One of my hopes in this blog has been to expand our understanding of what God might be, what Mystery and Spirit might be, because so many people have been wounded by the false Gods of our culture. I want to take a closer look at one of those false Gods that I believe has hurt many people. If you have rejected the idea of God, perhaps you’ll recognize the one I am talking about. So I invite you to persevere with me as we explore it a little bit.
I think we can identify two approaches that people have taken to our relationship with the powers greater than ourselves. In one, the powers, the Gods, the Spirits were dangerous forces, and religious ritual was enlisted to appease these forces, and make the people safe from them. In the other, the Gods, the Spirits were benevolent forces, and religious ritual was enlisted to call upon the forces for help in dealing with the challenges of living. I am simplifying it of course, but still, there have been particular times in history when this battle between dangerous or fearful forces and kind and loving forces was in full blaze, and sometimes within the same religion.
When I was a child, I learned about one such conflict between a judging fearful God and a loving God. As a Catholic, I used to read about the lives of the saints, and one saint I liked a lot was Margaret Mary Alacoque. She lived during the 17th century in France. Just before her time, there had been a theologian named Cornelius Jansen who emphasized the idea of original sin. He believed that people were unworthy and evil, and only a few would be saved. Jansen discouraged people from participating in the communion ritual that happened every Sunday, saying it was reserved for only the very holy.
But Margaret Mary began to have visions—in her visions she saw Jesus, and she saw his heart, as if it were outside of his body, burning with love. He told her that God was full of love for people, and that God wanted to help people. Now, for those of you who have been Catholic, you may remember seeing pictures of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It became an important devotion in Catholic life.
For me, this story was a gift—first of all, I thought it was cool that she had visions, and could talk to Jesus. But more importantly, this story told me that I was loved by God. All Catholic children learn a lot of guilt, and lessons about original sin, and mortal and venial sins, can weigh heavily upon us. But this story shifted the balance for me—it helped me to know deep in my heart that God was love, and that God loved me.
Now, I am guessing that very few people have ever heard of Cornelius Jansen or Margaret Mary, but perhaps you have your own memories of a church in which you felt guilt and shame, in which you learned that you were a sinner, or unworthy. Those ideas are just as pervasive today as in former centuries. The God of judgement has been a prevalent theme throughout the course of American history because of the teachings of someone much more famous that Jansen. More on that tomorrow.