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How God Feels in This World

In around a month or so, it will be one year since we packed up and left Vancouver Island and returned to our roots in southern Alberta. For the entirety of this time, Ronald Rolheiser’s The Holy Longing has been sitting on or around the shelf beside my favourite reading chair.  The book was a parting gift from a dear saint in our previous church—a woman whose spirituality was thick and deep and broad, and from whom I learned a great deal over the course of my three years on the Island.  She said it was a book that had impacted her like few others. I accepted her gift with gratitude and no small amount of curiosity.

I’ve read The Holy Longing very differently than most, if not all, the other books that come across my desk.  I have read it in spurts throughout the past year, reading a few pages or a chapter here and there, setting it aside for a few weeks or even months, then picking it up again.  I don’t exactly know why this is so.  Perhaps it is the general busyness of the last year that has left me with less reading time than usual.  Perhaps there have been other, more pressing (or less challenging) things to read.  Perhaps I have become increasingly creative and adept at procrastination.  Perhaps it has to do with the subject matter—Rolheiser’s Roman Catholic spirituality is at times deeply resonant with my own (or that to which I aspire) and at times somewhat foreign and puzzling to Mennonite sensibilities.  Or, perhaps, it is simply the sort of book that is best digested over a long period of time.

At any rate, on the intermittent and inconsistent occasions when I do sit down with this book, I frequently come across a sentence or paragraph or longer passage that makes me think.  Or inspires me.  Or makes me squirm in protest.  Or makes me rub my eyes and read it again to make sure I read it right the first time.  Or all of the above, as was the case this afternoon when I encountered this provocative passage in a chapter called “The Spirituality of Justice and Peacemaking”:

What does God’s power look like? How does it feel to feel as God does in this world?

If you have ever been overpowered physically and been helpless in that, if you have ever been hit or slapped by someone and been powerless to defend yourself or fight back, then you have felt how God feels in this world.

If you have ever dreamed a dream and found that every effort you made was hopeless and that your dream could never be realized, if you have cried tears and felt shame at your own inadequacy, then you have felt how God feels in this world.

If you have ever been shamed in your enthusiasm and not given a chance to explain yourself, if you have ever been cursed for your goodness by people who misunderstood you and were powerless to make them see things in your way, then you have felt how God feels in this world.

If you have ever tried to make yourself attractive to someone and were incapable of it, if you have ever loved someone and wanted desperately to somehow make him or her notice you and found yourself hopelessly unable to do so, then you have felt how God feels in this world.

If you have ever felt yourself aging and losing both the health and tautness of a young body and the opportunities that come with that and been powerless to turn back the clock, if you have ever felt the world slipping away from you as you grow older and older and ever more marginalized, then you have felt as God feels in this world.

And if you have ever felt like a minority of one before the group hysteria of a crowd gone mad, if you have ever felt, firsthand, the sick evil of gang rape, then you have felt how God feels in this world… and how Jesus felt on Good Friday.

Image courtesy of Ruth Bergen Braun.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jenna #

    Hey Ryan, Who gave this book to you and what was your response to this description of God’s feelings.

    May 21, 2012
    • Hi Jenna,

      My response? Well, I suppose Rolheiser’s words gave me a bit of a different lens through which to consider what the nature of God’s experience of this world might be. It is one thing to say that our actions can “hurt” God, but quite another to have it described in such vivid, human detail. Each of us probably resonate with or have experienced one or more of Rolheiser’s paragraphs above—placing God in those circumstances makes the nature of God’s self-limitation in “this world” much more real. I’m not sure I would have worded it the same in each instance, and of course there are theological questions that could be asked here and there, but this passage really does give you a window into what it might feel like for God in a world where he is rejected in such a wide variety of ways and for such a wide variety of reasons.

      (I will message you privately with the answer to your first question.)

      May 22, 2012
  2. Ken #

    Re: Holy Longing

    I associate this expression with another: sacred discontent. I associate the latter expression with Herbert Schneidau who referred to God as an “agent of disillusionment” in his 1976 book, Sacred Discontent. Chaim Potok later used a similar expression, “holy discontent.” They are not using it in exactly the same way, but it seems to be an expression that has multiple appeals. I wonder who first used the expression and in what context.

    I think Rolheiser’s analogy is useful. It is through such an understanding that the wrath of God makes sense and is presented in the Bible. Rolheiser does not use the word “anger” in the passage you quoted, but all of the feelings he does name come to us with anger, just as they were associated with the feelings of God in Hosea, for example.

    Rolheiser’s analogy involves a deconstruction of the Bible (and reflects the worldview of the order in which he is an oblate.) Schneidau wrote that the Bible deconstructs us. I agree with Schneidau on this. It happens even while we know that the Bible ultimately makes the most sense in an ancient context of the tribes who came to be called Hebrew when the paleolithic ways had yielded and were still yielding to the neolithic. The myths of that era justified the happenings of that era and, at the same time, gave expression to the discontent or longings felt by the Hebrew tribes. And those myths became our Bible.

    May 22, 2012
    • Ken #

      Oops, I wrote deconstruction and deconstructs above where I meant to use the words demythologization and demythologizes.

      May 22, 2012
    • Yes, I think that this passage has echoes of discontent and anger as well. It’s interesting to think of God not as the cause of disillusionment (i.e., the one who is responsible for producing disillusionment in us) but as one who is, himself disillusioned about the way things have gone in his world. Lots of issues come up with such a claim, of course, but it’s an interesting one nonetheless.

      I had not thought of the wrath of God in connection with these themes… I will have to think more about that. “Wrath,” when predicated of God, is a word that has to be used very carefully, I think. Often—at least in the circles I have been a part of—it is not a word that is used well. It is often used as a weapon to intimidate those who don’t think correctly (enough). I am not suggesting we get rid of the word—as you allude to, it is found throughout Scripture and is an unavoidable part of the narrative—but I think more work needs to be done on what it means and how it is to be located within God’s character and God’s future.

      May 22, 2012
    • Ken #

      On wrath, I am only referring to the context of the anger expressed in the Bible. Outside of the BIble, theologians have done much to accentuate wrath in some contexts (evangelists, for example) and to ignore it in others.

      In the circles of which I have been part, wrath is never mentioned – it is ignored. Other weapons are used for intimidation instead – especially moral assertions.

      I think theology about the character of God is mostly post-Biblical. It all involves demythologizing, or taking things out of their historical and literary context and extending them to other times and places.

      May 22, 2012

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