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What Its Like to Be Us

I grew up in a loving family but we never said we loved each other and rarely showed it physically.

That all changed for our family, and I believe for many families, in the 80s or 90s. I can’t recall exactly when but we became much more willing to express our love verbally and physically. Among my siblings, it became common – even among the men – to hug on arrival or departure from a family gathering and to end telephone conversations with, “Love you,” something that would have been unheard of even 10 years earlier.

I don’t know what brought about the change. We may have become more aware of our bonds and their fragility. And maybe we began to think that we would later regret not taking the opportunity to tell and show people we loved them when we had the chance.

One reason for our previous timidity, I think, was an aversion to sentimentality, an embarrassing human trait. We thought words and physical expression were unnecessary, and, of course, they are. But human love is so much poorer without them.

And that brings me to our idea of God. The Hebrew Bible depicts a God who loves and feels compassion, gets angry, is jealous and who wants people to fear him. But those are human projections. We know God only through metaphors, so our idea of God is actually abstract, and it’s hard to have a relationship with an abstraction. If abstractions are all we’re left with, there’s not much reward in searching for God.

An impersonal, higher force

That may partially explain the difficulty people in the western world have with belief. An article in America Magazine in March cited statistics among Catholics in the Netherlands – a traditionally Catholic country that has had a steep decline in church attendance – showing that God is understood “to be an impersonal, higher force. According to the latest numbers in the research project ‘God in Nederland (1966-present),’ 55 percent of Catholics fall into this category.”

You always have to be skeptical about such surveys, of course. Couldn’t the same people who say that God is “an abstraction” also believe that they have a relationship with him/her?

But as our family learned, we humans need more than an idea as the object of our love, which is a principal mandate of many religions, especially Christianity. The gospels as well as the writings of Paul and those who wrote in his name make clear the mandate to love, just as the current political, social and cultural climate make it more difficult.

In much of our common public lives, you’re led to believe that what’s most important is what you, or your group, want – the antithesis to a loving spirit. Indeed, we are most concerned about self-fulfillment, personal freedom and our rights as individuals, and that is promoted by much of what we read and see.

“Get rid of the pain and live the life you deserve,” urges a TV ad for an arthritis medicine. “Play more, be happy,” prompts an ad for a casino. Don’t have “the fear of missing out on the home of your dreams,” entreats another for a real estate company.

Loving God and neighbor – priorities for the Judeo-Christian tradition – sounds poetic and is sometimes even enticing, but to many they are empty words, no match for our wants. An overriding sense of entitlement often keeps us from breaking out of ourselves to serve others, and that’s combined with the view of a God who can’t really relate to us, who doesn’t know what it’s like to have unfulfilled needs and wants.

Christians, however, have a God who knows what it’s like to be us – knowing the need for, and the barriers to love. That’s the gist of a recent article by William O’Malley in the National Catholic Reporter in which O’Malley cites a passage from the gospel of Mark about Jesus and a leper. O’Malley, by the way, is a professor of theology at Seattle University but is best known for his portrayal of Fr. Dyer in The Exorcist.“

Moved With Compassion

A leper came to him and begged him on his knees, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ Moved with compassion, Jesus touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’”

Because Christians believe that Jesus is God, they believe that God feels compassion and can physically touch. Before Jesus, O’Malley writes, “God could not feel. Even if God knew everything, being non-material, he couldn’t feel anything. Since he had no bodily organs, God couldn’t actually experience that tightening of the gut, that helpless ache in the chest, that bewilderment no other species but humans can feel.”

Ironically, we humans, who do have those experiences, often resist them. Expressing our love may be more common among family members today, but breaking out of our routines and touching others – especially those on the margins of society – is still hard for us.

Understanding that God knows what it’s like to be us should make a big difference. We can show how we’re made in God’s image and likeness by reaching out to others in word and touch just as our God did 2,000 years ago and as he/she does today through others.


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