Let’s try to refocus this thing. If we are to find virtue, it will be a positive taking, not the mere avoiding of governmental and political vice that is so often the topic of SNV posts. I hope that I can find the time and subject matter to do a reflection every Sunday, and this will be the first, rough as it is since I didn’t have much time to ponder…
The Gospel for this week is very curious to me, and it brings any number of philosophical paths we can walk down. In case you missed it:
Jesus departed from there and came to his native place, accompanied by his disciples.
When the sabbath came he began to teach in the synagogue,
and many who heard him were astonished.
They said, “Where did this man get all this?
What kind of wisdom has been given him?
What mighty deeds are wrought by his hands!
Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary,
and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon?
And are not his sisters here with us?”
And they took offense at him.
Jesus said to them,
“A prophet is not without honor except in his native place
and among his own kin and in his own house.”
So he was not able to perform any mighty deed there,
apart from curing a few sick people by laying his hands on them.
He was amazed at their lack of faith.
My first thought was of Tinkerbell. If you recall, there is a scene in all Peter Pan movies, plays, and books where the characters’ failure to believe in Tinkerbell’s abilities and intent was enough to render her completely powerless. I think that this strange paradigm might have truth in our own world that applies to faith and the way the God acts in the world. But let’s put that on hold for a second…
First, a bit on prayer. We have our four types: Supplication (petition), Thanksgiving, Contrition (forgiveness), Adoration (praise), which are important to distinguish for our purposes here. Now, I don’t want to eviscerate prayer, but there are several difficult philosophical concepts within the idea of prayer that are important to address. I have heard it argued well that God’s Will is as it is, and supplicatory prayer cannot change it (else it was not truly His will, if He is indeed outside of time and qualitatively “changeless,” for lack of a better English term). Along this line of thought, all prayer is a force that acts on us, not God, to submission and humility in light of God’s plans for us. I believe that explanation is sufficient, philosophically – and the science trying to measure the effects of prayer shows no significant difference between those cancer victims who are prayed for and those who aren’t, consistent with this principle.
But the above may not be theologically satisfactory. If God sent His Son to die for us, it was only in our appeals to Him that it would ever have taken place. The journeys of the Israelites under Moses in the Old Testament is a very strong indication that God would leave well enough alone if we but ask – or even if we are remiss in our allegiance toward Him as Creator and Sustainer. The mature doctrine of hell is similar. If the gates of hell are locked from the inside, God can be the subject of a deist religion if we want it. We can be left as good as alone, in and of ourselves, if we require it or even in times when we seriously doubt His relationship/existence. This is just as it is with people in the world around us. We can make choices that distance us from someone we should love. Even if they do everything in their power to push us back toward the love of that original relationship, it will rely on our choices to continue that love. Further, any symbols that may mean something when we are in the relationship with that person will be significantly decreased in meaning, if they mean anything at all. A good relationship may provide significance to things that are shared by no others. For example, a small shell, when given as a gift with a story behind it that was shared between two people means much more than if a stranger randomly handed you a shell. Most of us would likely throw the stranger’s shell away, while the loved one’s shell some might keep their entire life because it holds far more meaning than anyone else may understand. If the relationship ends, one may fail to see all that was implied by the shell in the first instance of its giving, since seeing is not only based on the facts of the relationship, but also the emotional states entailed therein. Humans forget quickly, love and faith in our fellow human beings most of all – excepting the same of the Ultimate Person.
God is understood in most Christian circles to be a person of infinite degree and goodness – such that relationships are not only possible with Him, but essential to our existence and spiritual health. Since God is understood as a person, given hell and the tribulations in the Old Testament especially, it is clear that God can and will leave us as though alone if we want. When I say that he can and will leave us as though alone, I mean that the effects of His blessings and prayer will be severely limited by those who do not have a relationship with Him. I do believe we have a Tinkerbell God. The difference is that He is not weakened by our lack of belief. God does not stop coming for us even when we don’t want Him. But when we distance ourselves from Him, we do forget the relationship and what the symbols mean to the point that no symbols exist any more. The shell becomes (to us) a mere creation of a slimy sea creature; the Eucharist mere bread and wine. The veil darkens, and our material world appears to be the only one – prompting our belief to lessen even more, the veil to darken further, and the relationship to slide further and further into the nothingness that we think we want by ignoring virtue and faith. The symbols of His relationship with us simply cannot be seen without genuine belief, no matter the laboratory experiments attempting to measure them. The core of these symbols are miracles and prayer. Prayer will not work unless there is true and pure belief and virtue behind it. We must believe in God’s power for it to work. With this in mind, the above contention about the efficacy of prayer given God’s Will changes significantly. Instead of our prayers being unable to change God, they are necessary to the effects God’s Will at all, just as our acts within a relationship allow the bond to grow and take on meanings that no others with ever understand. We must believe in order to see, even though belief will never provide us understanding. We must pray for God to be able to change anything beyond the natural change that we see every day. [As a technicality here, I don’t mean that we give Him his power, I simply mean that as with any person, the relationship must be accepted to exist at all – and many of His acts and symbols are relationship-dependent. In this way, it is similar to forgiveness, which must be accepted to exist at all…]
One of the meanings of the Gospel this week seems to be that even Christ could not work miracles when none had the faith that He could. We can handicap our God’s work by failing to be that which we are supposed to – which is extremely curious, because God is the source of Grace to begin with. It is our choice, to say “yes” as the Theotokos did, or to be apathetic or cynical of His power and never see the fullness of His effects in our lives. The difference will not only be how you see the world, but how it actually exists [God is Present in the quantum reality]. Faith does have the power to move mountains, it is just that so few of us with these modern minds have enough to move even a grain of sand that we find such things laughable.
This is not to say that the only reason God will not be clearly present in our lives is by unbelief in the relationship. St. John of the Cross, my grandmother, and Mother Teresa are great evidence of the Dark Nights of the Soul that can make us feel God’s presence blocked no matter our effort and practice of virtue and faith. A Dark Night, on the other hand, is not something that most of us have to worry about because the vast shortcoming in practicing our relationship with God in this modern age is our own and we do not know Him well enough that our strength could bear such loneliness to begin with. It takes a Zen master to get there, and most of us have a long way to build our relationship before we can be comfortable enough that God will push us to such valleys.
Many more words could be spent on this bible passage, but I have just a few more…
Never be too quick to discount the virtue, faith, or goodness of another person merely for the fact that you are close to them and know some of the bad things they have done in their lives. There were only two sinless (perfect is not even an accurate descriptor, as I am sure Mary and Jesus made sinless mistakes, for the mere fact that humans must – fodder for another post to come, you can be sure.) people ever to live, and you have not met either in the flesh. We always have the opportunity to strike out for the good. It is difficult enough to be good and have people deny that it exists. To have those closest to you fault you for not only your bads but also your goods is makes it even more difficult. Quell your jealousy or bitterness, that reverse-schadenfreude that you feel when a close friend or relative acts in a way that is good beyond the character you believe they possess. Destroying the good actions or intentions of another because you are affected by Original Sin is a terrible tragedy, and one of the base lessons we should learn from this Gospel. Let people surprise you by their goodness, and be thankful for it. There is not a single person alive that has no example whatsoever to offer you. God does not spare his Grace for anyone, if they have the humility to accept it from the least of His people…
That’s about all this week.