Sunday, 22 February 2009

The God of answers

The Sistine Hall of the Vatican Library.

Then the Lord passed by and sent a furious wind that split the hills and shattered the rocks – but the Lord was not in the wind. The wind stopped blowing, and then there was an earthquake – but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was a fire – but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire there was the soft whisper of a voice.

- 1 Kings 19:11-12

Jesus, according to noted Franciscan priest, retreat master, and author Richard Rohr, was asked some 120 questions in the Gospel stories , he only answered three!

The current Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994), in 700 pages ,highlights 2,865 separate statements intended to cover the essential and fundamental contents of Catholic doctrine. While the compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church list a further 598 statements. Both text provide answers on just about every aspect of life – and death – for every Roman Catholic in the world. Today the Vatican Library stores some 75,000 manuscripts and over 1.1 million printed books dating back to the earliest days of the church.

By comparison the old Baltimore Complete Adult Catechism (1941) consisted of some 1400 questions and answers arranged in 37 lessons. With questions ranging from “Who made us?” to “Name some of the more essential religious truths we must know and believe”.

Orthodox Jews, on the other hand, are required to observe a ‘mere’ 613 commandments while the Koran (placing emphasis on the moral obligations of all its followers) consists of over 100 hundred verses or suras that our Muslim brothers and sisters are required to learn by heart from school age on.

The New Catholic Catechism (1969) produced by The Bishops of the Netherlands, reflected the very essence or pastoral style introduced by the fathers of the Second Vatican Council. It invited readers to explore their faith with an open mind in an increasingly complex and multi-cultural society made up of many faiths and more interfaith marriages.

Note, how the 1969 version treats the question of homosexuality: “It is not the fault of the individual if he or she is not attracted to the other sex. The causes of homosexuality are unknown” This rendering appears in sharp contrast to the tone in the current Catechism of the Catholic Church , which states: Homosexual persons are called to chastity . . they should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.

Note the demanding and dictatorial approach. The pastoral views previously exhibited are now clearly missing and have been replaced by a language that is structured and unsympathetic. Todays Catechism is structured like a legal code complete in carefully numbered paragraphs. Unlike its predecessor, it is written in a stilted , difficult or archaic language typical to most Vatican documents. Its format closely resembles Roman Catholic Canon Law (1983) the Church’s operating manual or internal legal document.

In an attempt to create a homogenous and perhaps unifying understanding of our beliefs; religions often discourage its members to explore their faith beyond ‘established and well defined’ boundaries. But surely, we must ask: God must be greater than that? What’s more, surely we have not exhausted whom God is and can be for us today? St. Thomas of Aquinas, perhaps the greatest philosopher and theologian of the Catholic Church, is quoted as saying concerning the nature of God, it is better to consider what God is not. While upon his death, reflecting on the many volumes he had authored: “all that I have written seems like straw to me."

Our demand for definitive answers, rather than the search, often appears elusive when it comes to discovering the Creator within. I strongly believe that ‘ready answers’ instead of questions often prevent us from embracing the very mystery of God. The demand for exacting and narrow definitions, in a world, where almost everything can be ‘Googled’ may prevent us from discovering what we already know with our hearts but not with our minds.

In this context I recall a story told about a little three year old girl who wanted to hold her newborn brother but was discouraged by her parents for fear she might drop the baby. Finally, after continued persistence the parents relented and allowed her to enter the nursery alone, holding back with obvious trepidation. Watching secretly from a safe distance and observing the little girl, the parents could just hear the girl ask her baby brother: “tell me again about God, I’m starting to forget?”

Karen Armstrong in her book The Great Transformation writes that until the eighth century, writing was regarded as a divine, uncanny skill that was potentially dangerous for human beings. The view being that the wisdom of the community belonged to everybody; and should not become the possession of a literate minority. At the time, Jewish scholars argued that the shift from oral tradition to written texts can lead to religious stridency, giving a student misplaced clarity and certainty about matters that are essentially elusive and ineffable.

Definitions and or labels do not define who we truly are and more importantly who we can be. Instead they often become false standards that divide and separate us from one another. Similarly, church dogma and doctrine can be very helpful in guiding us toward the Truth but should never become the substitute for the heart and love of the mystery that is God.

Our search for peace and unity, based on diversity, will demand more questions than answers if we wish to seek a greater understanding of that mystery that speaks beyond mere words.


A New Catechism, p. 384, A Crossroad Book, New York, 1969.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, Canadian Conference Of Catholic Bishops, Ottawa, 1994

Karen Armstrong, The Great Transformation – The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, Vintage Canada, 2007

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