In 1991 the blade of a bulldozer, doing roadwork in Turkey, hit a small metal object. Upon examination, it proved to be an ancient sword. Very ancient indeed. Forged in Greece, it had made its way to the Middle East, where it was taken as battle booty and received this inscription, in 1430 B.C. “As Tudhaliyas the Great King shattered the Assuwa country, he dedicated these swords to the storm-god his Lord.”
Not long ago an old man made his confession, received absolution and penance. I offered the customary, “Vaya in paz,” and he said, in Spanish, “Father, may I ask something else of you? Would you please pray for my children? Both are grown and long from home, but, please, do ask the Lord Jesus to bless them. They have very particular needs.” He repeated, “very particular.”
That which should be most astounding is frequently overlooked, perhaps because it’s too all-encompassing to be noticed. If asked, “What is the hardest thing to believe as a Catholic?” many might say the doctrine of the Real Presence, that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist. Or the activity just mentioned, that priests can pronounce forgiveness of sins. But neither assertion is as grandly incredible as one which all Christians share but seldom note, although it’s written into the very strands of our scriptures: our lives matter because God is personally involved in them. This is presupposed, although unremarked, in the call of Samuel, as well as that of Andrew and Peter, and that unnamed disciple.
Regarding the dedication of Tudhaliyas’s sword, our first inclination is probably to dismiss his belief that there was any such storm god, who assisted him in victory. Grant that. Tudhaliyas in turn would find our belief that God calls to us, and cares about our lives, even harder to accept. This is because what Tudhaliyas meant by the word “God” is markedly different than what we mean in using the word.
The ancients were polytheists. They presumed that a god, or goddess, might take interest in their lives, but they never ventured to think that what we might call the universe itself was concerned with them. To the extent that they were able to think of all-that-is coming under a single aegis, they neither thought of it as personal nor concerned with them. Their gods were potent benefactors—at least they were more powerful than humans—but they were not, in any sense of the word, thought to be the ultimate meaning of all-that-is. How could the universe, or why would something beyond it, care for humanity?
Tudhaliyas thought that his deity had aided him, and he was grateful. But, one might say, he didn’t think all that highly of his deity. The storm god was not behind all-that-was. He simply aided Tudhaliyas.
Non-Western religions today are similar. There are many deities, but, translating them into our terms, these would be something like saints, powerful but pruned. They involve themselves with us, but the mystery beyond them, behind the universe, flows unmoved silent, and ageless. And there is a noble sense, even reverence, in this belief. How can the infinite be confined by the finite?
In contrast, many of our Western contemporaries find Christianity entirely too comprehensive. The very idea that Paul could claim so much of the human in the name of the divine strikes them as coercive.
But one can’t have it both ways. If the very meaning of the universe, which is what we invoke with the name “God,” is intimately involved in our lives, then there is no part of those lives that isn’t wholly taken up into divine intentionality. Secular and sacred may be useful terms, but they ultimately don’t stand for an adherent of the Western religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. These religions need not be fundamentalist, but they can never be indifferent to the course of history or the destiny of a single human being. God still stands beyond these believers as mystery, yet God stands with them in history.
If God takes up the cares of humans, then our concern for the good has divine warrant. If God became a human being, then the human project has found a purpose it could never have envisioned.
The old man in confession believed so much more than he annunciated, more than the average Christian contemplates. First, that there is an ultimate meaning to the universe. Second, that this purpose is personal and creative. It can be called “God.” Third, that God cares deeply about our lives, our needs. Indeed, that God has entered history as savior and redeems us from sin, from that which alienates us from the deepest source of our being. And finally, that God hears and answers our prayers. My old friend believes all of this about “his Lord,” not by deduction or debate but rather, because he—like Samuel and the apostolic band—has been address by God, called by name.
1 Samuel 3: 3b-10, 19 1 Corinthians 6: 13c-15a, 17-20 John 1: 35-42