have only three options left open to us: We can become a pathetic old fool; or we can become a bitter old fool; or we can become a holy old fool. Notice what’s non-negotiable. We will all eventually become old fools. We have the choice only as to what kind of old fool we will be – crazy, bitter, or holy.

God’s Silence in the Face of Evil

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Theologians sometimes try to express the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection in one sentence: In the resurrection, God vindicated Jesus, his life, his message, and his fidelity. What does that mean?

Jesus entered our world preaching faith, love, and forgiveness, but the world didn’t accept that. Instead, it crucified him and by that seemingly shamed his message. We see this most clearly on the cross when Jesus is taunted, mocked, and challenged: If you are the son of God, come down from there! If your message is true, let God verify that right now! If your fidelity is more than plain stubbornness and human ignorance, then why are you dying in shame? 

What was God’s response to those taunts? Seemingly nothing, no commentary, no defense, no apologia, no counter challenge, just silence. Jesus dies in silence. Neither he nor the God he believed in tried to fill that excruciating void with any consoling words or explanations challenging people to look at the bigger picture or to look at the brighter side of things. None of that. Just silence.

Jesus died in silence, inside God’s silence and inside the world’s incomprehension. And we can let ourselves be scandalized by that silence, just as we can let ourselves be scandalized by the seeming triumph of evil, pain, and suffering in our world. God’s seeming silence in the face of evil and death can forever scandalize us: in the Jewish holocaust, in ethnic genocides, in brutal and senseless wars, in the earthquakes and tsunamis which kill thousands of people and devastate whole countries, in the deaths of countless people taken out of this life by cancer and by violence, in how unfair life can be sometimes, and in the casual manner that those without conscience can rape whole areas of life seemingly without consequence. Where is God in all of this? What’s God’s answer?

God’s answer is the resurrection, the resurrection of Jesus and the perennial resurrection of goodness within life itself. But resurrection is not necessarily rescue. God doesn’t necessarily rescue us from the effects of evil, nor even from death. Evil does what it does, natural disasters are what they are, and those without conscience can rape even as they are feeding off life’s sacred fire. Normally, God doesn’t intervene. The parting of the Red Sea isn’t a weekly occurrence. God lets his loved ones suffer and die, just as Jesus let his dear friend Lazarus die, and God let Jesus die. God redeems, raises us up afterwards, in a deeper, more lasting vindication. Moreover, the truth of that statement can even be tested empirically.

Despite every appearance to the contrary at times, in the end, love does triumph over hatred. Peace does triumph over chaos. Forgiveness does triumph over bitterness.  Hope does triumph over cynicism. Fidelity does triumph over despair. Virtue does triumph over sin. Conscience does triumph over callousness. Life does triumph over death, and good does triumph over evil, always. Mohandas K. Gandhi once wrote: “When I despair, I remember that all through history, the way of truth and love has always won. There have been murderers and tyrants, and for a time they seem invincible. But in the end they always fall. Think of it, always.”

The resurrection, most forcibly, makes that point. In the end, God has the last word. The resurrection of Jesus is that last word. From the ashes of shame, of seeming defeat, failure, and death, a new, deeper, and eternal life perennially bursts forth. Our faith begins at the very point where it seems it should end, in God’s seeming silence in the face of evil.

And what does this ask of us?

First, simply that we trust in the truth of the resurrection. The resurrection asks us to believe what Gandhi affirmed, namely, that in the end evil will not have the last word. It will fail. Good will eventually triumph.

More concretely, it asks us to roll the dice on trust and truth, namely, trusting that what Jesus taught is true. Virtue is not naïve, even when it is shamed. Sin and cynicism are naïve, even when they appear to triumph. Those who genuflect before God and others in conscience will find meaning and joy, even when they are deprived of some of the world’s pleasures. Those who drink in and manipulate sacred energy without conscience will not find meaning in life, even when they taste pleasure. Those who live in honesty, no matter the cost, will find freedom. Those who lie and rationalize will find themselves imprisoned in self-hate. Those who live in trust will find love. God’s silence can be trusted, even when we die inside of it. We need to remain faithful in love, forgiveness, and conscience, despite everything that suggests they are naive. They will bring us to what is deepest inside of life. Ultimately, God vindicates virtue. God vindicates love. God vindicates conscience. God vindicates forgiveness. God vindicates fidelity. Ultimately, God vindicated Jesus and will vindicate us too if we remain faithful.