Thus far in 2011, I have been intrigued by two happenings that have Christian origins but have excited discussion beyond religious circles. The most recent was the announcement by Harold Camping and Family Radio, Inc. that Judgment Day (understood as the day when the saved will be taken up into heaven in the rapture) would occur on May 21, 2011. It didn’t.
Mr. Camping decided upon May 21 by applying a literal and mathematical reading of the Bible. Mathematics has its place in the world, but it is misplaced when applied to Scripture. By putting forth a god whose action can be predicted by simple addition, Mr. Camping has reduced the transcendent. He has announced a god that he can fully understand and therefore, in some sense, control. It is a god that is easily caricatured, mocked, and rejected.
The second happening this year was the U.S. release of Of Gods and Men, a critically acclaimed movie — Fr. James Martin, S.J. has called it “the greatest film on faith I’ve ever seen” — about a community of French Trappists killed in Algeria in 1996.
The martyred Trappists in Of Gods and Men show us a much different God. More than any particular dialogue, the film is striking for its long periods of silence. We are invited into that silence, into the work of contemplation as we watch one monk silently chop wood, another tend the garden, and another walk the fields. The silence of the Trappists speaks to a faith that recognizes that words cannot adequately capture or explain the transcendent. It is a stance of humility in the face of something that is beyond our ability to express or even understand.
Thomas Aquinas, a theologian who wrote and talked a great deal about God, explained (as quoted in Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God) that in seeking God, “Man’s utmost knowledge is to know that we do not know him…. For then alone do we know God truly, when we believe that he is far above all that man can possibly think of God….”
It seems to this writer that it is an act of hubris to say that we can know and predict the movements of God. The virtue of humility instead leads us to listen, in silent awe of the wonders God has done. In the words of another Thomas (Merton),
What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone,
in the forest, at night, cherished by this
perfectly innocent speech,
the most comforting speech in the world,
the talk that rain makes by itself all over the ridges,
and the talk of the watercourses everywhere in the hollows!
Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it.
It will talk as long as it wants, this rain.
As long as it talks I am going to listen.
The Trappists, who live in quiet contemplation and provide loving aid to their Muslim neighbors, show us a way forward — a humble way of being that would do the world much good.
(There is much more to this powerful movie. Watch clips interspersed with commentary from James Martin. Then see it!)