Domesticating the divinity

George Weigel

Some biblical scholars consider the Book of Deuteronomy to be a collection of sermons: catechetical homilies on the great theme of the Exodus and the fulfillment of that epic adventure in God’s gifts of the Law and the land to the people of Israel. Throughout the book, Israel is told, over and over again, “Remember….” (or, more sharply, “Take heed, lest you forget….”). And what is Israel to remember? What does Israel dare not forget? Israel must remember God’s mighty deeds in leading his people out of that “house of bondage,” Egypt. Israel must remember that Pharaoh’s army was crushed by God’s power, not its own. Israel must remember the manna and the quail in the desert, food from heaven. Israel must remember the gift of the Law, which helps Israel avoid falling back into the bad habits of slaves. And Israel must remember the gift of the land, which, by God’s bounty, gave her a home where she might prosper.

In Deuteronomy, Gianfranco Ravasi remarks, to “remember” is a synonym for “to believe:” for to remember God’s gracious action in history is to believe that God alone is God, and God alone is to be worshipped. Thus the admonition “Remember…” is a caution against idolatry. In the Old Testament, “idolatry” often means worshipping the false gods of the various peoples Israel encounters; in Deuteronomy, “idolatry” is the false god of self-sufficiency. Settled in the land, Israel may be tempted by prosperity to fall back into its national “original sin,” symbolized by the darkest moment of the Exodus epic, the incident of the golden calf. For what was that all about? It was about the worship of a domesticated God whom Israel can fashion into an image and see, and thus control.

Self-sufficiency – the forgetting of our dependence on the Lord and on the Lord alone – is a perennial temptation for all those who share in the spiritual heritage of Israel. In this twenty-first century, we are no less tempted to domesticate God, and thus to sink into a shallow religious indifference or insouciance, than our biblical ancestors. In his recent, striking pastoral letter, “Unleash the Gospel,” Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit reflects on this in discussing the roots of the contemporary crisis of faith.

Two factors creating today’s crisis of faith are familiar to most of us: “scientific fundamentalism,” which asserts that the only path to truth is through the empirical scientific method and the natural sciences, and “secular messianism,” which imagines the world to be perfectible by human agency alone. Archbishop Vigneron identified a third factor impeding or corroding faith today, “moralistic therapeutic deism.” He writes:

“This term was famously coined by two sociologists to describe the amorphous set of religious beliefs to which many American young people subscribe. This belief system is moralistic in that it emphasizes moral behavior, vaguely defined as being nice, kind, pleasant, respectful, responsible, and so on. It is therapeutic in that it envisions God as on call to take care of problems that arise in our lives, but not otherwise interested in us nor holding us accountable for our choices. It is deistic in that it views God as having created the world but not personally involved in it. Such views fall short of the Christian understanding of God, who does hold us accountable, who gave his Son for us to save us from the devastating consequences of sin, and who desires to be deeply involved in our lives.”

The Church of Nice is not the Church of Jesus Christ, who came “to cast fire upon the earth” and longed to see it blaze up [Luke 12.49]. Yes, the Church of Jesus Christ is the Church of the merciful father, who restores to the prodigal son the squandered dignity of his sonship. But the condition for the possibility of the son’s receiving the father’s forgiveness is the son’s recognition of his need for forgiveness – the son’s recognition that he had been reduced to foraging for swine’s fodder by his self-indulgent self-sufficiency.

There are signs all around us of Christian communities domesticating God by trimming their doctrinal and moral sails to the prevailing mores of the post-modern West. It is a temptation against which the Catholic Church, and especially its ordained leaders, should be constantly vigilant.

COMING UP: It’s a culture war, stupid

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Those who persist in denying that the Church is engaged in a culture war, the combatants in which are aptly called the “culture of life” and the “culture of death,” might ponder this June blog post by my summer pastor in rural Québec, Father Tim Moyle:

Tonight I am preparing to celebrate a funeral for someone (let’s call him “H” to protect his privacy) who, while suffering from cancer, was admitted to hospital with an unrelated problem, a bladder infection. H’s family had him admitted to the hospital earlier in the week under the assumption that the doctors there would treat the infection and then he would be able to return home. To their shock and horror, they discovered that the attending physician had indeed made the decision NOT to treat the infection. When they demanded that he change his course of (in)action, he refused, stating that it would be better if H died of this infection now rather than let cancer take its course and kill him later. Despite their demands and pleadings, the doctor would not budge from his decision. In fact he deliberately hastened H’s end by ordering large amounts of morphine “to control pain” which resulted in him losing consciousness as his lungs filled up with fluid. In less than 24 hours, H was dead.

Let me tell you a bit about H. He was 63 years old. He leaves behind a wife and two daughters who are both currently working in universities toward their undergraduate degrees. We are not talking here about someone who was advanced in years and rapidly failing due to the exigencies of old age. We are talking about a man who was undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments. We are talking about a man who still held on to hope that perhaps he might defy the odds long enough to see his daughters graduate. Evidently and tragically, in the eyes of the physician tasked with providing the care needed to beat back the infection, that hope was not worth pursuing.

Again, let me make this point abundantly clear: It was the express desire of both the patient and his spouse that the doctor treat the infection. This wish was ignored….

Canada’s vulnerability to the culture of death is exacerbated by Canada’s single-payer, i.e., state-funded and state-run, health care system. And the brutal fact is that it‘s more “cost effective” to euthanize patients than to treat secondary conditions that could turn lethal (like H’s infection) or to provide palliative end-of-life care. Last year, when I asked a leading Canadian Catholic opponent of euthanasia why a rich country like the “True North strong and free” couldn’t provide palliative end-of-life care for all those with terminal illnesses, relieving the fear of agonized and protracted dying that’s one incentive for euthanasia, he told me that only 30% of Canadians had access to such care. When I asked why the heck that was the case, he replied that, despite assurances from governments both conservative and liberal that they’d address this shameful situation, the financial calculus always won out – from a utilitarian point of view, euthanizing H and others like him was the sounder public policy.

But in Canada, a mature democracy, that utilitarian calculus among government bean-counters wouldn’t survive for long if a similar, cold calculus was not at work in the souls of too many citizens. And that is one reason why the Church must engage the culture war, not only in Canada but in the United States and throughout the West: to warm chilled souls and rebuild a civil society committed to human dignity.

Then there is the civic reason. To reduce a human being to an object whose value is measured by “utility” is to destroy one of the building blocks of the democratic order – the moral truth that the American Declaration of Independence calls the “inalienable” right to “life.” That right is “inalienable” – which means built-in, which means not a gift of the state – because it reflects something even more fundamental: the dignity of the human person.

When we lose sight of that, we are lost as a human community, and democracy is lost. So the culture war must be fought. And a Church that takes social justice seriously must fight it.