God in search of us
Cardinal Basil Hume, Archbishop of Westminster.
I need to explain the title of this lecture by talking briefly at first about man in search of God. It is my thesis that every human being, man, woman and child, is consciously or unconsciously in search of God. I do not intend tonight to prove this assertion. It is, in my view, clear from the history of the human race and from the literature of every culture that men and women experience a persistent and insatiable hunger. They are driven by that hunger always to seek new experience. But they suffer endless frustration since they cannot grasp the deeper significance of their hunger nor how it can be satisfied. Their hunger expresses itself in two ways which 1 believe you will recognise from your own experience. Every individual searches for meaning in life, an explanation for one’s own existence and for one’s own experiences. At the same time, every individual searches for happiness, for that ecstasy which is found in its most intense form in the experience of love. This search for meaning and for happiness is, in point of fact, a single search. It seeks what lies above, beyond and outside one’s self. It reaches out to grasp this reality, this transcendence, this Absolute. And - here is the deepest level of truth - this reality and transcendence is found to be a living God, a personal and infinite God.
I begin from this point, because I believe we all experience this search and this hunger to a greater or lesser extent. But I also believe firmly that this is our human way of describing and experiencing an even more intense search and hunger, that of God for us. It really is like a cosmic game of hide and seek. We have all of us, as adults, played hide and seek with children. With a child’s utter seriousness they believe they are seeking some hidden person while, all the time, we ensure that we will always be found, If the child takes too long, or seems to be lost, we go looking for the child. Our search for God, basic to our human nature, brings us sooner or later to that encounter with God which He had always intended. In that encounter I believe we can truly find ourselves, our meaning and our happiness.
Recently we have enjoyed in Britain a religious experience which touched many hearts and opened many eyes. The pastoral visit of Pope John Paul II led some to experience more vividly the reality of God. Among the many letters I received after the visit, one stands out in my memory. A lady wrote: ‘When this visit is over and the theologians get together, perhaps they can remember that we are hungry and don’t want the stones of doctrinal differences. We want and need what that man was giving out all the time - the love of Christ” It recalls for me another image. I remember walking Into the Gothic magnificence of Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral as part of Pope John Paul’s party. The waves of applause that broke over us then were no less than a prayer for unity. I am convinced that the visit uncovered a tremendous need in people for the transcendent. It was not the applause and the enthusiasm which proved this but what I could read in people’s faces and in their eyes as they reacted to the person and the words of the Holy Father.
Most people agree that the Western world and particularly our great democracies are at crisis point. Institutions are crumbling; values are questioned. It seems to me that we are in danger of losing our way. There is so much confusion and conflict over the most basic questions; we are divided in our understanding about the very nature of man. If we disagree on that, what chance have we to build a coherent and compassionate society?
Jacques Maritain, in his book “True Humanism”, pointed out that from the dawn of modern times thinkers like Descartes, Rousseau and Kant fashioned an image of man, defiantly independent, splendidly rational, basically good. Man’s universe was complete and closed. There was no need for God, for divine revelation, for grace. There was no place for a Sovereign Good to solicit His will. Man was the summit and the measure of the universe.
It did not take long, says Maritain, for such self-confidence to disintegrate. The rationalist concept of human personality was dealt a severe blow by the emergence last century of a new orthodoxy from the world of biology. We may now be engaged in a reappraisal of the theory of evolution, but Charles Darwin’s hypotheses at that time caused confusion to Christian and rationalist alike. What happens to mankind’s pretensions if man is no more than “the naked ape”?
Even more destructive were the theories of Freud. Christians have always seen, as Pascal did, that the heart of man is hollow and full of evil, but they have also recognised man’s greatness and spiritual dignity. But those who had embraced rationalism and materialism were left, after Freud, with a fallen idol. The purely natural being, the heroic, quasi-divine figure of man lay in ruins. Man’s personality, his conscious dignity, was seen as a deception, masking turbulent depths of instinct and desire.
Our own experience shows us how in this century the dignity of man has suffered further attacks both existentially and philosophically. It has been a period of almost endless pain. There have been two World Wars, the Holocaust, Korea, Vietnam, Kampuchea, the continual state of war in the Middle East, the conflicts in Africa and the erection of apartheid, the civil wars in El Salvador, Nicaragua and the Lebanon, the urban terrorism in Northern Ireland, Latin America, Spain, Italy and West Germany, the horrors of internal repression and the Stalinist purges in the USSR, the massive apparatus of State repression throughout the Eastern bloc. The history of our time has been written largely in human blood. Inevitably respect for life has been eroded. The innocent civilian the casual bystander is taken as a legitimate target by state and terrorist alike. Nuclear destruction is an ever-present threat; the sheer horror of It stirs millions to protest but is dumbly accepted by millions more as an inevitable fact of modern life.
Less dramatic, but also important, have been the social changes brought about by the rapid, almost universal, spread of urbanisation and industrialisation. We are promised, or threatened, a future shaped by advanced technology, automation and the micro-chip. All this is likely to have major repercussions on our work-patterns, our social lives, our families. It may well affect our sense of community, our way of inter-reacting with others. It will dwarf the effects of the Industrial Revolution.
Human dignity, human individuality, have also come under heavy pressure this century from new and destructive ideologies. Nazism, Fascism and Communism have been the major secular heresies of our age. In their system, as in racialist regimes, the individual has no absolute, inviolable value. On occasions he or she can be sacrificed for a greater good.. Some indeed can be safely disregarded as non- persons. The threat from Western materialism and consumerism seems much less destructive at first sight. There is no apparatus of repression. There are no signs of physical ill-treatment. Living standards are often extremely high. Yet Western capitalism can be exploitive and unfeeling. Many In the Third World criticise bitterly the activities of multi-national corporations. Workers in the Western democracies seem to be valued for what they produce rather than for what they are. At times of economic difficulties, they are the first victims of recession and are relegated to the dole queues with routine expressions of regret.
All these things have clouded our perception of basic truths and have helped to create confusion and cynicism. Small wonder then that when the bishops of the Catholic Church met for the 2nd Vatican Council in the 1960’s they tackled this problem head-on. They said:
“Believers and unbelievers agree almost unanimously that all things on earth should be ordained to man as to their centre and summit. But what is man? He has put forward, and continues to put forward, many views about himself, views that are divergent and even contradictory. The Church is keenly sensitive to these difficulties. Enlightened by divine revelation she can offer a solution to them by which the true state of man may be outlined, his weakness explained, In such a way that at the same time his dignity and his vocation may be perceived in their true light.” (G & S 12).
Pope John Paul attaches great importance to a renewed recognition of the dignity and nature of man. During the very first pastoral visit of his ministry at Puebla in Mexico he said this: “The truth that we owe to man is, first and foremost, a truth about man. Thanks to the Gospel, the Church has a truth about man. This truth is found In an anthropology that the Church never ceases to fathom more thoroughly and to communicate to others. The primordial affirmation of this anthropology is that man Is God’s image and cannot be reduced to a mere portion of nature or an anonymous element In the human city”. (Puebla; to CELAM: 28th Jan. 1979). In the second part of this lecture I hope to show, particularly from the Pope’s addresses in Britain, what he means by the truth about man. It is central to all his thinking. It Is rooted deep In the Christian consciousness.
The book of Genesis, sacred to the Jewish and Christian tradition, expresses a fundamental insight into the nature of man: “God said, Let us make man in our own image, in the Image of ourselves, and let them be masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven, the cattle, all the wild beasts and the reptiles that crawl upon the earth. God created man In the image of Himself, In the image of God l created him, male and female, He created them”. (Gen. 1 26-27).
It is a familiar account; it contains a wealth of meaning. God, for the Jew and the Christian , is no Impersonal force. He is the creator acting with intelligence and love. From the beginning, human beings are pictured as altogether special, set apart from the rest of creation as if claiming kinship with God rather than the animal world. “Made in the image of God’ - not because they are flesh and blood but because the have within themselves a divine spark, the power of reasoning, the capacity to choose and to love. Each Individual, then, reflects something of God and was destined by God to be a familiar friend, walking together with Him among the delights of Paradise. Pride, self-will, disobedience, shattered the innocence of the Garden of Eden. Man, made by God and for God, rebelled against God and entered a world of conflict and sin. At war within himself, in conflict with his neighbours he defied God and plunged the world into darkness. The whole of the Bible tells the story of how God went in search of man, of how the Good Shepherd restored the scattered flock to the sheepfold, of how the Creator re-fashioned that image of himself, for so long disfigured by men, for so long broken into fragments by sin. He remade man in the person of Jesus Christ, offering to mankind a new life, a more glorious destiny.
In Jesus Christ, then, the believer perceives a two-fold reality. The eyes of faith gaze on him and see what man can be and is meant by God to be. At the same time, the believer can trace in the features of Jesus the image of God the Father. ‘Philip said: “Lord, let us see the Father and we shall be satisfied”. ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip?” said Jesus to him “and you still do not know me? To have seen me is to have seen the Father, so how can you say “Let us see the Father”? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” (John 14: 8-10). This surely is where Christianity stands alone. Central to our faith is the belief that God became man. In Jesus Christ we stand at the point of intersection between the divine and the human; in Christ we see what God offers to humanity and what humanity can grasp of the divine. For 2000 years we have pondered the significance of the incarnation. I am certain that it still has power to transform our understanding of man although historically we have constantly failed to live out its consequences.
I now want to explore some of the implications of this Christian approach. I intend to do this by returning to that remarkable pastoral visit by Pope John Paul II. I want to concentrate on one particular aspect of his teaching, namely on the wholeness and dignity of man and on how this is to be fostered and safeguarded. If human history is the story of God’s search for man, then man himself must be treated with unfailing respect.
It can be said that the most striking feature of Pope John Paul’s pastoral visit to Britain was how he conveyed by sign and by word his respect for others. For him, all creation and every individual is “full of God’s glory”, an expression of the beauty and reality of God. He shows respect when he kisses the soil of each nation’s homeland and when he is at pains to recall the heroes and the history of each people. He shows respect when he reaches out to embrace the poor and the powerless, the children and the handicapped. He shows respect in his courtesy and sensitivity to other Christians, to the Jews and to those of other religions. He shows respect when he grieves over the bloodshed In the Falklands and condemns violence and war in all its forms. This respect stems from a fundamental belief that God reveals himself in all creation and In every human life.
Pope John Paul expressed himself vividly throughout his visit to Britain and the picture of man that emerges should make us question many of our assumptions.
On the second day of his visit, when celebrating Mass at Wembley Stadium, he declared: “As I look at this great assembly, I am full of respect for all of you. You are God’s sons and daughters. He loves you. I believe in all mankind. I believe in the unique dignity of every human being. I believe that each individual has a value that can never be ignored or taken away”.
The dignity of each individual has to be recognised by the community and protected, if necessary, by law. Again at Wembley, the Holy Father declared: “Man is set against man, class against class in useless conflicts. Immigrants, people of a different colour, religion or culture suffer discrimination and hostility The world has largely lost respect for human life from the first moment of conception. It Is weak in upholding the indissoluble unity of marriage. It fails to uphold the stability and holiness of family life underlying all of this there is often a false concept of man and his unique dignity and a thirst for power rather than a desire to serve. Are we Christians to agree with such a state of affairs? Are we to call this progress? Are we to shrug our shoulders and say that nothing can be done to change all this”?
This universal dignity of every human being is enhanced by the divine intervention whereby God touches human nature, renews it and transforms it. The Sacraments, Catholics believe, are the touches of divine love and that is why Pope John Paul agreed with us to base his visit on the celebration of the Sacraments. Baptism is the essential Sacrament; the new creation, the new life of God in which we now share. Again and again Pope John Paul returns to this theme. In Westminster Cathedral he pointed out:
“Through baptism we are incorporated into Christ.... Water, washing over us, speaks of the redeeming power of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection, washing away the inheritance of sin, delivering us from a kingdom of darkness into a kingdom of light and love. The anointing of our heads with oil signifies how we are strengthened in the power of Christ and become living temples of the Holy Spirit.... We become part of the pilgrim people of God.
Baptism creates a sacramental bond of unity.., it is the foundation of the unity that all Christians have in Christ; a unity we must seek to perfect”.
Both the natural dignity of every individual and the new glory given to each through baptism make sexual discrimination repugnant. The Pope at York spoke of great Catholic heroines of the past like Mary Ward and Margaret Clitheroe and commented: “these holy women inspire women today to take their rightful place in the life of the Church as befits their equality of rights and particular dignity”. He spoke with even greater insistence against any idea that sickness, handicap or old age could diminish or destroy human dignity and human rights. In a service for the sick in Southwark Cathedral1 which was almost unbearabl3 moving, he said: “Sickness and suffering seem to contradict all that is worthy, all that is desired by man. And yet no disease, no injury, no infirmity can ever deprive you of your dignity as children of God, as brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ”. Knowing that he was touching one of the nerve-ends of contemporary society he went on. ...“ I support with all my heart those who recognise and defend the law of God which governs human life. We must never forget that every person, from the moment of conception to the last breath, is a unique child of God and has a right to life. This right should be defended by the attentive care of the medical and nursing professions and by the protection of the law. Every human life is willed by our heavenly Father and is part of His loving plan”. And then to the crux of the matter: “No state has the right to contradict moral values which are rooted in the nature of man himself. These values are the precious heritage of civilisation. If society begins to deny the worth of any individual or to subordinate the human person to pragmatic or utilitarian considerations, it begins to destroy the defences that safeguard its own fundamental values”. These words present in the clearest, sharpest terms the crucial importance of the concept we have of man and the dire consequences for society of any ambiguity or mistake. It is here that the Pope stands as a sign of contradiction to much of western liberal opinion. But can there be any doubt - however one judges him - that he speaks for the Christian tradition and for the values fashioned by our forefathers?
The same could be said of the stand taken by the Holy Father on the permanence of marriage and the importance of family life. There can be little doubt that he links in his mind the dignity and the rights of individuals with the integrity and the independence of the family. Nations which for decades have suffered under repressive and alien ideologies and which have seen most of their national and social institutions threatened, Infiltrated and subverted, have learnt to retreat into the inner defences of the family. They have seen a strong family life as a bastion against hostile influences and unwelcome values. Pope John Paul has, I believe, learned from this Polish experience and tends to turn to the same remedies when he sees Christian values and traditions under active attack in the West from other forces which have, however, the clear intention of effecting radical change in society. He encouraged governments to take family life seriously when he spoke at York on the subject of marriage:
“Treasure your families. Protect their rights. Support the family by your laws and administration. Allow the voice of the family to be heard in the making of your policies. The future of your society, the future of humanity, passes by way of the family”.
To emphasise the cosmic dimension of this problem he listed in some detail the present threats to family life and leaves no one in doubt as to their seriousness:
“I could not fail to draw attention to the negative phenomena: a corruption of the idea and experience of freedom, with consequent self-centredness in human relations: serious misconceptions regarding the relationship between parents and children; the growing number of divorces; the scourge of abortion; the spread of a contraceptive and anti-life mentality. Besides these destructive forces, there are social and economic conditions which affect millions of human beings, undermining the strength and stability of marriage and family life. In addition there is the cultural onslaught against the family by those who attack married life as ‘irrelevant’ and ‘outdated’. All of this is a serious challenge to society and to the Church”.
Without doubt, Pope John Paul sees the family and its well-being as crucial to the well-being of society and a necessary condition of human happiness. It Is not a state of life to be entered into lightly. It demands such love and self-sacrifice that “to be capable of such love calls for careful preparation from early childhood to wedding. It requires the constant support of Church and society throughout its development”. He describes married love in terms which may seem idealistic to most couples: “Those baptised in the name of the Lord Jesus are married in his name also. Their love is a sharing in the love of God. He is its source. The marriages of Christian couples, are images on earth of the wonder of God, the loving, life-giving communion of Three Persons in One God, and of God’s covenant in Christ, with the Church”. (York 3).
The dignity and the rights of man require more than a private and a domestic expression. Man’s nature impels him to make common cause with others and consequently to create communities In an endless variety of ways. Ue is, we say, a social animal. Society then should enrich and not diminish the individual. And so the environment, housing conditions, educational opportunities, the outlawing of racial, religious cultural, class and sexual discrimination, the provision of suitable working conditions In industry and commerce, the development of health and welfare services, all should provide an adequate setting and support for human living. This does not in any way argue for comprehensive state welfare or the abolition of private enterprise and ownership. In fact the popes of the past century in a series of encyclicals on social questions have consistently argued for restraint in the growth of governmental powers and have supported the principle of subsidiarity - whereby the state does not take away personal responsibility but is on hand to provide checks, balances and support for the needy where necessary. Yet the Church, mindful of the poor and powerless, Is opposed to an unregulated scramble for profit In the market-place. During his pastoral visit to Britain, Pope John Paul had little opportunity to develop these themes of wide-ranging social concern. He spoke briefly about unemployment when in Liverpool. He described it as “one of the major problems facing society as a whole”. It sows seeds of bitterness, division and even violence. It affects every aspect of life, from the material and the physical to the mental and the spiritual. He declared: “It, therefore, very much concerns the Church which makes her own the hardships and sufferings, as well as the joys and hopes of the men and women of our time”. Here the Pope hints at his defence if he were accused of busying himself with matters beyond his brief. The Christian must be concerned with the ultimate questions, with questions of value and morality, with all that has to do with relations between God and man, and between man and man. It is unrealistic and dangerous to divide human life into mutually exclusive categories. It is simply false to think that the human person can be made subordinate to any institution or any principle. God and the person stand together in a unique and utterly special relationship.
If the Holy Father spoke little of social problems in Britain, he did not hesitate to tackle the questions of peace and war, especially In the context of the Falklands’ conflict, then entering its critical phase. From his opening speech at Gatwick to his farewell at Cardiff he insisted that he “came as a herald of peace, to proclaim a Gospel of peace and a message of reconciliation and love”. At Westminster he prayed for “a peaceful solution to the conflict, praying that the God of peace will move men’s hearts to put aside the weapons of death and to pursue the path of fraternal dialogue”. His concern naturally was wider ‘than for the Falklands. At Coventry, in a widely reported passage, he declared: Today, the scale and the horror of modern warfare - whether nuclear or not - makes it totally unacceptable as a means of settling differences between nations. War should belong to the tragic past, to history; it should find no place on humanity’s agenda for the future”. Elsewhere, recently, he has stated that deterrence based on a balance of force “may still be judged morally acceptable” certainly not as an end In itself, but solely as a stage on the road to progressive disarmament. (To United Nations: June 11th n.8). Even then he pointed out the grave dangers of this policy and restated clearly the Catholic position that there must be an end to the arms race and a disarmament which is - and these are three key words - mutual, progressive and verifiable. Again in his message to the United Nations last month he said: “The Church has continually sought to contribute to peace and to build a world that would not have recourse to war to solve disputes.... It has deplored the arms race, called nonetheless for mutual progressive and verifiable reduction of armaments as well as greater safeguards against possible misuse of these weapons. It has done so while urging that the independence, freedom and legitimate security of each and every nation be respected”. For my own part, I could only tolerate possession of nuclear weapons for deterrence as the lesser of two evils. But this tolerance is based entirely on a firm intent to achieve, ultimately, multilateral disarmament. The Pope’s passionate advocacy on behalf of peace springs from his concept of human dignity and individual worth. His hatred of war comes from his thirst for that justice which is so often compromised In the confusion of battle. As a Christian, he is committed not only to respect for others but to a Gospel of reconciliation. In the final analysis, this can only be secured by those who have been reconciled to God, who have experienced a profound conversion of mind and heart and who seek then to reconcile others and to be peacemakers. In this crusade for peace, Pope John Paul walks in the footsteps of all recent Popes and echoes the teaching of the Second Vatican Council. This is more than the plea of suffering humanity. It is motivated by a profound and utterly Christian concept of the dignity of man.
I want to emphasise the importance of this point, the special character of the Christian concern for man and the intimate relationship between the divine and the human in all human living, all our experience and activity.
The Christian Church is not the product of human wisdom. It is not primarily motivated ‘by humanitarian concern. It is the guardian and herald of a revelation from God and so it deals in mysteries. Mysteries are profound truths beyond the grasp of our unaided Intellects, yet yielding their riches to the humble and the prayerful. The progressive revelation of God to His people In the Hebrew Scriptures and the teaching of Jesus Christ together form the substance of Christian wisdom and the inspiration for Christian living. Jesus thanked his Father for hiding these things from the learned and the clever, but revealing them to little children. Pope John Paul, again and again in his visit to Britain, stressed the need for a spirituality which was, at one and the same time directed towards the eternal yet intensely practical and real. Indeed, at the climax of the national youth event in Cardiff, he spoke quite plainly: “It is through prayer that Jesus leads us to his Father. It is in prayer that the Holy Spirit transforms our lives. It is in prayer that we come to know God; to detect His presence in our souls, to hear His voice speaking through our consciences and to treasure His gift to us of personal responsibility for our lives and for our world. It is through prayer that we clearly focus our attention on the person of Jesus Christ and see the total relevance of His teaching for our lives Yes, In Christ you begin to understand yourselves more fully. This is what the Second Vatican Council wanted to emphasise when it stated: ‘The truth is that only in the mystery of the Incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light’. (Gaudium et Spes 22). In other words, Christ not only reveals God to man, but He reveals man to himself. In Christ we grasp the secret of our own humanity”. And to emphasise the Importance of this teaching, the Pope concluded: “As long as the memory of this visit lasts, may it be recorded that I, John Paul II, came to Britain to call you to Christ and to invite you to pray’”.
Here we have come to the heart of the matter. This is neither the time nor the place to explore more deeply the secret of our humanity as revealed in Christ. The point to which I return is that here we touch on the prevailing malaise of our world, which is a distorted or an inadequate vision of man. It has been my argument that we can reach the truth about man only if we reflect more deeply on the creative love of God and on His revelation to man of his Inmost being. I believe that the Christian vision holds within itself the key to the mysteries and a new hope for man and for our world.
© The Ditchley Foundation, 1982. All rights reserved. Queries concerning permission to translate or reprint should be addressed to the Communications Officer, The Ditchley Foundation, Ditchley Park, Enstone, Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire OX7 4ER, England.