God’s Platitudes

What if God spoke, and it wasn’t worth the hearing? Like some televised presidential address that you’re just not interested in hearing? You click off it and try to hunt up something interesting, even a rerun, on some other channel. The whole idea conjures up a rather different sort of faith crisis than we are used to considering. What if God exists, but he’s a moron?

I was moved to think along these lines (and not for the first time, believe me) by the recent vacuous utterance of Pope Ratzinger about the hackneyed theme of the “commercialization of Christmas.” Big surprise: he called on the faithful not to buy a lot of presents for loved ones and friends, but to give them the gift of a smile instead. Yeah, that’s gonna work all right! “Thanks, Cousin Zelda! Must have cost you a bundle! You shouldn’t have! And, er, here’s my gift to you.” An embarrassed grin, and it’s only going to make Zelda curse you as a cheapskate all the way home. Merry Christmas!

The Pope, it would seem, has as little grasp of the facts of reality in a mundane area like this as he does in matters of science or historical criticism. In fact, you can always count on every Papal effusion to be a groaning piece of studied irrelevance. Every thing he (and his predecessors) says appears to be a calculated effort to demonstrate that senility goes with the job. As if being heavenly minded automatically entails being of no earthly good. A war is raging, having erupted from a volatile mix of social and economic factors. And what’s the Vicar of Christ got to say about it? Nothing more than he would say to two school kids tussling on the playground. “C’mon, fellas! Break it up! There’ll be lemonade for everybody inside!” Yeah, padre, we know peace is better. Everybody knows that. If that’s all there were to it, the war, any war, would never have started. So, to be listened to, you better have something better than that up your brocaded white sleeve.

Does it occur to his Popishness that people expressing their affection and indulging their desire to see the pleasure break forth across the faces of eager children might be a good thing? The attitude of the Pope and his religion (fortunately, most of his flock knows better!) is “Just say No”—to everything. Asceticism looks like the way to go because, deep down, one hates this world and wishes to be a bit of water vapor riding a cloud in the sky. No thanks!

Does it occur to the rider in the Popemobile that people’s livelihoods and their prosperity results in part from the pumping up the economy gets from Christmas seasonal buying? “Oh, you’re going to be an awfully popular fella, Henry! When the kids learn you said there’s no Santy Claus and they don’t put up their stockings, and all those toys don’t get sold. And then you’re going to have the AF of L and the CIO after ya!” What a maroon! Some thirty years go, I asked Jim Wallis, head of the Sojourners Community and now a more moderate seeming spokesman for evangelical Christianity and Democratic liberalism, if the policies he advocated would not spell the collapse of the U.S. economy. He replied that such ruin might be a good thing for the world. I don’t know if Wallis would echo these sentiments today, but they remain a great illustration of what I call “political snake-handling.” It is a simple-minded zealotry that sacrifices the welfare of one’s own people on the altar of some ideology. Listen, pal, be a martyr to your ideals if you think you must, but who gave you the right to take me down with you?

I never call the current Pope by his high and mighty stage name of “Benedict.” That name is a verbal vestment intended to clothe its wearer with an aura of holy dignity his ordinary moniker might not suggest. Like his vestments, it is all part of the curtain behind which the Wizard of Oz was taking refuge, behind which he wanted you not to inquire. He’s just some guy. Some guy whose opinions you would not stop to take seriously for a split-second if not for the trumped-up clout. The ultimate example of this incense-and-mirrors is the title of a recent book on the selection process of Ratzinger to the wizardly throne: God’s Choice. I find it side-splitting!

Here is someone who is so used to intellectual humiliation and obsequiousness that he no longer has the least trouble thinking the political machinations of a bunch of robed bureaucrats carry divine authority. It’s as if either the Republicans or the Democrats were to end their quadrennial convention by claiming they had luckily managed to nominate God’s own choice as their party nominee! Imagine the gales of laughter! The pretension! The smug assumption that the rank and file would be stupid and naïve enough to swallow it! A bureaucracy coughs up one of its own into the figurehead position, and it is to be heralded as the finger of God inscribing his will on stone as in the Charlton Heston movie. Why does the absurd enormity, the laughably disproportionate character of such a claim remain invisible to those who make it? For one reason: they are so used to equating their deity with their institution that they no longer think such an identification requires any justification.

Thus it is no wonder that one can expect to hear nothing from the Pope, any Pope, but weary reiteration of entrenched policy and vapid platitudes on issues of the day. But one might at least hope the Pope and the Church would be willing to take a spoon-full of their own advice. I propose that next time the ushers pass the collection plates in a Catholic Church service, the people just contribute their smiles.

So says Zarathustra.

Robert M. Price
January 2006



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