Making God a tribal totem

Word cloud via Jason Davies Word cloud via Jason Davies

Why don’t we live happier lives? Why are we forever caught up in frustrations, tensions, angers and resentments?

The reasons of course are too many to name. Each day, as Jesus himself tells us, brings problems enough for the day. We’re unhappy for reasons too many to count. And yet it can be helpful to ask ourselves sometimes: Why am I so chronically sitting just outside the gates of happiness?

Our initial answer would probably focus on the tensions in our lives that have to do with tiredness, with our health, with stress in our relationships, stress in our work and anxieties about security. There’s always something! A second reflection would, I suspect, drag up deeper reasons: unacknowledged disappointment with how our lives have turned out, with what our lives have come down to, with the many dreams we had which were frustrated.

A deeper reflection, I believe, would shine a light on something else, something that lies beyond the ordinary stresses and disappointments in our lives. It would, I submit, reveal an underlying, unacknowledged insecurity which works at perennially turning the positive into the negative, has us habitually cursing rather than blessing, and has us projecting a negativity and bitterness even into the God and religion we believe in. What is this insecurity?

This insecurity is, at root, a feeling that we are not sufficiently welcome in this world, that God and the universe are somehow hostile to us, that we are not unconditionally loved and forgiven. And, because of this, we harbor a certain paranoia and hostility towards others. Their energy is a threat to the welcome we desire.

The need to accuse, condemn

Here’s how Thomas Merton diagnoses this. Commenting on the negativity in the politics, churches and communities of his time, he offers this reason for the bitterness and division: “In the climate which is not that of life and mercy, but of death and condemnation, the personal and collective guilts of men and of groups wrestle with one another in a death struggle.

Men, tribes, nations, sects, parties set themselves up in forms of existence which are mutual accusations. They thus seek survival and self-affirmation by living demonically, for the demon is the ‘accuser of the brethren.’

A demonic existence is one which insistently diagnoses what it cannot cure, what it has no desire to cure, what it seeks only to bring to full potency in order that it may cause the death of its victim. Yet this is the temptation which besets the sin-ridden dasein [existential situation] of man, for whom a resentful existence implies the need and decision to accuse and to condemn all other existences.”

And, when this is true, Merton submits, “God becomes a tribal totem, a magnification of the self-seeking existent striving to establish its autonomy in its own void. Can such a God be anything but the embodiment of resentments, hatreds and dreads? It is in the presence of such idols that vindictive and death-dealing orthodoxies flourish. These gods of party and sect, race and nation, are necessarily the gods of war.” And this can only be remedied “when men realize that they are all debtors, and that the debt is unpayable.”

Isn’t all of this so true today? How vicious, demonizing, polarizing and stalemated are our own political processes, churches and communities! How resentful we all are! How much we have turned our God into the embodiment of our resentments, hatreds and fears! How much we are selling death-dealing orthodoxies as religion! How much our communities and churches are creating their own tribal gods!

We see this, of course, most clearly in the religious terrorists who bomb and kill in the name of God, but no one is exempt. We all struggle to believe in a God who actually loves everyone and who is not just our own tribal deity. Indeed part of the historical reason for present-day religious terrorism has to do with our own longstanding paranoia, and how we have projected our own resentments, fears and hatreds into the God we believe in and the religion we practice.

But Merton shares too the secret of how to move beyond this, of how to stop projecting our own resentments and fears into God and into our churches. His answer? Things will change when, at the root of our being, we accept that we are debtors and that the debt is unpayable. Then we will finally accept God’s welcome and love and, accepting our own welcome, we will no longer resent others.

Only when we know our own welcome can we let acceptance, and not judgment, flow out of our lives. Then, and only then, can we let our God be too the God of others.

At the root of our deepest resentment sits an insecurity about our own welcome in the world, and with that comes a failure to understand the real nature of God, that is, because we feel threatened, we invariably create a God and religion that protects us against others.

Father Ron Rolheiser

Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas. Contact him at [email protected].