Some Good News: We can know God

The understanding of ‘a personal God’ is at heart of our religion

A few months ago I was at a colloquium in Limerick which reviewed decades’ of survey data on religious belief, practice and values. Most of the morning was spent poring over pages of statistics which told a story we knew only too well: weekly Mass attendance has fallen dramatically over the last three decades, it remains relatively high compared to other European countries but, due to an ageing demographic, is destined to decline further.

Before breaking for lunch one of the participants who had remained silent all morning made a memorable contribution. Looking at the pages of figures in front of him he suggested that we might learn as much about our country from reading a contemporary Irish novel such as Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart. By that he meant that in the qualitative sketching of modern relationships we can glean some understanding of the human and religious landscape.


I thought of that as I watched Enda Kenny’s recent Meaning of Life interview on RTÉ. It opened a window not only to the faith of the Taoiseach but, I believe, the faith of a large swathe of Irish churchgoers. 

Mr Kenny found it difficult to accept the idea of a ‘personal God’ opting instead for language such as “an energy” and “a force”.

Some commentators have rolled their eyes and responded with “what would you expect from Enda?” But perhaps Mr Kenny was really just struggling to find the language to say that he didn’t believe in God as a bearded man living in the clouds. His use of words like “spirit” and “infinity” was an attempt to express this.

In a way, he was articulating what many church-going Catholics are struggling with: Only days before the Taoiseach’s interview I heard a senior member of a religious order use almost identical language to describe God.

Some, like the letter writer to this paper last week, hail this articulation of God as evidence of a more mature faith and an improvement on the “Santa Claus/Superman” image.

Certainly, childish images of God will leave one stranded when faced with intellectually sophisticated objections.

But here’s the problem. The understanding of God as ‘a personal God’ is at the very core; it’s the very heart of our religion.

In the Old Testament, from the beginning, God shows an interest in us. He speaks to Abraham, teaches Moses and comforts His people. That is the novelty of this God of Israel. He is not distant, aloof and unknowable like other gods. Nor is he some anonymous, cosmic energy.

Instead, our God knows us, loves us, and has willed us into being. And because of this we know that our lives and this world are not the product of chance, but created by Eternal Reason and Eternal Love.  


St Augustine warned, “If you think you understand, it isn’t God” and this should caution us from both creating a God either in our image and likeness or one entirely understandable in human terms.

But we can do a lot better than conclude that God is an infinite, ethereal energy. These images of God resemble either the pre-Christian, pagan and Greek worldview or correspond to a post-Christian approach of cold reason.

All the while we seem to be about to forget something vitally important: Christ is the image of the invisible God.

We have already seen the face of God – in the flesh of Jesus Christ.


News of vocations

It’s encouraging to see some recently appointed bishops place priestly and religious vocations at the top of their agenda.

Bishop Kevin Doran’s appeal to the six deaneries of Elphin to each provide a candidate for seminary between now and Easter 2015 – “not just so that we can fill vacancies, but so that God’s will can be done and so that his kingdom may come” – is among the most direct vocations-fostering challenges posed by a bishop in a long time. In addition, Bishop Denis Nulty in the Diocese of Kildare and Leighlin has appointed Fr Ruairí Domhnaill to work full-time as vocations director indicating the priority being afforded this role.

And in the Diocese of Kerry, Bishop Ray Browneís e-mail address now appears on vocation adverts alongside his vocations director, Fr Liam Lovell, indicating the bishopís support and personal interest in assisting discerners.

These aren’t cure-alls but they’re a definite move in the right direction.

This will bear fruit.