A good friend on the West Coast, a dear cousin in the Midwest, and a respected local pastor were all impressed with the religious novel “The Shack” by William P. Young, a son of Protestant missionaries in the Orient and the heir to multiple religious influences.
The recent best seller is quite perceptive in its presentation on forgiveness and was refreshingly insightful in discussing the significance of Eden’s tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Yet, a couple of items might (or should) lead the Catholic reader to contrast the writer’s images with some traditional Catholic teachings.
While it might be the height of political correctness to re-fashion God the Father into a motherly black woman, the author nonetheless does play fast and freely with divine revelation and with Christ himself who clearly and overwhelmingly depict God as a Father. Somewhat redeeming itself, the book suggests that God is actually both mother and father and may be considered legitimately from many different angles. Since God is indeed infinite, this is true. Yet, it was God the Father’s deliberate choice to reveal himself to mankind pointedly and specifically as a Father. To gloss over this creedal formula as incidental to Christianity underrates both God as Father and mankind as sons in the Son..
The notion of hierarchy, so integral to the New Testament and to Catholic Christianity, is crushingly dismissed as a mere front for power as the three divine persons discuss their empathetic equality one with another. The heavenly Father, Son and Holy Spirit might not represent a hierarchy of persons but the Gospels and the Epistles clearly manifest the church’s communal ordering designed by God. The disciples were distinguished from the multitudes. The Twelve Apostles were called apart from the disciples. Peter, James and John were Christ’s particular intimates among these Twelve. Clearly, Peter was divinely destined for a ministry even beyond his apostolic peers. Accordingly, the apostles were intent on filling the position of the lamented Judas with a qualified, not an arbitrary, candidate. The order of deacons was no random selection and the mission to the Gentiles was entrusted to those on whom authoritative hands were laid. Even to suggest that the hierarchical nature of the church is at best an organizational tactic and at worst a front for power is a complete betrayal of the apostolic character of the church.
Certainly not a major element of the author’s work but rather just a little dig at the Roman Catholic Mass was a charming scene in which the major character leaves behind his intimate experience with God and plans to return to life in the everyday world. The writer pens, “Without any ritual, without ceremony, they savored the warm bread and shared the wine and laughed about the stranger moments of the weekend.” Yes, it would be lovely if every weekend Christians could look forward to a romantic interlude with the divine persons over a toasty loaf and a bottle of Kendal-Jackson. Certainly there is more than a hint here that such an informal divine dialogue would be more meaningful to believers than the ritualized ceremonial Catholics call the Mass.
In this coming Sunday’s Gospel, St. Peter is chastised by Jesus Christ for “thinking not as God does but as human beings do.” Simon Peter had the distinct benefit of being personally educated in the faith by Jesus Christ. And yet, this first leader of the early church still found it difficult to forsake human tendencies in favor of divine promptings. The modern day Catholic has a similar challenge from the Master. The traditional Latin expression “sentire cum Ecclesia” best reveals this mandate. The alert Catholic will resist the theological fashions of the moment and begin “to think with the church, to feel with the church, to sense with the church.” Neither sacred Scripture nor church tradition is arbitrary. Both are products of the divine will for man’s instruction and direction. The true Christian will reform and conform himself conscientiously to God’s divine word as found in Scripture and tradition sensing therein the fullness of revelation and the surest path to eternal life.