Seven Quick Takes No. 4

Thanks, as always, to Jennifer for hosting our "takes."

1. Have you ever wondered why it is that people speak in such hushed and reverent voices when they're at a bank? I used to think that it was out of awe at the presence of money (always a seductive idol), but when I was visiting my bank earlier this week to deposit a fairly large check, I started thinking maybe it's because everyone is so worried about making mistakes. Things need to stay quiet and calm lest the person doing the calculations or signing the papers misses something, e.g. drops a zero, neglects to read the fine print about the interest rates. Hushed and calm, after all, is much preferable to angry and loud, as, for example, one might be after one's bank lost a deposit or made a mistake in the balance on one's account. If only we had the same sense of terror at making mistakes before God.

2. Which brings me to my second quick thought: why is it that Westerners who say they dislike the idea of God's judging them are so often willing to believe in karma? Is it just that they prefer their justice less personal? On the one hand, they seem to be saying, it's wrong of God to judge (as if God would be unjust), but on the other hand, they are perfectly comfortable with the idea that their actions have consequences, perhaps even over multiple lifetimes. What, then, is the difference? "If God judges me, that's bad, but if I do something bad, I expect it to have an effect on my life later." We're fine, it seems, with cause and effect, but nervous when it comes to thinking that what we do might be taken personally, that something we do might actually be offensive to God.

3. Here's the biggest problem I have with God. Or, rather, not with God, but God as understood through the Christian tradition: His workings in time. I love everything about what the tradition teaches about how God created us, about the Trinity (I need to write some more about this), about how He is present to us in our every moment, about how He loves us and wants us to love Him. But why did it take Him so long to get around to saving all of us from our failure to love Him as we should? Okay, so as a Christian, I'm actually lucky enough to be a Christian, born after, not before Christ came into the world, but what about all those souls born before Christ? Not a problem, I know (at least, if you follow the Catechism of the Catholic Church): Christ's saving action reverberates throughout history, thus the harrowing of Hell after his death. But why then? Why did humanity have to wait so long for its savior to be born? And why are we still waiting in time for His return? Properly speaking, I know, this is a problem of dimensions: we experience time, but God does not (except for when He entered into time at his Incarnation). But it always vexes me why exactly God chose when He did to come into the world.

4. Which, in turn, brings me to the fourth of my quick thoughts for the week: how do we know which revelation of God is most true? Aha, you will say, I'm a Christian, I should already know the answer to this question. And I do, at least I would like to think that I do. I cringe whenever I hear somebody (yes, I'm still listening to Elizabeth Gilbert) talk about how it's okay to pick and choose your religion ("cherry-picking" is the metaphor she uses) because in the end it doesn't really matter anyway. What right (or so the argument goes) does one religious tradition or another have to say that it has received the one true revelation of God and that all others are only approximations or, worse, mistakes? And part of me knows that this is true, too. If God is who we Christians believe He is, then no human language is adequate to describe Him; everything that we know about God is only an approximation, if even that. Indeed, the whole point of centering prayer is precisely to let go of all thoughts (images, ideas, imaginings, metaphors, labels) that we have about God. And yet, we also believe that God humbled Himself to us and took on our own human nature so as to give us some way to think about Him; indeed, if we believe Him, the Way. So which is it: "Pray as you can," including imagining God with an elephant's head or as the energy of the Universe, whatever seems right; or, God has actually revealed Himself as He wants us to understand Him and that is the revelation we must use if we want to know Him as He is?

5. It is probably to be expected that I, as the oldest of three children, should be so obsessed with tradition. It's in my birth order, after all (although if you read the Wikipedia article, there are some questions about how significant birth order actually is other than in the context of one's childhood family). Which should mean, given the current demographic trends in many of the more developed parts of the world, as well as in those parts of the world, like China, with restrictive birth policies, that the world as a whole is going to become more and more, not less and less tradition-oriented, what with all the only children running around. In actual fact, being a first-born has always made me a bit nervous, what with that tenth plague and all. I hated that story when I was growing up. Just think: if the avenging angel came over us now, not only I, but both my parents, my husband, my son, my sister-in-law, and my niece would all be dead, leaving only my sister and brother alive from my immediate family.

6. First-borns, second-borns, third-borns, fourth-borns. Isn't it interesting how obsessed we are with typing ourselves? Here we are all, purportedly trying to define ourselves as individuals, enraptured by the idea of belonging to some nearly-identical group: the sixteen Myers-Briggs types (all of my Facebook friends are doing the quizzes; aren't yours?), the four temperaments, the twelve signs of the Zodiac, the twelve--or is it thirteen?--Cylons, the eleven look-alike clans. Nothing would make us happier, it seems, that to find that there are others out there who are exactly like us.

7. I've spent my life surrounded by buildings designed by Ralph Adams Cram. Okay, maybe not my whole life, but I was recently excited to learn (was I not listening on all those tours I took of campus?) that Cram was responsible for the master plan as well as a number of the most prominent buildings on the campus of my alma mater. Cram was also the architect for the (still-unfinished) Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, where I attended services when I was in graduate school. And, mirabile dictu, the parish church that I now attend once boasted a building designed in 1890 by Cram.

Alas, it burned down in 1956 so now we worship in this rather more modest (and, admittedly, easier to maintain) "barn style" church.*

*At least, that's how I think of it. But we do have a magnificent organ.


  1. I believe I need to spend some time fishing around in your archives, and read you more often than just on QT Fridays. I'm really enjoying your thoughts!

  2. Please do! I've listed some of the posts where I go more in depth into some of the questions that concern me under "Bear's Top Touches," but you are of course very welcome to look around!

  3. "Which should mean, given the current demographic trends in many of the more developed parts of the world, as well as in those parts of the world, like China, with restrictive birth policies, that the world as a whole is going to become more and more, not less and less tradition-oriented, what with all the only children running around."

    Hm. I can think of countries where having big families is normative (Spain, Ireland, India) but which seem strongly focused on tradition. How do these country fit into this model?

  4. Aha! Clearly they don't, unless one supposes that somehow they are more influenced by their first-borns than they are by all their seconds, thirds, fourths and so on. Or maybe it's that tradition is more complicated than something that first-borns tend to support.

  5. Some oldest children:
    WB Yeats
    Albert Einstein
    Sigmund Freud
    Dorothy L Sayers
    Richard Feynman
    John Lennon

  6. Concerning #4 on the revelation of God. I believe the Resurrection is the linch pin. Christianity is a religion that rests on historical fact or at least that is its claim. However, God must grant us faith, i.e. trust in his promises in his Son. In my experience in discussing these matters, particularly with agnostic academics, the will, not the intellect, puts up the greatest amount of resistance to grace. (*And in my own life)

  7. @Matthias: Indeed. But what if you don't believe that the Resurrection is an historical fact? There is, as you point out, still the problem of faith. Very good point about our wills being the thing that gets in the way of grace! There is, in actual fact, nothing irrational about faith. We just don't want to listen.

  8. Regarding tradition and family size, maybe we can have it both ways? The oldest is interested in tradition -- because he or she is the caretaker of that tradition for siblings and all their offspring? So, more siblings, more gravity to the "duty"?

    Regarding time -- in one of my favorite movies, Critical Care?, a nun asks a doctor about what happens when you die -- does eternity begin? No, she says. Eternity has no beginning, and no end. We are in it already. So maybe there could be a clue there for God choosing the time he does for the Incarnation -- we are, right now, in eternity, and when we step out of time and can see it all the way it is to God maybe the "timing" thing will make sense?

    O.k., maybe not -- but give me points for effort!

  9. Regarding Question 2 (why Westerners who dislike the idea of God's judging them may still be willing to believe in karma): As I was being raised in a community of resentful and reactionary Latin-Mass Catholics, I quickly came to realize that the baleful judgments that were getting attributed to God bore an awfully strong semblance to the personal biases and ignorance of the people who claimed to speak for him. And to be fair, I also realized this was equally the case for most other denominations as well, and that the more determined a denomination is to let everyone know how much God wants to judge them, the more their preferred portrayal of this judgemental God resembles their own ugly backgrounds. I don't personally have any particular belief in karma, but I can easily imagine others in my disillusioned situation who still might retain a desire to continue believing in some kind of supernatural order that doesn't have to involve a God who gets constantly treated like various religions' own personal Howdy-Doody puppets. :-/

  10. It is also interesting to note that folks who note with distaste the fact that Christian ideals of judgment can be improperly used by people to impose worldly social hierarchies can be so open to the karmic ideal that, I believe, was linked pretty closely to the caste system?

    Unfortunately, people being people, any system of belief can be used to oppress.

  11. @twoways: I think you have it just right about the way in which we exist in time. It is only from within time that the question of "why now?" arises. From eternity, there is no "now," only salvation.

    @Fencerchica: It's amazing how many people there are out there who are convinced they know what God thinks and who therefore are perfectly willing to judge others for Him. They seem to have missed that verse where Christ says, "Judge not," never mind the fact that it is God who is judge, not we.


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