Believing in a God who Acts in History


The historicity of God—God’s presence in history—should never be taken for granted, yet we do have a tendency to forget that God is active in history. The apostles and St. Paul testified about historical facts. They were not acting as ethical philosophers who had invented a new code of ethics. No, they were people who were firmly convinced that God is with us on this earth. St. Paul lambastes those who doubt the historicity of the resurrection: “Now if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?” (2 Corinthians 15:12-14). He goes on with conviction “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (2 Corinthians 17). Even in St. Paul’s day and age, many people viewed the message of the Gospel as purely subjective rather than factual. Without the historicity of the events in Christ’s life, we Catholics are simply liars. If Christ has not been raised, “our preaching is in vain” and “we are even found to be misrepresenting God.” Our reason to live is put in question if Christ’s presence in history is doubted.

The Psalms See God as Ever Active in Our Lives

The psalms describe God’s actions in history and our hope and need for messianic intervention. Psalms 119-133, known as the Gradual Psalms or the Song of Ascents, express our Christian journey towards the heavenly Jerusalem that takes place in time. According to Thomas Merton in Praying the Psalms, “They are supposed to have been the favorite songs of pilgrims traveling to the earthly Jerusalem before the time of Christ. Hence their name “Gradual” Psalms for the stages” (degrees – gradus) of the journey” (31). Psalm 122 which Merton calls “typical” of the gradual Psalms opens with “I was glad when they said to me,/ Let us go to the house of the Lord” (1-2) thus expressing our hope not only in a worldly Jerusalem but a heavenly one as well. Psalm 125 pines for the restoration of the Jewish people and the divine restoration of fortunes described in the Sermon on the Mount in which “those who sow in tears,/ shall reap with shouts of Joy.” Thomas Merton recommends these Psalms because they remind us that God is coming soon. “Perhaps, these short, joyful songs are the most beautiful in the whole Psalter. They are full of light and confidence. They bring God very close to us. They open our hearts to the secret action of His peace and to His Grace” (31). As Christians, we need the Psalms to remind us of this peace and grace that exists for us.

As Christians we know that God “has done great things for us” (Psalm 125, verses 2) even as we look forward to his second coming. To the eyes of the Psalmist, creation is a testament to God’s presence in history. Psalm 8 exalts “Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth ” (1). The psalm continues to list the wonder of the universe that proves the majesty of God; however, Psalm 8 chiefly wonders at the power God has given mankind over His wondrous creation. Job seems to feel the same majesty in creation when he confronts the God cosmic power of God at the end of his suffering. He recants the complaints he made against God with words of wonder: “Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (42: 4). These Old Testament exultations arise from the knowledge that God is not a distant deity but a force in our own lives.

God’s actions both in creation and in historical moments are a source of praise in the Old Testament and the New. Mary’s Magnificat glorifies the God who has “done great things for me” and has “exalted those of low degree” (Luke 49, 52). Throughout the Gospel, Mary is often said to ponder words and events in her heart such as during the Annunciation and after the departure of the Magi. She, too, is awed by the glory of God’s actions in her life and the lives of others.

In certain moments with Christ, characters in the Gospel experience the action of God in their lives with similar intensity. These experiences are not always what the world would consider dramatic. Sometimes a personal interaction with Christ is enough. The Samaritan woman feels wonder when Christ is able in her own words to tell her everything she ever did (John 4:29).

The Scientific Age

As Christians living in a scientific, skeptical age, we should have a strong belief in God’s power to work in history and our lives. Christ comes to us in the Eucharist just as he came to Mary and the Samaritan woman. Arguably, our access to God is greater now than it ever was in history, and, therefore, our belief in God’s power should be unshakable. Yet we live in a scientific world that laughs at belief. One of the manifestations of this is our uneasiness even to praise God. Merton feels that “praise is cheap, today . . . since everything is ‘praised’ with the official hollow enthusiasm of the radio announcer”( Praying with the Psalms 9).We are skeptics “do not really think we need God” (10) and, therefore, have difficulty getting on our knees to praise Him for our mere existence on earth.

When modern people pick up the Bible, they pick it up as they might pick up a novel or some ancient text that is to be read in their World Literature college class. They pick it up as something only tangentially connected to their lives. It is not the “good news” or the story of their redemption as it is to practicing Christians. The characters that appear in the Bible are more literary characters than historical ones. The Gospel is a collection of events lost in time and removed from modern life. Do Catholics read the Bible in the same way? The answer is of course that they do because if they truly read the Gospel with the conviction that it did happen, their charisma and faith would probably be almost irresistible.

It is worth pondering why the temptation is so great to read the Bible as moderns do. In Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, Benedict XVI confronts those exegetes who read the Bible in precisely this light. “The common practice today is to measure the Bible against the so-called modern worldview, whose fundamental dogma is that God cannot act in history—that everything to do with God is to be relegated to the domain of subjectivity” (35). Indeed, the reduction of the Bible and religion itself to mere subjectivity has become a cornerstone of both our modern skepticism and our desire to “live and let live.” The appeal of the modern outlook lies in its apparent reasonableness. “I’m just being logical”,  says the agnostic who refuses to move beyond doubt. Similarly, the modern voice in our heads warns us about becoming one of those “zealots” who takes the Bible at its word. Whether we think we are being logical or not, our real reason for scoffing at the historicity of the Bible is that we fear for our safety and freedom. Belief cuts away subjectivity leaving a cold hard objectivity and a call to action that can be discomforting. “Keep those zealots away from our rights,” we think.

God Has Penetrated History

The solution to modern subjectivity and doubt is to read the Bible as a historical text. Only then will we be living with the convictions that support our faith. Granted, not everything in the Bible is historical. There are many things especially in the Old that are not literal. This should not shake our faith in the things that are literal such as the incarnation and the resurrection although many have lost their faith over this paradox or used it as a way to avoid a deeper confrontation with Christ. If we began to live our lives with the conviction that the Bible is not simply about literary characters but historical ones, we might begin to feel the wonder of the Psalmist and have the grace to see see our lives in a totally different light because if God has penetrated history before, it is pretty safe to assume that he will do it again. If God cares enough about creation to take on flesh and blood, then God must care enough to be present in our lives from day to day.

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2 thoughts on “Believing in a God who Acts in History”

  1. Pingback: TVESDAY CATHOLICA EDITION | Big Pulpit

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