God, Person or Presence

“A pious old man prayed five times a day while his business partner never set foot in church. And now, on his eightieth birthday he prayed thus: Oh Lord our God! Since I was a youth, not a day have I allowed to pass without coming to church in the morning and saying my prayers…Not a single move, not one decision, important or trifling, did I make without first invoking your Name. And now, in my old age, I have doubled my exercises of piety and pray to you ceaselessly, night and day. Yet here I am, poor as a church mouse. But look at my business partner, He drinks and gambles and, even at his advanced age, consorts with women of questionable character, yet he’s rolling in wealth….Why, why, why have you let him prosper and why do you treat me thus?” “Because,” said God in reply, “you are such a monumental bore!”

I bet you were surprised by the punch line of this story – I know I was. According to conventional thinking, God is supposed to be someone who is pleased with a pious person, not bored, happier with someone who prays than with one who plays. My guess is that the intention of the story teller, Jesuit priest Anthony DeMello, is not merely to surprise, but to confound us; that is, to cause us to ponder our assumptions about religious matters.

The bigger question here is not whether God is someone who is bored or pleased by our actions, but whether God is anyone at all. It is human nature to imagine that God is a better version of our selves, a loving, forgiving, parent-like figure with whom we can win points by being on our best behavior; however, it might just be that when we imagine God in this manner we limit that which is limitless. The mystics of all religious traditions posit that the word ‘God’ does not refer to a person, but to the spiritual essence of life, a force for good, a benevolent, enveloping Presence. This may strike some as New Age thinking, but it is actually age old and is found in ancient Christian writings like the Acts of the Apostles where we find the statement “In God we live and move and have our being.”(Acts 17:28)

For most people it is important to hold fast to a conventional notion of the divine, for it gives them purpose and direction in the maize-like journey through life. But many others find it difficult to embrace theism, the idea that God is a Supreme Being who intervenes from time to time, but who is essentially apart from creation. While some of these reject belief in God altogether, others have come to affirm God as, to use theologian Paul Tillich’s term, the spiritual “Ground of being.” Wherever we land in this regard, whether the divine is for us a Person or a Presence, I hope that none of us is considered a “monumental bore!”

 

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