On Being and Becoming: The God of second chances

Every theology course I have endured seemed like logicians parsing a love letter. I cannot remember even one professor introducing God as a personal friend, a pal he had had a few beers with, attended wakes with, wrestled with using anything but his formidable mind. None cited times he had to forgive God or beg God to leave him alone. Like Job’s comforters, they knew so much about God but never persuaded me they knew God as Jacob did, who went at it with God mano a mano.

On the way to becoming who I am now, I think I discovered some insights into God that Aquinas and the Catechism of the Catholic Church likely found too down-to-earth. One constant is tenacity, God’s almost Sisyphean refusal to quit. Tenacity might be too humanized for experts, since it connotes endurance, which in turn requires a yielding no perfect being “could” muster. Less heady Hebrews, however, accepted a God so fed up he said (I am paraphrasing here), “T’hell with the whole mess,” flooded it out and started over.

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Tenacity is patience, whose root is passio: sufferance. How could a God beyond superlatives be a submissive victim? A crucifix answers that question, and Paul clarifies it: “He emptied himself” (Phil 2:7). But evidence suggests submission has been a characteristic of God, since “the beginning.” God programs the rules into the natures of things, then pretty much yields to his own chosen commitments (excepting the rare miracle).

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was waste and void” (Gn 1:1-2). The author of Genesis was not proofed by Stephen Hawking, yet he also seemed unable to wrap his mind around “nothing.” Before God’s first workday, there had to be some there there. He postulated a primeval swamp—not bad for 3,400 years ago. Similarly, later evidence for an expanding universe led Georges Lemaître, a Belgian priest-physicist, in 1927 to propose what became known as the Big Bang theory. For a swamp, he substituted an equally fecund “primeval atom.” Today this is called a “singularity,” a point smaller than a period but of infinite density containing within it all the matter in the present fathomless universe. But, as important, embedded in that mass were also four invisibly real, regulatory and immutable cosmic laws: gravity, electromagnetism, strong and weak relativity. God’s will, embodied.

After that, God could pretty much sit back and enjoy it working out its own kinks.

The Opposite of Nothing

Another attribute never mentioned is that God is—in himself—the utter, total, complete opposite of nothing: utter contagious aliveness. God is I AM, the well of existence out of which anything with “is” draws its “is.” Therefore, beware thinking of the Genesis “void” as barren like a vacuum. Nothing gets very close to God without coming alive, as the dryness in wood welcomes the fire. The void—like science’s singularity—was alive, fertile, teeming with potential, like a womb awaiting impregnation. “The Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” The intentions of God—life, growth, animation, feeling, intelligence—were implanted in creation, like the oak in an acorn, attraction/repulsion in mass, Beethoven’s power in a fertilized ovum.

Creationism and evolution agree that gestation and fruition was gradual. Seven days or five billion years, why not all at once, if God is irresistible? Another unlisted divine quality: delight, an inevitable spinoff of his creativity. We forget that, unlike ourselves, time left God untouched. Except in Jesus, God has never “matured” and is younger than we, much smarter but less sophisticated, content with an ingenious pattern of snow crystals yet tirelessly inventive enough to make each flake at both poles unique. How dull if God were fussy as a logician, with every tree a perfect cylinder, every apple a perfect sphere, every forester Brad Pitt.

That ignites another insight: God’s penchant for imperfection, a reality nonexistent until God created. Nothing created has perfect shape. Even the earth is an approximate sphere. One could conclude God’s reason was that everything he created should have room to grow. Perhaps that is why God eventually invented people, because he loves stories, impossible without defects, fallibility, mistakes.

Most agree all began with the least tidy method conceivable: an explosion. Yet buried within that awesome combustion was seeded the most elegant honeycomb ever devised: the periodic table. Order and surprise. Cosmos infused into the chaos. Nor after 14 billion years, does God seem tired of doing it again, each time better. Fanciful routine.

Far, far away, galactic clouds remain from stars that gobbled themselves up, exhausting their internal fuel, then bursting in imitation of the Big One. But their ashes are no more inert than the remains of a phoenix. Within them, infinitesimal hydrogen atoms restlessly jostle, bump, batter one another, heating themselves to the point where they fuse together into a gravitational field pulling in incautious neighbors, absorbing. After a few million years, the star burns through its dusty womb. Then, like a maturing child, it slowly achieves adult equilibrium.

After about 10 billion years, the star begins running out of combustibles, fuses into a supercondensed white dwarf, or a neutron star or a black hole. But the interactions just keep dancing, wrestling, recycling, ever changing, ever new, always the same. Is it blasphemous to say God seems addicted to rebirth?

Neither Created Nor Destroyed

Another divine attribute not usually suggested is thrift. The law of conservation of energy states that total energy of a system remains constant—energy neither created nor destroyed but transferred from one form to another or one source to another. For instance, hydrogen, gravity and time in a galactic cloud convert into a fiery star, which in turn provides its funerary remains for a grandchild galaxy. Water—rushing or boiling—can produce electricity, which in turn generates all kinds of magic. Horsehair bows drawn across sheep intestine strings make music. Hidden energy in chemicals changes to kinetic energy in an engine and moves a vehicle. Vegetation devours energy from our local star and converts it to food, which animals in turn convert to flesh and we in turn alchemize into bodies—unique because they in turn ignite a totally unparalleled form of life in minds that convert sense impulses into abstract ideas. Einstein’s E=mc2 states that energy and mass are different sides of the same coin.

So weare pulsing with recycled stardust.

James Weldon Johnson captures this truth better than any formula:

This Great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till He shaped it in His own image;
Then into it He blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.
Amen. Amen!

The rest of that relationship begun in that muddy moment introduced a totallynew element into the closed system: the breath of God. For the first time this side of heaven, a new potential reality emerged: friendship, then love—person-to-Person connection. Thunder thinkers render those qualities down to chilly divine essentials—like agape, charity, providence, beneficence. All clear and cold as geometry.

The story of that person-to-person connection—in all cultures but most notably for us in Judaeo-Christian history—emboldens me to believe another unsung aspect of God’s personality is affection. Nothing purified about it, like agape, unless we realize matureaffection bubbles up from a crucible fired by conflict, anger, frustration, mutual betrayal and forgiveness. This is a fondness fashioned like a star’s atoms—jostling, bumping, battering—in the classroom, the pub, the intensive care unit, the funeral home, locker room, sanctuary.

Edging further into the forbidden quicksand of anthropomorphism, dare we suppose that like any parent or lover God is smitten, paradoxically a “victim” of his own generosity? As a needed concession to sharing his own inner love, God (foolishly?) made freedom a constituent of the human difference. No other creature can truly share love with God except creatures free to withhold it. Thus, God freely made himself helpless before his own devotion.

The Hebrew and Christian experience with God makes that insight unavoidable. God’s love is stubborn, relentless, staunch, resolute, despite his insubordinate human progeny.

In contrast, the Catechism of the Catholic Church grimly asserts: “Scripture portrays the tragic consequences of this first disobedience. Adam and Eve immediately lose the grace of original holiness. They become afraid of the God of whom they have conceived a distorted image—that of a God jealous of his prerogatives” (No. 399). An army of theologians brighter than I defend the idea that God got so mad at humans over a single act of disobedience that he apparently could not restore them to blessedness after that infinite insult. Not until Jesus came and died in ransom to assuage that debt. Even then, they claim, even after a sincere admission of foolishness and priestly absolution, the guilt (reatus culpae) is dismissed, but the need to make recompense (reatus poenae) cannot be removed except by suffering in purgatory (No. 1473). That strikes some as double jeopardy inconsistent with other unarguable divine attributes.

After the Eden experiment, what could have impelled an infinitely ingenious God to begin over again with the same pair of dolts who messed it up? Then the entire Hebrew Scripture is a millennial cavalcade of ingrates missing the samepoint. But Yahweh keeps coming back! He makes “seventy times seven times” look mean-spirited! That just does not square with a vindictive father but more with Cecil B. DeMille’s reworking of the biblical Moses into Charleton Heston scowling as he fractures all Ten Commandments at once.

A Dramatic Liberation

The innermost core of Judaism, perpetually remembered, is the Passover, a dramatic liberation from slavery into new life—albeit only after the weathering of the journey toward it. Before and after the Exodus, Yahweh sent prophets after prophets to threaten, cajole, woo, intrigue them back. Later came the lesson of exile, and again liberation and return.

Yahweh intervenes in the life of Israel to effect not annihilation but rescue, deliverance, emancipation. Death and rebirth. Isaiah prophesied a suffering messiah to “bear our sins.” Jeremiah wore himself into depression pleading; Ezekiel promised restoration: “On the day I cleanse you from all your iniquities, I will cause the cities to be inhabited, and the waste places will be rebuilt” (36:33).

The core experiences of Israel were Yahweh’s tireless pursuit of their return from Egypt and their marriage covenant at Sinai. More typical than the angry God, Hosea describes a love-sick Yahweh pleading outside Israel’s chosen brothel among the pagan gods: “And I will take you for my wife forever...and you shall know the Lord.” Page through the “Song of Solomon” and discover a sexually fervid relationship between Yahweh and Israel, which rational theology tends to avoid, because its rarefied kind of knowing lacks wherewithal to deal with it, no better than empirical science can dissect altruism or integrity or the human need for purpose.

Christian experience betrays the same, consistent divine habits. Dealing one-on-one with sinners like the public sinner, the adulterous woman, the prodigal son, the Samaritan woman, Jesus never required listed sins or exacted compensatory penance. Some judgmental Catholics overlook the fact the first pope apostatized within hours of the Last Supper, denied Christ not to torturers but to a waitress. And his restoration consisted only in responding three times to “Simon, do you really love me?” No penance. Instead, he became pope. “And this is the Father’s will for me: that I should lose nothing of all he has given me, but should raise it up again at the last day” (Jn 6:39).

There are other consistent personality habits God reveals: little regard for efficiency and less for punctuality, preference for paradox and ambiguity that confounds schematics. And surely more. He invites endless exploration but defies conquest.

One consistent divine quality this reverie jeopardizes is God’s immutability. He seems not only the God of being but of becoming. When we dare speak of “the greaterglory” of God, we imply God can be “improved”: infinity plus one. However, those with flexible minds that accept the Confucian Tao and the quantum principle of complementarity yield to a God clearly prone to paradox and into improving. If such a God sets his mind to it, he ought to be able to accommodate both being and becoming.

Do these unofficial insights into God’s personality belie the classical insights, bolstered with forests of footnotes? I hope not. There was some “nonrational reason” Jesus told us to surrender sophistication for the resilience, creativity and exuberance of children, a “proof-proof” motive for believing hearty, bumptious, fallible Simon Peter “got it” better than Judas did.

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Bruce Snowden
2 years 1 month ago
I Just love to read anything William J. O’Malley, S.J., writes. I find how he says what he says “sacramental” I mean confirmational, (use upper case C) “Confirming” me in the Faith. The O’Malleyian revelation of God as Creator enlightens and enlivens Faith (my Faith.) It removes a lot of darkness, from seeking God in Faith alone, darkness inherent to Faith, syphoning insights from the light flashing in Genesis “in the beginning,” from an information-content God. And through scientific explanations which are all aspects of Genesian light, allowing God to be seen as he is, “in the know,” or “all knowing” as it’s generally put, submitting to human explanation, which he didn’t have to do. As Fr. O’Malley says, “Submission has been a characteristic of God from the beginning.” See God’s Wisdom in that he put “nothing” to work, drawing “something” (everything) from nothing! God is Great! Yes, we are part of an ongoing creation, “ever ancient, ever new.” Creation is ongoing from the beginning, was in Jesus’ time, is now and ever shall be until such time the Creator says, “Enough!” Did Jesus know this? Well, as “Daddy’s Boy” and “Only Son of the Father,” and God Himself, He must have known that creation is ongoing. I think in John’s Gospel we get a clue. There Jesus Says, “My Father works even now.” Obviously Jesus was talking about salvific redemption, but I think he also had ongoing creation in mind since God is only concerned with the whole truth and nothing but the truth! GOD IS GREAT! “O Lord, my God, when I in awesome wonder, Consider all the worlds thy hand has made. I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, Thy power throughout the universe displayed. Then sings my soul … How great Thou art!” Thanks Fr. O’Malley!
Richard Booth
2 years 1 month ago
The author wrote: "... Jesus never required listed sins or exacted compensatory penance." Then, why list sins in the confessional and why do penance for our sins? I know the usual answer, but confession to a priest was not part of the apostolic/clerical tradition until later. It is church law; Jesus, as far as we know, never even suggested it save in terms of the "usual argument" about the freeing of sins. Again, an instance of the church making its clergy necessary.
Bruce Snowden
2 years 1 month ago
Hi James, let me tell you a funny story about listing sins in confession, which I stopped doing a couple decades ago. My Mom now deceased, told me she went to confession listing by number what she confessed. After she got done the priest said, "My dear, please repeat what you just said!" Mom flabbergasted replied, "Father, I don't remember what I said in the numbers !" The priest smiled and said "That's O.K." and gave her absolution. Jesus didn't ask Mary Magdalene how many times she had prostituted herself, saying simply, "Much is forgiven because she has loved much." I wonder if Mary in the wrong way was actually trying to love as she prostituted? Moral theologians will have to figure that out.
Richard Booth
2 years 1 month ago
Very interesting take!! I particularly appreciate your mother's story and your perspective on Magdalene's possible misguided love. However, I have read certain biblical historians who find no evidence that Magdalene was ever a prostitute. In my view, it would not be beyond a struggling new church to create "bad guys/persons," like the Judas story and even that of Magdalene. After all, those who enthusiastically proclaim to have the good often find it useful to use stories about those who have been "bad." That seems to create a "they are not like us" narrative, which separates rather than unites people. I just read this article for a second time, not for content (I did that the first time) but for style and themes. I find it to be virtually poetic in parts and insightful in others. The being and becoming theme reminds me a bit of Maritain, some of the Existentialists, and, oh, who is that Frenchman the church had issues with? Ah, yes, de Chardin. Of course, it's the author's job to offer some Apologetics, which he does. Needless to say, this statement does not mitigate my concerns.
Bruce Snowden
2 years 1 month ago
Hi James, In typical mid eastern hyperbolic exaggeration John concludes his Gospel saying that libraries could not contain all the books needed to record all that Jesus said and did, meaning I guess, there's much about the Good News we don't know. No one can say definitively that Mary Magdalene was or was not a prostitute, but Tradition seems to imply she was. All that matters is that "she loved much" in a way that elicited praise from Jesus and I'll stick with that. You suggested its a made up good/bad guy story by a new church, as was the Judas account. About all of this I know nothing, but am inclined to doubt it. Thanks for commenting, but I think I'm probably done on the topic.
Richard Booth
2 years 1 month ago
I agree, Bruce, that what is most important is that "she loved much." The bad-woman Tradition is a Christian one rather than a universally accepted historical one, by even some people who are both Christians and historians. Everything is imbued with politics, even church history and tradition. Look at councils and synods, as well as conclaves, for instance. Thanks for responding. I have a great deal of respect for your entries in these threads.
Bruce Snowden
2 years 1 month ago
James, Thanks!
Simon Fisher
2 years 1 month ago
I think the list of sins comes from Canon Law. I confronted the anxiety of missing out sins from the "list" in confession with a beautiful priest who asked me if the Prodigal Son got to say all the things he had prepared for the meeting with his father. He did not. He asked me what the woman taken in adultery said to Jesus, she said nothing, He forgave her sins. I could add the cripple who was let down through the roof for healing and to his surprise, (maybe consternation?) had his sins forgiven. There is a transcript on the net of the meditation Pope Francis gave to charismatics on 6th June this year during their retreat in Rome. I believe my priest had been there.
Simon Fisher
2 years 1 month ago
Who made you? God made me. Why did God make me? to know him love him and serve him in this world and forever in the next Where did God make me? Our Father who art in heaven When did God make me? Before you were conceived in your mothers whom I knew you How did God make me? I have carved you from the palm of my hand. With what love did He gaze on His creation! Then I was conceived and born and I live to make a mess of everything but one thing I can do: "I love you God because you love me and because YOU ARE"

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