Grace: Week 1
A Santa Claus God
Wednesday, January 27, 2016
I strongly believe that good theology has two important tasks: to keep all people free for God and to keep God free for all people. In my opinion, most churches do not allow God much freedom. God is always so much bigger than the theological and churchy boxes we build for “him.” Without recognizing it, many people have an operative image of God as Santa Claus. He’s “making a list and checking it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty or nice.” He rewards the good kids with toys (heaven) and punishes the bad kids with lumps of coal (hell). If you don’t have a mature spirituality or an honest inner prayer life, you’ll end up with a Santa Claus god, and the Gospel becomes a cheap novel of reward and punishment. That’s not the great Good News! An infinitely loving God is capable of so much more than such a simplistic trade off or buy out.
Bringing social acceptability to Christianity has not helped in this regard. After Constantine made Christianity the established religion of the Roman Empire in 313, the great biblical concepts of grace and forgiveness gradually were controlled by formulas and technique. Empires cannot afford too much mercy or forgiveness. Soon the Church created equations: this much sin results in this many years in purgatory or hell; this much penance results in this much time released from purgatory. Grace and forgiveness became juridical and distant concepts instead of deep spiritual realizations. Disobedience or disloyalty were seen as much more sinful than any failure to love or serve or show mercy.
The work of the priesthood became sin management much more than the marvelous work of transformation and inner realization that we see in Jesus’ ministry. Church largely became a “worthiness attainment system” managed from without, instead of a transformational system awakening us from within.
When forgiveness becomes a weighing and judging process, then we who are in charge can measure it, define who is in and who is out, find ways to earn it, and exclude the unworthy. We have then destroyed the likelihood that people will ever experience the pure gift of God’s grace and forgiveness.
When you fall into the ocean of mercy, you stop all counting and measuring. In fact, counting and weighing no longer make sense; they run counter to the experience of grace. As long as you keep counting, you will not realize that everyone is saved by mercy anyway.
I recently visited the 9/11 Memorial at the site of the Twin Towers in New York City. A huge waterfall drops down into the darkness of a lower pool whose bottom you cannot see. It struck me deeply as a metaphor for God: mercy eternally pouring into darkness, always filling an empty space. Grace fills all the gaps of the universe. Counting and measuring can only increase the space between things. Even better, water always falls and pools up in the very lowest and darkest places, just like mercy does. And mercy is just grace in action.
Gateway to Silence:
Open me to grace upon grace upon grace.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, “Today Is a Time for Mercy,” December 10, 2015, https://cac.org/richard-rohr-on-mercy-mp3; and Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (Franciscan Media: 2007), 161-162.