Saturday, January 24, 2009

In God's Name

I watched an interesting DVD last night entitled "In God's Name." This National Geographic production wove together comments and events from the daily lives of 12 spiritual leaders. The documentary began with the event of 9/11 and its impact on the two filmmakers, which lead them to ask where was God when this happened. The production of this film was their quest, which they discovered afterwards was in itself a religious act, for finding that answer.

Some of the details which struck me: Neither the Chief Rabbi of Israel nor the leader of the Sunni Muslims nor of the Shia Muslims could escape commenting indirectly at least at the longstanding animosity and violence of one people against the other. All three condemned violence as in direct violation of religion. Yet all three made some allowance, politically, for its use in some circumstances.

The Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America was an interesting figure to me. I was struck by how clear it was that he had completely conformed his life to what he felt was the call of the gospel. Yet, his comments about reason being yet another powerless human tool stood in clear contrast to the comments of Pope Benedict's on the need for all things human to begin in reason and broaden to the ultimate flowering of reason, which is faith. He also spoke of how he doesn't not have the image of any quest for God, but that it is only God who seeks him.

I was particularly struck by a piece in the "bonus material," that which didn't make it into the TV production of the film, where the Bishop was addressed with the question "What is the meaning of life?" Rather than answer from his own experience of faith, he insisted that the question needed to be reworked because so many people in the world do not have the luxury to do anything but wonder where there firewood would come from so that they could make porridge for their meal. "Most people can't think about the meaning of their lives, so it isn't the right question to ask" was the gist of his response. I don't know if there is a personality similarity or if there is something in Lutheran theology that makes this kind of response sound so familiar to me. But I do think this is an example of someone making something abstract. His intentions, I could see, were pure and consistent, but not only in this question, but in others, it seemed he was trying to answer life's questions to him by looking into the needs that other people had, thereby avoiding his own need, his own response. He was deeply concerned and committed, personally, about discovering justice for "people everywhere," but his responses lacked a certain quality that struck a strange chord in me. It was not about Jesus' call to him, or a personal encounter with truth. He is at a "liberal" pole of Lutheranism, but I felt as a conservative a very similar regard not towards social justice but towards doctrinal truth. With the same piece lacking. Yes, God seeks me first, but it is because of this that I seek Him. Without my seeking God and my acknowledging that seeking, something is missing in my humanity.

The Dalai Lama and Mata Amritanandamayi, a Hindu spiritual leader, both struck me as examples of what Fr. Giussani might call those with the natural religious sense. Frankly they seemed the happiest, and the most focused simply on childlike love without all the complicated notions of reason, doctrine, or commentary on political or social issues. It was ok to them to waft away certain questions of ultimate truth and to just focus on this fleeting moment. Perhaps from that came their intensity for the fleeting moment, because it is all they had.

The Shinto priest made me chuckle to myself. Shinto is a religion of Japan whose beliefs, if any, have been pretty much lost in history. What remains are various ritual practices that represent a very basic animism and a desire for good luck. This Shinto priest had been a corporate executive when he was asked by the Emperor to care for the main shrine. It was clear that he was essentially a secular Joe with nothing remotely profound to say at all. And it's not like that matters one whit to anyone who practices Shinto! People just don't matter in that scheme.

Pope Benedict came across, unfortunately, as sort of institutional and distant, because he never gave any personal comments to the camera. All the shots of him were from otherwise public addresses, from pre-written talks. If this documentary had been conceived of after 9/11 I wonder if work had gotten underway to graft Pope John Paul II into the documentary, as it was nearly four years later that he passed away.

The President of the Southern Baptist Convention was featured, and for some reason it was hard for me to watch him without battling certain uncomfortable notions in my mind. I could feel how much he wanted this to be an opportunity to "share the gospel" in the way an Evangelical would think about it. Again, he was an example of someone completely given to the gospel as he understands it, but with him it struck me that he had a very low view of the sacramentality, if you will, of his own life and his own thoughts to have any value. While no one could doubt his sincerity I felt from him that Christ's message is something that one's essentially speaks, rather than something that transforms your very being, thereby Christians becoming "other Christs" whose very act of breathing is a sort of preaching. Don't get me wrong, I am completely all for making the gospel message explicit with words. If we lose that we risk losing everything into confusion. But there is a Eucharistic aspect that is needed when we preach. We don't just have a message, we become transformed into a message.

I wouldn't say this was highly insightful, but it was interesting.

1 comment:

Al said...


I think the reason Papa Benedetto came across as he did was intentional on the part of the producers. Unfortunately, way too much of the media doesn't want an accurate portrayl of the Catholic Church because what it teaches is contrary to their "culture of death" agenda of abortion etc.