God in Ordinary
by John Wijngaards, Viewpoint, The Tablet, 20th August 1994, p. 1034
As recently as 1964, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, a specialist in comparative religion, could write: “Man is incurably religious. All through human history and all through present-day societies, there appears some mysterious reaching out to what is regarded as sacred.” I wonder what he would have said about the stark, crass secularism I came across in Taiwan during a fact-finding mission.
Take the Catholic University of Fu Jen in Taipei. In the past few years the staff undertook two extensive surveys among the 18,000 students on the campus. They found that half of the students disclaimed belief in any divine reality and professed not to practise’ religion in any form.
The traditional religion of the Chinese in Taiwan is a Taoist mix of superstition and polytheistic worship. The Lung Shan Temple in Taipei still draws aging crowds of believers who offer food to Kuan-Yin, the goddess of mercy, and burn incense sticks to an assortment of gods and goddesses. But such religious activities do not reflect the interests of the young, the intelligentsia or the country’s industrial elite. The question is: do the latter have any “religion” at all?
The question takes me back to Taiwan and an unusual encounter. I was interviewing, actors and actresses for parts in an international co-production portraying the present-day search for God. One actress, whom I will call Fang Shoa-Li, spoke for many when she said: “Religious people inhabit an alien world.” I inquired about her own world and was invited to visit her home.
“I have never said a prayer in my life”, Mrs Fang told me with disarming candour, “nor do I feel the need to”. Asked about God, she replied she had never given the matter much thought. “Will virtue be rewarded and crime punished?” I asked her. “Yes”, she said after some hesitation; but she could not explain how. Providence, judgment, the after-life had no place in her vocabulary. For her and her husband life had to be lived now, with economic solvency, health and good relations as their chief objectives. Then, almost as an afterthought, she pointed at a framed calligraphic text that adorned the living room wall. It was a quotation from Hung Ying-ming’s Ts’ai Ken T’an (around 1600 AD) which she translated for me: “While performing your public office, remember two words of advice. Be impartial, and you will gain respect. Be honest, and your authority will grow. While residing at home, remember two words of advice. Show love, and emotions will be at peace. Work hard, and what you have will. be sufficient.”
On further probing it turned out, in fact, that values such as impartiality, honesty, love and hard work were purposely cultivated in the Fang family, and especially love. I was impressed by the mutual respect and affection between Mrs Fang and her husband, and their warmth and dedicated commitment towards the children. Mrs Fang was also involved in the neighbourhood, taking a handicapped child to the bus and shopping for a bedridden pensioner. The Fangs, I began to realise, though living in what Peter Berger has described as “the pervasive boredom of a world without gods”, may unknowingly experience and radiate the presence of God. ‘
It reminded me of Jesus’ own puzzling priorities. At the Last Judgement, he said, the question will be whether we clothed the naked, fed the hungry, nursed the sick and visited criminals in prison. We meet such love even in the midst of our secular society. Whenever we do, we should realise we are walking on’ sacred ground. For any manifestation of genuine love is a manifestation of God, even if it comes wrapped in a secular envelope.
Our society is often too glibly presented as corrupt, on the lines of: What can you expect from a culture in which everything revolves around the self instead of around God? But is the reality not more complex? Does our modern, secularised society not carry many precious values that manifest the inner workings of God: sensitivity about human rights, the ideal of honesty in the media, the rigorous quest of truth by the sciences, and the dedication of professionals to improving the quality of life, to mention just a few? Should we not explore the presence or absence of God in such tangible forms? After all, a renewed Christianity of our society would need to build on its own experience of God, rather than on foregone models.
If we want to evangelise our own society, we must build on manifestations of God in present-day visions and commitments. Why not make explicit what is latent in people’s collective and personal consciences: that selfless love makes sense? It makes sense because there is a deeper dimension to reality, a reality we call God whose essence is love and who reveals himself most clearly in love. Jesus Christ is the human face of that love.