When Moses came down Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments he was surprised to discover his people worshipping God in the form of a golden calf. They weren’t worshipping a false god (lower case “g”). Traditional readings of this scene tell us that the Jewish people had not abandoned the Lord… but they were in a hard place and had a hard time conceiving of how they could relate to their shapeless God. So the people, in an act of desperation, in the shaking of their faith made a golden calf, a containable image of God. At its best this was the people’s attempt to more easily perceive the living God. At its worst, this was the people making the living God into something they could manipulate. In all cases, God “contained” in a human creation is an oxymoron. Compassion for the people’s situation doesn’t change this reality.
In a recent letter (12 June 2015) on the nature of Catholic worship, Cardinal Robert Sarah (Prefect of the Congregation for the Divine Worship and the Sacraments a.k.a. protector and promoter of the Church’s worship practices) raised a concern about contemporary worship: “We run the real risk of leaving no room for God in our celebrations, falling into the temptation of the Israelites in the desert. They sought to create a cult of worship limited to their own measure and reach…” Hence, all too often, the criteria for our public worship is, “Wouldn’t that be nice?” or “Wouldn’t it be popular if…?” or “People would like mass more if…”
NOTE: This post is NOT about liturgy, but Cardinal Sarah’s comments and the experience of the Jews teaches us an important lesson about life with the living God – It’s not always easy, and earthly comfort is not the primary goal.
Speaking with someone today about the jailing of Kim Davis I was told, quite firmly, that the Supreme Court’s recent rulings about same-sex marriage represented the definitive end of all conversation and Ms. Davis should’ve quit her job rather than disobey in protest of the law… End of discussion. The truth was to be neatly boxed in a space just large enough for the comfort of society at this particular moment in history… A new golden calf. But Truth… and Truth’s author, the living God cannot be contained like that, not even by the highest court of the Land. The Court once ruled that “separate, but equal” was legal. Did that make it true? The Constitution once determined, by popular vote of the Convention no less, that slavery was (a) legal and (b) that slaves = 3/5 of a person. Did the legality of those laws make them True? No. The truth cannot be manipulated by human beings… only discerned and appreciated. Furthermore that discernment is something that should be always ongoing. For even the most certain truths will only be known fully in heaven. Indeed, the great philosopher Josef Pieper described the virtue of hope precisely as the constant state of our lives as “in via,” always on the way, never content to stop and settle for where we’re at. One could saythen that to abandon the discernment of truth, to box up God is to limit or even smother hope.
Such ongoing discernment necessitates a degree of discomfort… call it our sacrifice in honor of the Truth. It also necessitates ongoing, open, honest, and NON-violent dialog. Such discourse shows respect for everyone on all sides… and above all shows our mutual respect for Truth… but it’s not easy and its rarely comfortable. A great book on this subject is Ratzinger’s Truth and Tolerance I highly recommend it. I also recommend a re-reading of the St. John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor and of course, the Catechism. Interestingly, the Church does not command the faithful to unflinchingly assent to all her teachings… Rather she invites Catholics to an ongoing exploration of Truth marked by the humility of simply saying, “I might not know everything at this point in my life.”
Building the golden calf was all too easy… Living in a dynamic, developing relationship with our Father is tougher… but ultimately more satisfying. Let’s keep the conversation going. Peace.