Dear Donagh…. Thanks for your site, I often return to it, II feel you're not just giving pious answers. Maybe you have something for my aunt. We have this aunt who is very religious and who is always offering us advice we don’t need and telling us how ungrateful we are to God for all the things he's given us. She won't listen to anything we say, she just says we're wrong. I'm often on the verge of losing my patience with her, but she’s a good person, there’s no harm in her, but her sermons are very annoying, especially when she doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Could you suggest a way of turning her off that wouldn’t hurt her but would really work? It would be great for my nerves if you could! Lorna
Dear Lorna, A remedy comes to mind straight away. Ask her if the God she’s talking about is the same as the one those Chechen terrorists praised as they blew up hundreds of young children with their parents and teachers. Insist on a yes or a no, and pursue the consequences of what she says. There's only one God, so she doesn’t have much of a choice. That should slow up the most fervent preacher. In fact it should slow up everyone, or even stop us dead from using the word ‘God’ at all….
Or should it? I've been remembering a passage from Martin Buber on this very point. He was a Jewish writer, 1878-1965, and this is from his book, The Eclipse of God.
"’Yes,’ I said, "[the word ‘God’] is the most heavy-laden of all human words. None has become so soiled, so mutilated. Just for this reason I may not abandon it. The generations have laid the burden of their anxious lives upon this word and weighed it to the ground; it lies in the dust and bears their whole burden. Human beings with their religious factions have torn the word to pieces; they have killed for it and died for it, and it bears their finger marks and their blood. Where might I find a word like it to describe the highest! If I took the purest, most sparkling concept from the inner treasure-chamber of the philosophers, I could only capture thereby an unbinding product of thought. I could not capture the presence of the One whom the generations have honoured and degraded with their awesome living and dying. I do indeed mean God whom the hell-tormented and heaven-storming generations mean. Certainly, they draw caricatures and write 'God' underneath; they murder one another and say "in God's name." But when all madness and delusion fall to dust, when they stand over against Him in the loneliest darkness and no longer say, "He, He," but rather sigh "Thou," shout "Thou," all of them the one word, and when they then add "God," is it not the real God whom they all implore, the One Living God, the God of the human race? Is it not He who hears them? And just for this reason, is not the word 'God', the word of appeal, the word which has become a name, consecrated in all human tongues for all times? We must esteem those who interdict it because they rebel against the injustice and wrong which is so readily referred to 'God' for authorisation. But we may not give up. How understandable it is that some suggest we should remain silent about "the last things" for a time in order that the misused words may be redeemed! But they are not to be redeemed thus. We cannot cleanse the word 'God' and we cannot make it whole; but, defiled and mutilated as it is, we can raise it from the ground and set it over an hour of great care.”
We say (and sing) a lot of blood-curdling things in the Psalms without batting an eyelid. For example, Psalm 149:
Let the praise of God be on their lips
and a two-edged sword in their hand,
to deal out vengeance to the nations
and punishment on all the peoples;
to bind their kings in chains
and their nobles in fetters of iron;
to carry out the sentence pre-ordained:
this honour is for all his faithful.
This is the language of terrorists. People will say it has to be balanced against all the wonderful things in the Psalms. But nothing balances terror; it shouldn’t be on the scales at all. The “religions of the book” (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) have a shameful record of praising violence and relying on it. Christianity too? Yes. From the Inquisition to my boarding school! Anger and violence are so deep in human beings that they come out everywhere, even where we are looking for a remedy for them. Take this for example: “Judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). Even apart from the internal contradiction, this is inferior to many things in the Old Testament.
Oh, I just remembered your poor aunt! There's no need, of course, to drop all this high explosive on her; just a few ounces should do the tricks! (Is this violence?!)