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Do you know what the longest-running television series in history is? It’s not the nightly news. And it’s not the weekly sports hour. It’s not even 60 Minutes, or 20/20, or your mom’s favorite soap. No, the world record for longest-running television program belongs to . . . Doctor Who. The show premiered way back in 1963, the day after Kennedy was assassinated, and it’s still on the air. And you want to know the strangest thing? Fifty years later, we still don’t know the main character’s name. The title of the series is actually a question. The character simply goes by “the Doctor,” to which his new companions invariably respond, “Yes, but Doctor who?”
The way we talk about God is like this a lot, too. Atheists, especially, are always lumping belief in any sort of god into one giant category, as though believing in some jackal-headed undertaker (Anubis) or a swan who seduces human women (Zeus) is the same as believing in the God we Christians believe in.
We have people like New York Times best-selling author and revered atheist Richard Dawkins convincing people (especially young people) that the story of the God of our Lord Jesus Christ is no different than a lofty fairy tale with magic wands and dangerous potions. He, like many others, has made it pretty clear that an atheist is just somebody who feels about Yahweh the way any decent Christian feels about Thor or Baal or the golden calf. We’re all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in, Dawkins says. Some atheists, he explains, just go one god further.
What’s our response, you say? Well, that’s what this book is about. However, this response, the response of Catholicism, is not just a response to Dawkins. It’s a response to all of us—in the pews, behind a desk, or changing a diaper—a response that has captivated the world for more than two thousand years and will continue to do so if we commit ourselves to it.
In order for this to happen, however, we have to first see the problem that many secularists and some well-intentioned Christians seem to share. Simply put, we’ve misunderstood the story. And when that happens, the entire train gets derailed, boredom sets in, and eventually we become a very, very confused people.
Of course, in fairness to Dawkins and his friends, it took Israel a while to figure the story out, too. Their problem was the same as ours: What do we mean when we say “God”?
Biblical scholars point to a clear development in Jewish understanding throughout the Old Testament. When Abraham is first called by God (Genesis 12:1–3), he is a pagan among pagans, a worshipper of idols among idolaters. But the Lord becomes Abraham’s God and the God of his people, and slowly, over time, the Hebrew people begin to realize that God isn’t just their God—one god among others. God is the only God.
But that took centuries. The prophet Daniel frequently refers to the Lord as “God of gods,” and the frequent idolatry that the early Hebrews fell into suggests they certainly didn’t not believe in Baal and Asherah in the same way that Christians today don’t believe in Thor or Jupiter.
It took the Israelites hundreds of years to begin to understand what God is, and Jewish and Christian scholars have been toiling for centuries to understand the existence of God. So, at the very least, when Christians speak of God, the careful listener will ask, “God who?” Otherwise, it’s easy to confuse the object of their worship with an Israelite version of some animal spirit or superman.
God is an extremely difficult topic for conversation. But this shouldn’t surprise us, right? I mean, if God is literally bigger, better, and more awesome than anything else—that is, if God is so big an idea that we can’t hold it all in our heads—then he can’t come easy. In fact, it would make more sense for us not to fully understand God than to fully understand him. Follow me here?
This is precisely what the Catholic Church and the genius minds born from her womb have been tirelessly trying to relay to the world for ages.
You can see now why I roll my eyes when some people today (again, even well-intentioned Christians) present God to the world as some giant Santa Claus waiting to grant us everything on our list or as an aspirin waiting to take the pain away. It’s so much deeper than that!
Now, you may be thinking, “OK, so if God is so far beyond my wildest imagination that I can’t even come close to understanding who he is in his entirety, what’s the point?”
I’m so glad you asked.
The point, and the fundamental difference between Christians and the rest of the world, is that while we certainly couldn’t dream of understanding God in his fullness, we can know many things about who he is and how he acts—not because we are really smart, but because he has in fact revealed himself to us. And it’s not in some arbitrary, lightning-bolt-while-hearing-strange-voices way. God has revealed himself to the nations as a living person: Jesus the Christ.
You and I can know God. It’s what the entire story of Christianity is all about. All the distinctions, even the incredibly minute and seemingly silly ones, all the doctrines and disciplines of the faith point to Jesus.
However, before we go there, we have to get the big picture.
There are two basic types of theology in the Christian tradition: apophatic and cataphatic. Wait, come back! Don’t run away yet. The names aren’t that important, but the ideas are.
Apophatic theology (from a Greek word that means “denying”) begins from the place of God’s greatness and why he wants a relationship with us; we might call it “passive” theology, and it’s especially popular among Eastern Orthodox theologians. I recently had dinner with an Eastern Orthodox Catholic, who looked at me as we ate and said something profound: “God is a mystery, and I’m OK with that.” Many in our culture today might not get how someone can just throw his hands up and “blindly” make such a claim, but I saw it as something very profound and utterly beautiful. You see, this man wasn’t saying, “I don’t care and I have too many other things to do and I’ll just believe there’s a God and I’m OK with not knowing any more than that.” What he was actually saying was, “God is so far beyond me in all his glory and honor and power and love that I couldn’t exhaust even a smidgen of it if I tried. I believe!”
Cataphatic theology (from a Greek word that means “affirming”) is the opposite. It’s all about what we can say of God: God is good, God is just, God is merciful, God is infinite, and so on. It’s “active” theology and what we tend to be more familiar with in the West. But even theologians who focus on those things we can say about God are starting from a place of great humility. They recognize that anything we can say about God pales in comparison to the deeper truth that he is.
Thomas Aquinas, the most important theologian in the West, had an important insight into this as a young boy. He was a really smart kid, but not the kind who had an answer for every question—more like the really quiet, super-smart kid who sat in the back doing something else because weeks ago he’d grown bored with what the rest of the class was working on. His schoolmaster, exasperated one day, finally cried out, “And would Master Thomas have anything to add to the conversation?”
Thomas replied simply, “What is God?”
That shut everybody up. And it wasn’t that he was trying to be smart. The point is that the very “what-ness” involved when we start to talk about God is so different from any other we know that even the best of what we say always falls short.
It’s a little like when you tell your wife you love her. “How much?” she says. “More than peanut butter loves jelly,” you respond. “More than macaroni loves cheese. More than the stars love the sky, or ducks love the water.” They’re all true, and they do communicate what you’re getting at, but they also fall far short of the reality they represent. That’s how it is with God.
This is why, at bottom, the God story can never really be boring. As with Shakespeare, it’s not so much that it’s an acquired taste as that the subject is so big, so deep, so profound that at times what you come up with sounds pitiful.
But it’s only pitiful in light of how epic it really can be, and that’s how all of our lives are in relation to God himself.
When Christians today hear the beginning of Saint John’s Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” they tend to hear that Jesus is in some way attached to the Word—that is, the Scriptures. And this makes sense; after all, Jesus says that he has come not to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17), that he fulfills the promises to the patriarchs and prophets (John 4:12), and that he is greater than those who came before him (Luke 11:31). That being said, it’s not exactly what John was talking about.
The Word—Logos, in Greek—means something very different than our English word. It does mean a single word, a single grammatical construct, but it also means word constructs in general. Perhaps the closest word we have in English today is reason. So Jesus is the “reason of God,” the rationality of God, the method to God’s madness.That is very, very important.
That’s why faith can never be truly opposed to reason—because Jesus is the source of all reason. It wouldn’t make sense for reason to contradict reason, right? Think about when you and your husband get into an argument. It’s generally because one or another of the ideas in question has been misunderstood or misrepresented.
This is precisely how we can understand Catholic theology, not just by itself, but within the culture as well. What science, art, history, philosophy, alternative theologies, social sciences, and pretty much any field that claims to uncover truth misunderstands or misrepresents, the Church corrects—not because the Church presents to the world some alternative idea or invention thought up over lunch one day, but because it presents to the world the one who in fact has been first presented to us: Jesus the Christ.
Christ is the answer!
It’s what our Holy Father(s) on down have been trying to get across to the world for ages. That truth is not something I can determine. Rather, truth is found. Truth is Jesus!
I know, the work of unpacking all of this is long and hard and tedious, and few of us have the patience to actually fight the fight. This is why so many who live without God or insist that there is no God at all are so hard on classical Christianity in general, and are often presented to the world as “much smarter” than you and I. And it’s not because they’ve actually out-thunk the faith; it’s that many of us have grown too tired or too busy to stay in the conversation.
Those who do stay in the conversation, though, are the ones the Church calls theologians. They work in the science of God. They study God and the things of God, the way that he has revealed himself, and the way in which those ideas interact with the other ideas that we have about life, the universe, and everything.
In the past theologians were always considered the most important thinkers, because their job was to think about the most important things and to relate them to everyone else. But now, well, there is a “new evangelization” in town, one that no longer simply leaves everything up to the intellectuals of the Church. (This is where you and I come in.)
What the Church has presented to us is to go out and do precisely what we’ve been called to do by right of our baptism: make disciples.
That doesn’t mean we take the catechism to work each day or read aloud Thomas Aquinas’ summa high atop our second floor deck. That, frankly, would be weird. But we, now more than ever, are charged with the task of helping others see who God really is, and how he has revealed himself to you and to me.
That is what the world is so desperately thirsting for. And it’s high time we got to work.
Of course, God knew that the mystery of his God-ness would be way beyond us. That’s why he didn’t give us a philosophy or theology textbook; rather, he gave us the Bible.
It’s important to know that the Church presents the Bible to us in a way that’s more like a library than an instruction manual. The stories are more akin to those your own family tells at Christmas than to those you see on the Discovery Channel.
The deepest truth that God wanted to reveal about himself was that he was personal, and so he decided to reveal himself in the manner of persons—that is, with a series of stories that would make up the history of his relationship with us.
It starts this way from the very beginning. People get caught on the seven days and nights of the first chapter of Genesis and so miss the rest, but this is a little like getting stuck on the fact that Shakespeare wrote in verse. The point isn’t the nights and days any more than the point is the rhyme and rhythm. The very fact that the Bible begins with special effects should tell us something about just how exciting this God of ours really is.
What’s more, this God that can set stars in the sky and the bounds of the sea; the God who makes sea monsters and the birds of the sky also makes man, for himself. He molds human beings out of the clay of the earth, but he gives them a share in his own divine life by breathing into them. And he gives commands to the human beings that he does not give to the other animals. The others are told, “Be fruitful and multiply.” The human beings get that order too (which we still happily fulfill), but are also told to care for the earth. And with this command God establishes a relationship with human beings totally unlike his relationship with all other creatures.
We see this especially in the story of Abraham. Abraham is an everyman, at least by ancient standards. He has flocks and family, and so is wealthy by some standards, but he lacks the thing he most desires: an heir, a son. And so it is that God reveals himself to Abraham, a voice calling out of the night sky and promising the fulfillment of his deepest desire. The voice calls Abraham away from all that is familiar and promises him a homeland and a future beyond his wildest imaginings, and most of all, he promises a son. And the true sign of this God’s character? He delivers on his promise: Even in their old age Abraham and his wife, Sarah, are given that son.
There are a number of different lessons to be learned from Abraham’s story. God enters our lives at the moment of our greatest need. He answers our deepest desires and prayers. He calls us out of our comfort zones, away from what is familiar and into something bigger, deeper, and wilder than we have ever imagined. He takes us on an adventure, one fraught with danger and in which we, like Abraham, make mistakes along the way. But in the end, if we so choose, God delivers on his promise and we are given the inestimable gift of relationship with him, not because we deserve it, but simply because we have been faithful.
If the story of Abraham “humanizes” God in a certain sense, at least inasmuch as we get to know his character vis-à-vis other human beings, then the story of Moses helps illuminate his deity—highlight his God-ness.
Like Abraham’s, Moses’ story begins with an adventure (which is part of the reason it’s been made into a movie so many times). Moses is called out from among his people. He is raised in royalty though he’s the son of slaves. And ultimately he winds up immigrating to another country. And it is there that God speaks to him and gives him that most mysterious of gifts, the Divine Name. This name was considered so holy that the ancient Hebrews wouldn’t even speak it aloud, except for the high priest once a year in the holiest room of the holiest building, the temple.
Most of the time when the word Lord appears in our English Bible, what it is covering for is this great name, “I am who I am.” Even in our not-so-good English construction, which can’t really bring out the nuances of the Hebrew, we get a sense of the mystery that surrounds it.
Think about this: When I introduce myself to you I say something like, “Hi, I’m Jon,” or more specifically, “I’m a man, husband, father.” When God reveals himself to us, he does not present himself as merely another person or thing among other persons or things. He presents himself (wrap your minds around this) as be-ing itself!
You see why getting this right is so important. God’s name, “I am who I am,” reveals as close as we can come to God’s own hidden and inner nature.
God and the human person are not the same. If that’s true, then it also follows that you’re not God (sorry to burst your bubble).
Most of us get that. But the Church goes even further. God’s goodness, what we mean by saying, “God is good,” is actually of a whole different order, a different category of thought from the “goodness” of you and me. You see, God is—not just “was” or “will be,” but “is.” God, in his very being, transcends even the categories of time and space, which are about as basic as we can know.
Now, that might all just sound like fancy philosophy talk or like a metaphysics prof trying to give a lecture, but try it like this: God is not just a superhuman entity. He’s nothing like Zeus or Thor or Loki or Pan. He doesn’t have a beard or white hair or sit on a cloud. He doesn’t even have a body. What the Catholic Church has presented to the world is that God is the only “necessary being,” the “Alpha and the Omega.” (Revelation 1:8)
Basically, God doesn’t need me. How can he? He’s God. He lacks nothing. And if he did need me, he wouldn’t be God. How can I fill an already full glass? I, Jon Leonetti, couldn’t add anything to the glory and majesty of God if I tried! What can some weak-willed sinner like me add to the one who simply is?
So what’s the upshot? The best way I can explain it is like this: Every time my wife and I babysit for friends, they try to pay us. We never take the money, though occasionally we might let them treat for dinner later. But whether we get the dinner or not, on our way back to the car, what may seem like a selfless act on my part really isn’t always what it seems (don’t judge). You see, what inevitably pops into my mind after a night like that is, “Now they owe us.”
You’ve done the same thing, right? Of course, your friends and family think you’re super generous, and maybe in some sense you are, but you’re also looking out for yourself and your own.
So here’s the connection. Though we may think like this, God doesn’t. If God is, then the very act of creating us is an unmerited gift––a gift we can never repay.
I’m sweating just writing it.
Now, there are some people today, like our atheist friends, who think that simply subscribing to a belief in an entity like God is very, very dangerous. After all, if you start out in some sort of cosmic debt that you already know you can’t pay yourself out of, then aren’t you just sort of set up for failure?
Well, it turns out it’s just the opposite. Instead of being celestial slaves, human beings wind up being the recipients of an inestimable gift—namely, love. Because, while we could have no claim on God, no right to anything at all from him, he chooses to give us not just seventy or eighty years on earth, but life eternal with him, the first, best, and most perfect gift imaginable––heaven! And he doesn’t even have to! This is why it doesn’t make sense for us to turn away from God. Sin is boring. It’s boring because it’s less than us and what God has to give us. And anything less than that bores us.
This is the source, the basis, the best definition of love: to will the good of the other for his own sake, and to seek to be united with him to his good.
That’s fancy talk for It’s not all about you.
Love isn’t about getting anything in return. It’s only about pure gift, exemplified par excellence by your and my very existence!
We’ll return to this again and again, but for now simply see it from God’s perspective. God willed us into being for our own sake—he didn’t need us; we can’t add anything to him, make him better in any way, and yet he wills us and wills our good and longs to be with us. And his being with us is the best sort of gift we could ever get. You want proof that God loves you? Take a breath. Listen to your heart. Kiss your baby. None of this needs to be, and if God stopped thinking of you even for a moment it would all just disappear. That’s how much he loves us.
But because it’s hard for us to see that, he had to show us in an even more radical way—which is why the story of God in the Bible doesn’t end in the Old Testament.
The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ is the final proof of God’s existence, his presence in the world, and his love for creation. In the end, it is Jesus who shows us the true depth of God’s own character, and the great power he has given us to share in God’s own life. “I’m not only going to will you into existence,” our Lord says, “but I am going to show you what it means to even exist at all, and I’ll do so through my son on a cross.” There, we find the truest sense of love, pure gift for the life of the world. There we find our salvation.
What could possibly be boring about that?
by Jon Leonetti
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Some say, “Catholicism is outdated. It’s behind the times. It’s boring.” I say we’ve forgotten our story. It’s time to rediscover that there is genius in Catholicism. Christianity has captivated the world for more than two thousand years. Look a little closer, and you’ll see that it is the most dangerous and exciting thing on earth. Catholicism is a game changer. This book looks at the big picture of who God is, what he has revealed to us, and how that will radically impact our lives if we let it.
Back to Your God is Too Boring (Paperback)
Author description goes here...
Product Type Media Books
Author Jon Leonetti
Publisher Beacon Publishing
Number of Pages 160
Book Format Paperback
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