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The Divine Attributes Retreat

The Attributes of God

The Unity of God

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

We are continuing with our theological retreat. The first formal conference is on the "Unity of God" - God is One. In the Nicene Creed, we begin our profession of faith with the words "We believe in One God." Most of us I think do not realize that behind that simple faith affirmation are four thousand years of struggle, conflict - the deepest conflict in the world between those who believe there is only one true God and those who do not believe. Everything (and the word is Everything) in Christianity depends on the Truth of there being only one God -- not many gods, not several gods, not even two gods -- only One.

My plan is to trace the history of the conflict which began when Abraham was called by Yahweh to become the Father of all believers - of all believers in what? - of all believers of first, and most fundamentally - in One and Only One True God; and the conflict that is raging in the world today.

First then, the Chosen People: Scripture tells us that Abraham's ancestors served many gods. We may therefore say that Abraham's first vocation was to be called by Yahweh so that he and his descendants until the end of time will believe in one God. It is revealed that two millennia of Joseph history - the history of the Israelites from Abraham up to Christ - how hard it was for the "Chosen People" to remain faithful in their faith in one God. Prophet after prophet had to be sent then by Yahweh warning them, threatening them, calling down God's punishments -- exile, slavery -- for two thousand years having called Abraham to be the Father of all true believers in one God. Up to the time of Christ, the Jews were in constant conflict between their fidelity to Yahweh and their temptation to follow the Gentiles in idolatry. We might remind ourselves that idolatry which keeps recurring time and again in the writings of the Old Testament - the essence of idolatry was not and is not the worship of graven images - the essence of idolatry is the worship of anyone or anything besides the one true God. When God gave the Jews the Ten Commandments, He began in the only logical place to begin - by telling the people - "I" - "I AM THE LORD YOUR GOD, YOU SHALL NOT HAVE OTHER GODS BESIDES ME." Up to the latest books of the Old Testament, for example the two books of Maccabees - we see the Jews - let me change the sentence - we see among the Jews - those who remained faithful and those who compromised. And those who remained faithful had the choice between idolatry or martyrdom. Remember that and that's the choice as we shall see before this conference is over - and that's the choice today.

The New Testament: Christ could not have been more clear or more emphatic: that "we are to know, love and serve with our whole heart, with all our strength" and Christ added "with our whole mind" only One God. Well then during the apostolic times, in the letters of St. Paul and St. John, the Christians - (listen) no less than the Jews had to be warned against idolatry. Two statements - one from Paul, one from John: Paul (writing to the Corinthians): "Beloved, flee from the worship of idols"; John (in his First Letter): "Dear Children, guard yourselves from the idols". There is only one mistake we can make. I assure you (Oh and the Lord knows) all that I will say and how it will sound - all I know is this will not be an ordinary retreat.

How we need to realize that the New Testament even as the Old was written for all times. We are being told today "Beloved flee from the worship of idols". We are being told "Dear Children, guard yourselves from the idols." If we look more closely at the meaning of idolatry, (which I am afraid a lot of Christians and Catholics shake their heads) - "my what strange and stupid people they were. How could the Jews possibly have been taken in by idolatry?" -- or even those poor, be-knighted first century Christians. "My, my" never thinking there is only one fundamental Sin in the world and that is idolatry. And that everything that the Holy Spirit told the Chosen People in the Old Law - all the early Christians in the Old Testament pertains to us. We too (how we, too) need to be warned against idolatry.

Before we go any further, let's make sure we define our terms. What then, now after two thousand years of Catholic Teaching of the profoundest minds in Christianity, studying, analyzing the meaning of idolatry - what is it? In essence, idolatry is the Divinization of creatures; making gods out of what God made and which He insists - "HE" and not "IT" (watch that vocabulary): "HE" and not "IT" is to be worshipped.

We go on. Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition could not be plainer in warning all believers of all times against idolatry. Since the foundation of the Church, as the Church had to struggle and keep warning her members - like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel warned the ancient Jews; or Paul and John warned the early Christians against idolatry. Yes, this is one article of Faith which is not only placed first in the Creed. It is first not only chronologically but logically and not only logically but theologically. The bedrock of Christianity is that first Article: "We believe in One God". By now two millennia of the Church's evangelization of the pagan world - what ultimately has the Church and does the Church have to do to convert pagans? It is now 25 years that I have been writing and teaching on the non-Christians Religions. With the sole exception of Judaism and Islam, all the non-Christian Religions - all them - including the Navajos of New Mexico are all 'polytheistic: many gods, projections of a people's desires and projections of the people's fears. Conversion, therefore of the pagan world and what a struggle that is, is conversion from polytheism to monotheism: from many gods to One and Only One True God. But, as the Church began to develop, sure enough, the conflict she faced with defending Faith in the One True God and Only One was not only a conflict with people outside of the Church but deep, very learned (oh so learned) conflicts with error within the Church. It began around the third century and by the way has been with us ever since.

There rose within the Church a heresy. I regularly had to check my students on the spelling of the word called Manicheans. (Just for the record, it is spelled M A N I C H A E I S M).What did the Manicheans claim? They claimed there were two gods: one good god, the author and creator of everything good in the world; one bad god, the author and creator of everything evil in the world. And you don't have to be a philosopher to know there are good things and bad things in the world. Let's have no illusion about how seductive this error is and is with us today (is it ever). The great Augustine leading a life of lechery and sin was a Manichaean for nine years. He was a smart man. Every once in a while before his conversion, he would tell the good god: “Now Lord, any time you want to take over, and you want to overcome the evil god who is evidently mastering my life, go right ahead. In the meantime, you’ll understand what I am saying. I am doing evil because the evil deity has power over me.” What happened? Augustine’s conversion came when he finally discovered and what a find that was when he discovered that he, Augustine had a free will! Once he found that out, that was the beginning of Augustine’s conversion because then, all he had to do was admit: “Augustine, be honest. It is you, you Augustine with your free will; you are the cause of your own sin. Don’t you dare blame any deity outside of yourself.”

In the 14th century, that’s a thousand years after you would think the Manicheans had disappeared, (oh no!) They reappeared under a new name called Albigensianism. It became such a virulent heresy that it shook Christian Europe to its foundations. Scores of diocese in one country after another especially in France became Manichaean. To stem the tide, God sent the great St. Dominic. That’s why the Order of Preachers was founded – to combat and convert so many once Catholics who lost their faith by becoming Manicheans.

We’re not quite finished. In the 16th Century, you’d never guess, but a man by the name of John Calvin – what did he do? He claimed there was only one God. But the God that he professed and the god in whom in time millions followed had divided the Catholic world straight down the middle – Calvin is the genius behind Protestantism. So what did he teach? (Oh piously), he taught about one god. But “this god” said Calvin, “Is as much the authority of whatever good we do as he is the author of every sin we commit". How this needs to be said today. So what happens - what happens to man's free will? No less than the Manicheans seduced Augustine by telling him there is a power outside of him which is finally responsible for his evil life: so the modern world in its Psychology, in its Social Sciences - (I know) - has seduced large parts of the Western World; that even though people may piously say they believe in one God, in practice they are Manicheans. They'll blame everything and everyone except themselves for the evil which they do.

We've one more part to the present conference. I call it: "The Implications of Our Faith in One and Only One True God" – the implications of our faith in one God for our spiritual life. In my estimation, there are two principal implications that follow from our faith in one God and the spiritual life which depends absolutely on the soundness and clearness and depth of our faith. No one, no one becomes holy, (no one), unless their faith is clear and sound. NO ONE! What are these two implications for our spiritual life that flow from our faith in the one true God?

We are first, (that, because we believe in one true God), we are able to cope with modern idolatry. And second, because we believe (let me change the statement) - in so far as we clearly believe in one true God, we are willing to admit our own responsibility for the sins we commit. Let's take each of these two implications in sequence.

First, the First Article of our Creed enables us to cope with modern idolatry. I don't want to let go of what I want to get across. The ancient prophets, warning the Jews; the Apostles, warning the early Christians against idolatry - are writing not just for them but, for us! The modern world has become intoxicated with its achievements in science and medicine, in productivity, in the means of transportation, in the lifespan of human beings. The average increase of the human race in their length of life from 1900 - the average increase is 25 years for all of the five billion people in the world today. Don't tell me that is not advancement. Progress in not just the physical sciences, in man's understanding of himself - the science of Psychology is just over a little over 100 years old and by now it has easily 30 subsidiary sciences under Psychology. With this phenomenal progress has gone an understandable and inevitable intoxication of man with his own importance. As a consequence, one reason Pope after another -- like the prophets of the Old Law keeps warning us not to be seduced by this modern idolatry. Over the years I have been telling my students especially my priest-students - the most important thing you have to do when you teach others is to make sure you give the right names to the things that people believe. It is harder than ever today to listen to Christ's words about not becoming conformed to this world. The poverty, the near destitution of most of the human race in the time of Christ compared to the prosperity, the affluence, the access to just about everything that the world calls good in our day - it would be simply impossible for human nature to remain human and not be more pulled (tug is a mild verb) - pulled, pushed to embrace creatures, to love them. Years ago, people do not have to cope with the gadgets of modern communications. Let’s be as clear as we can be – this is a pull us, if need be drag us from the creatures to which we can become SO, SO attached and convert us to the love and service of the One, True God. Sure, the ancients had their false gods. Over the years I've had occasion to teach some course on Babylonian religion and my examinations would be to know the names of all the gods of the Egyptians. There's quite a litany. The Babylonians, the Romans, Greeks had their false gods - watch it - and goddesses and goddesses. But for every false god or goddesses, among the ancients, we have our modern pseudo-deities: Money, Sex. The largest circulating magazines in the United States, with millions of subscribers every month are magazines (no question about it), that deify the human body. Power, Entertainment - it is now approaching 40 hours each week that the average American - man, woman, child - watches television; families reduced to boarding houses, publicity - oh what some will do as my parish (shall I call it) in the prison outside of Cleveland where I was chaplain - the young prisoners there all major criminals told me without exception: "Father, we took the crime mainly because we wanted somebody to recognize us. You have no idea what a thrill it was to read the morning paper and see my name on the front page."

The idolatry of ease – how error can mask this teaching by creating a whole new vocabulary - time-saving devices: time for what? Time from work in order to have time for leisure: time for doing something for others to time for doing nothing (and I mean, NOTHING)! These modern idols are not only idols of the body (I know) - idols of the mind. An average of five million Americans on college campuses every year (I've taught my share of University classes) - but education should have a purpose.

Every creature whether bodily or spiritual is meant if we really believe the First Article of the Creed - is meant to be a means - means to what - means to serving the One, True God and not an end in itself to be used or, enjoyed (let's use the verb) or worshipped for itself. Millions (I have no doubt), are paying as much attention to these modern gods as ever was paid to Baal or Venus or Jupiter or Zeus in ancient times. Since as we said the essence of idolatry is giving divine honors to creatures, the modern age in many countries today is more idolatrous than I'm afraid most people want to admit. But the situation is deeper still. Not only does the modern world provide so many seductive creatures that are constantly tempted to go up to, you've got a whole press grasp our hearts with both our hands to keep it from going out to creatures but we are all (and we don't need the modern world to tell us this) - we are all naturally prone to pride. We are slow to surrender (surrender what?) - surrender our wills to the Will of the One, True God. The expression self-idolatry may sound strange. But it is the fountainhead of all sin. What do we do when we sin except divinize our own will and thus refuse to worship the One, True God in that most difficult form of adoration which is self-sacrifice. These are not words, these are not pious clichés. The essence of worshipping the One, True God is adoring Him and the one competitor in the last analysis that God has (guess) - is our own self-will.

What is the second implication for our spiritual life for our belief in the One, True God? It is the admission of our own sinfulness. Many people in today's world who may never have heard about Manichaeism (and it would be hard to spell the word Manichaean) - are really Manicheans in practice. How hard it is to admit that we and we ourselves are responsible before God for wrong that we do. It would only not Augustine who had to admit in his day - it is we in our day - we are constantly called upon to admit - because there are so many voices telling us the contrary. Without a second thought (who doubts it)? - why do people do whatever they do? Well, it is because of their heredity? their environment? or their education? The most horrendous crime are now being defended in the name of science which excuses and exculpates those who do wrong because of the drives they've got, of the urges to which they are subject, of the environment from which they come, and the last thing that people are willing to admit today is that they are still capable of sin. My friends, when our present Holy Father on his first papal visit to the United States (while speaking in Chicago to a gathering of the American hierarchy), pleaded with them: "May I beg you to teach your people the meaning of Sin, that they are responsible for what they do because", said the Vicar of Christ, "I am told millions of your people are receiving Holy Communion, crowded Churches on Sundays and almost no one in many dioceses is any longer going to confession".

We have just begun the retreat. We'll have much more to say before the retreat goes on. Let's make sure we understand the second implication of our faith in the One, True God. There is only One God. This One God manifests His Will to His rationale creatures. This God, the One we believe in is not responsible for anything wrong that we do. It is WE! In other words, if we believe that this One God exists, if we believe that this One God has given us a free will then, we will blame no one but ourselves for the sins we commit and beg God to have mercy because (I repeat the sentence three times) - WE HAVE SINNED, WE HAVE SINNED, WE HAVE SINNED because it is our free will that we must subject to the Will of God. If we do, we are growing in sanctity. If we do not, we are departing from His Will.

Lord God, we believe what we have been saying since childhood that You Are the Only One True God. But dear Lord, there are so many competitive deities clamoring for our worship and among these creatures that we are most prone to worship and as a result not adore You is our own self‑will. Open our eyes to see what it means to believe in the One, True God and worship Him alone. Protect us dear Lord from idolatry especially the idolatry of the worship of ourselves. And we have done wrong, we have committed idolatry. Help us to humbly admit: "We have sinned." Lord God, have mercy, have mercy, HAVE MERCY! on us sinners. Amen.

Transcription of the retreat given in December, 1988
by Father John A. Hardon, S.J. to the
Handmaids of the Precious Blood

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica
No reproductions may be made without permission from InterMirifica.

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