Appreciate God's presence in all the love you come across, all the time.
Judging one's own time correctly is notoriously difficult. This applies especially to religion and morality. A mood of despondency seems to have descended upon our present-day society. People feel unease and disgust at the spate of violent killings, at marital breakdown, at corruption and fraud, in general at the decline in standards of decency and humanity. Public debate regarding moral questions often lacks inner conviction, conducted as it is by politicians and journalists whose stated intentions are so often known to conflict with vested interests. It makes honest folk feel depressed.
Modern life is often too glibly perceived to be the main culprit. What can you expect from a culture in which everything revolves around the self instead of around God? It would seem to me that the reality is more complex.
Our modern, secularised society carries many precious values that manifest the inner workings of God: sensitivity about human rights, the ideal of honesty in much of the media, the rigorous quest of truth by the sciences, and the dedication of professionals to improving the quality of life, to mention just a few. It might be worth exploring the presence of God in such tangible forms. After all, a spiritual renewal of human society needs to build on our own experience of God, rather than on foregone models.
The point I want to make in this chapter is that we should not be too hasty in condemning our contemporaries. "Do not judge others. Then God will not judge you. For God will judge you in the same way you judge others." (see: Matthew 7,1- 2.). And in any case, the norm we should use for any assessment is the one suggested in Scripture:
From 1 John 4,7-8.
From 1 John 4,12-13.
Scripture is not first and foremost speaking of romantic love, or `making love', though these are not excluded. Love means wishing another person well and showing it in deeds. Love implies a readiness to give, to make sacrifices, to perform humble services.
The question is: Do we find such love in present-day humanity? I believe we do. We find it in the most unexpected places. I visited Taiwan in 1993 and would like to use my findings as an illustration. Half the population of Taiwan has lost its religious past and is utterly secularised.
A desert without green shoots?
The traditional religion of the Chinese in Taiwan, most of whom are immigrants from mainland China, is a Taoist mix of superstition and polytheistic worship. The Lung Shan Temple in Taipei still draws ageing crowds of believers who offer food to Kuan-Yin, the goddess of mercy, and burn incense sticks to an assortment of gods and goddesses whose idols fill the shrines. Buddhists gather for prayer and ritual chants in pagodas or in private homes. But such religious activities belong to the past. They do not reflect the interests of the young, the intelligentsia or the country's industrial elite. I asked myself: do the latter have any `religion' at all?
Our traditional Christian response has often consisted in judging people from outside, by applying to them norms derived from the past. God, however, as Creator and Spirit, fills the world and all people from within. The Pharisees had already condemned the sinful woman who wiped Jesus' feet with her hair; Jesus saw her great love and made it the basis for her renewed turning to God. (see: Luke 7,36-50). The thought takes me back to Taiwan and an unusual encounter.
I was interviewing actors and actresses for parts in an international co-production. Since the projected film portrays our present-day search for God, empathy with religious values hardly seemed a luxury, but I found it a commodity in short supply. One actress, whom I will call Fong Shoa-li, spoke for many when she said: "Religious people inhabit an alien world". I inquired about her own world and was invited to visit her home.
Fong's husband is an engineer. She herself earns an additional wage as a part-time actress. They have two children who go to primary school. The precious fragments of time not claimed by work or by endless traffic jams are spent on watching TV at home, visiting friends or, rarely, taking the family to a park. A visit to the temple does not feature on the programme.
"I have never said a prayer in my life", Mrs. Fong told me with disarming candour, "nor do I feel the need to". Asked about God, she replied she had never given the matter much thought.
"Will virtue be rewarded and crime punished?" I asked her.
"Yes", she said after some hesitation; but she could not explain how. Providence, judgment, after-life had no place in her vocabulary. For her and her husband life had to be lived now, with economic solvency, health and good relations as their chief objectives. Then, almost as an afterthought, she pointed at a framed calligraphic text that adorned the living room wall.
It was a quotation from Hung Ying-ming's Ts'ai Ken T'an (around 1600 AD) which she translated for me.
On further probing it turned out, in fact, that values such as impartiality, honesty, love and hard work were purposely cultivated in the Fong family, and especially love. I was impressed by the mutual respect and affection between Mrs. Fong and her husband, and their warmth and dedicated commitment towards the children. Mrs Fong was also involved in neighbourhood services, such as taking a handicapped child to the bus and shopping for a bedridden pensioner.
The Fongs, I began to realise, though living in what Peter Berger has described as "the pervasive boredom of a world without gods", may unknowingly experience and radiate the exciting presence of God.
On returning to England, I retrieved an English translation of Hung Ying-ming's work and found in it another appropriate verse.
It reminded me of Jesus' own puzzling priorities.
When Jesus described the last judgment, he pointedly omitted the saying of prayers or the observation of the Sabbath as decisive norms. Instead, the Judge will ask: "Did you clothe the naked, feed the hungry, nurse the sick and visit criminals in prison? (see: Matthew 25,31-46). For not only is love the greatest commandment, God is love.
Wherever we find love, we know it comes from God. It is impossible for a human being to see God directly. It is by seeing love at work in ourselves and in others that we come face to face with God. Love is the clearest manifestation of God's presence.
When the New Testament speaks of `love', it points to the best in our human nature. Love means respect for the other, an openness leading to selfless commitment. It is love that makes us overcome our inborn egoism, urging us to serve rather than just be served. If we love people, we tell the truth even if it embarrasses us; we put up with other people's failings and forgive them; we turn the other cheek rather than take revenge; we pray for those who curse us and treat us badly. The love we talk about here is deeper than emotional attraction, and more resourceful. It engenders respect for who and what people are, not for what we can get out of them. It expects us to make sacrifices, yes even to give our life if this be necessary.
We meet such love even in the midst of our secular society. We find it exemplified in individuals and in some characteristic virtues of our time. Whenever we do, we should realise we are walking on sacred ground. For any manifestation of genuine love is a manifestation of God, even if it comes wrapped in a secular envelope.
Making sense of life
The principle of love provides us with the most trustworthy norm to assess what is healthy or not in our own culture. Fortunately, there is a lot to be proud of. Both on an institutional and personal level, the face of practical love shines through. We should remember that an explicitly religious motivation is not required here. At the last judgment we will not be grilled about our deepest conscious motives, but about whether our actions were humane, positive, and thus loving.
Christians are not hostile to the present world. Christians want to build on God's self-manifestations in present-day ideals and commitments. Our duty as believers is to render explicit what is latent in people's collective and personal consciences: that selfless love makes sense.
Love is not a waste of time because there is a deeper dimension to reality, a reality we call God whose essence is love and who reveals himself most clearly in love. Love makes sense because God makes sense.
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The text in this lesson is from How to Make Sense of God by John Wijngaards, Sheed & Ward, Kansas City 1995. Tom Adcock designed the cartoons. The Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada awarded the book a prize on 25 May 1996.
The video clips are from Journey to the Centre of Love (scriptwriter & executive producer John Wijngaards) which was awarded the GRAND PRIX by the Tenth International Catholic Film Festival held in Warsaw (18-23 May 1995). It also received the prestigious Chris Award at the International Film Festival, Columbus Ohio, in 1997.