Catholic Sense 10
Our God is a Jealous God
By David Mills
“We live in a world where people kill each other every day over whose definition of God is correct,” Dan Brown told a reverential interviewer on National Public Radio the week his new book The Lost Symbol appeared.
But the Masons, he said, are “a worldwide organization that, at its core, will bring people together from many, many different religions, and ask only that you believe in a god, and they’ll all stand in the same room and proclaim their reverence for a god. And it seems like a perfect blueprint for universal spirituality.”
Brown is not simply asking for religious tolerance. He’s making a claim about religion itself, a claim lots of other people make as well. He means that a group that affirms any and all gods is better than a religion like ours that proclaims its God the one true God. The first live and let live. The second, convinced that God is on their side, persecute those who disagree with them, start wars to make other people do what God says, and generally make life worse for everyone but themselves.
On the good side, we have everyone’s modern hero, Mahatma Gandhi, that cute little Dalai Lama, Western theologians who talk about “multiple truths,” “the God beyond all gods,” and the like, and pop gurus like Deepak Chopra and Oprah. On the bad side, we have the Emperor Constantine, the Crusaders, the Inquisitors, Pope Benedict XVI, the American bishops, and the editor of the Pittsburgh Catholic. And me, and probably you.
It’s an old line, one that you might hear in some form from almost anyone. You have heard the story of blind men around an elephant. One man grabs the elephant’s trunk and thinks it’s a snake, another grabs a leg and thinks it’s a tree, and so on. We are supposed to laugh at people so foolish as to think they know the whole truth from the little part of it they see.
The Hindu knows one thing, the Muslim another, and the Christian a third, but no one sees everything. God is too great. The wise man affirms everyone’s religion, because everyone is partly right.
To which the Christian says, No, not exactly. Reason and revelation tell us otherwise.
We insist that we see well enough to recognize an elephant when we see one. And that we know Someone who will lean over our shoulder and say “That’s an elephant” and tell us everything we need to know about it. If others can’t see it, we will note that some still wear the blindfolds with which they grew up and others are just keeping their eyes shut tight.
But saying so will not win you many friends. Brown’s idea is much jollier. What do you say when someone talks like Brown, implying that you are rude and arrogant to speak as if Christianity were uniquely true?
Ask him: “What do you think a god is?” He has two options. He can define God as a very powerful being he happens to follow who is still small enough to get along with everyone else’s gods, or he can define God in the traditional Jewish and Christian way.
If he says the first, point out to him that he doesn’t really believe in God at all. He believes in a group of gods, one of which he likes better than the others. His god is too small and weak to be God.
He may be very happy with this god, but he should know that he’s given up the advantages of believing in a God who is the all-knowing, all-powerful one, the source of life, the judge of right and wrong. He’s left with a god who doesn’t know everything, can’t do everything, can’t speak with finality, and has to compete with others for attention — someone more like a congressman than a king.
If he says the second, point out that he’s left behind Dan Brown’s pleasant idea. He should remember that this God can’t be treated as just “a god.” This God is, as Scripture puts it, a jealous God. He challenges all the other gods, will say “This is true” and “That is right” and even “That god is a false god.”
David Mills is the author of Knowing the Real Jesus and Discovering Mary and writes a weblog for Patheos. He has served as the editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things. This column appeared in the Pittsburgh Catholic on December 18, 2009.