From parades of military might in Tiananmen Square in China to the Boeing 747 that bears the inscription “The United States of America,” we live ensconced in symbols, myths, and metaphors that can deeply affect our thinking and our lives on a daily basis.
Words matter. They strike our minds and thoughts differently. Take something simple like the words cup and chalice. Chalices are for wine; they are special. Cups are for coffee. The 2011 English translation of the Roman Missal changed the previous reading, “cup,” to something more faithful to the Latin: “This is the chalice of my blood . . .” And that is only the tip of the iceberg. The metaphors and myths of daily life can create enemies and start wars, as well as bring new understanding between neighbors.
One of my favorite Scripture quotes is not from any of the canonical texts that we know in the New Testament; rather, it is from the Coptic Gospel of Thomas, found near Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945. It is thought to be a Gnostic text. Consider the words of Saying 113: “His disciples said to him, ‘When will the kingdom come?’ [Jesus said,] ‘It will not come by waiting for it. It will not be a matter of saying “here it is” or “there it is”. Rather, the kingdom of the father is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it.’” We who profess some degree of faith in God are living in a mystery, in an environment of symbols, metaphors, and myths spread out over our earth—indeed, over the entire universe.
I appreciate that saying of Thomas because it feeds into my gut feeling that the entire universe is more than simply a reflection of the grandeur of God, that it is a metaphorical reality of God with us. I often think of the Jesuit priest-paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, accused of pantheism by the Holy Office when, in fact, he saw the reality of God in everything and yet understood God to be other than the totality of creation. That is the difference between pantheism and panentheism.
Joseph Campbell, the late, great mythologist and professor at Sarah Lawrence College, said that “[m]yths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life.” In a series of interviews with Bill Moyers, set down in book form as The Power of Myth, he explains, “A myth is a mask of God, a metaphor for what lies behind the visible world.”
What other words can we use to describe the visible and tangible, the sentient, perceived and received as mere suggestions of an indescribable reality? We might even call these suggestions sacraments—outward signs of a greater reality, signs that are filled with divinity. The universe is a sacrament of God. The universe is the myth, the story, the clue, the sacrament of a spiritual reality that defies human recognition. The universe is a suggestion of God. The kingdom of the father is spread out over the earth, and humans do not see it. If Jesus lived in our modern age, he might have said that the kingdom of the father is spread out over the universe.
I offer that too many intellectuals and authors are atheists under false assumptions. Those assumptions are that God is found in churches and temples, synagogues and oratories. It is a false assumption that God is found uniquely in the Eucharist and in the Word of God, or for that matter in any place, thing, location—anything circumscribed by time and space. They are all sacraments because divinity cannot be contained. Atheists are shortchanging themselves because they believe the halting and limited stuttering of men and women who are looking for a god, a god perceived by the senses and reasoned to by our very limited imaginations and intellects.
The most popular atheists write books and give lectures. Perhaps the best known are Stephen Hawking, Steven Pinker, and Richard Dawkins. Do they reject God or are they, in fact, rejecting popular religious beliefs and practices? I would join them in saying that the religions of the world have indeed reduced God to something manageable, something that what we mere humans can deal with intellectually. But that particular, manageable God does not exist.
All religions have done a lot of searching and reasoning to finally draw their conclusions. The result is that we have a lot of gibberish leading to volumes of theology, and people in general have taken this to be an intellectual hold on God. But our reasonings, unfortunately, are merely pointers bearing the clues, myths, metaphors, and masks of God; they are stuttering, halting attempts to explain who or what God is. The theology of the Trinity, for example, is a mess of human mental contortions that ultimately does not make sense. So we conclude the whole intellectual gymnastic by saying it is a mystery. We are so desperate to understand that we have mistaken the shadows for the Reality. Plato lives on in his cave.
We have tried to pin down God even in our sacramental rituals. So orderly, so proper. That may be part of the reason why we have so many atheists among us. Better yet, that is why people have stopped considering religion as a way to go in their lives. They have come to think that today’s believers are living in a bygone era. They are right, insofar as we continue to carry on with our picayune parsing of peculiar points of view and call it theology.
Yes, religion is structured and ordered, needing control and discipline if it is to survive. And so we go on with our structuring, organizing, defining, and all the things that create order, unity, and the possibility for growth. These are sociological necessities according to human inclinations. Thus religions are created according to the lines of any other secular entity that makes the world go ’round, establishing a sociological order meant to perdure and flourish. It is called the sociology of religion, an absolute need so that the project will be stabilized and grow through the ages. Behold how the Vatican, the curia, the papacy, the priesthood, and the bureaucratic monarchical list goes on ad nauseam. The drawback is that this development of temporal structures has created fertile ground for atheism. But the alternate is chaos and a movement without a future, a flash in the pan. The high drama, élan, and enthusiasm of charisma exist only in the earliest stages of a movement. It is sad but true.
What are we left with? For me, personally, we are left with Yeshua bar Joseph and Mary. Jesus stands in the middle of all my gibberish. Jesus lives as the non-myth, the non-metaphor, the non-sacrament, the reality of God. Does that make Jesus God? That is for your faith to conclude. My faith hinges on my belief in Jesus as the reality of God-with-us.
With knowledge of our earth and our universe progressing by leaps and bounds, we are compelled to think bigger, wider, deeper about life, about beginnings, about time, space, and depth, and about how they defy comprehension. We will never figure it all out. We will simply learn more and have more questions than answers. It is all a grand sacrament of God, a suggestion of the grandeur of Reality.
Perhaps, in the end, it is the language of poetry that speaks most eloquently to these thoughts. I am thinking, in particular, of the 19th-century English poet and Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins. Here is his poem entitled “God’s Grandeur”:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! Bright wings.
Gene Ciarlo is a priest resigned from active ministry in the Archdiocese of Hartford, Connecticut. He received an MA in Theological Studies from the University of Louvain, Belgium, and an MA in Liturgical Studies from the University of Notre Dame. After 10 years in the active ministry he returned to the American College in Louvain as Director of Liturgy and Homiletics. He now lives in peaceful and graceful Vermont.