This is in part a continuation of the discussion I started with Alex the other day concerning the film The Secret which I introduced into our discussion alongside Rosemary's commentary on Thursday.
It's also very much related to today's readings. The first reading (1 Kgs 17:10-16) is the story of Elijah the prophet asking a widow for a cup of water and some bread. It was a sacrifice for her to provide those but her sacrifice is rewarded. The Gospel story (Mk 12:38-44) is the Parable of the Widow's Mite.
If you haven't seen the film I'm referring to you can visit www.thesecret.tv website and gain an overview of the program and view some of the trailers. The film itself runs for 90 minutes.
"Abundance Theology", for those not familiar with the term, is what lies behind much of the appeal of some forms of Evangelical Christianity and is used extensively by televangelists. In its crudest form it holds out the message that God, the Creator — or, in the case of this film The Secret, The Universe — basically wants us all to be happy, healthy, "successful" and prosperous. All of us can be anything we want to be – and happy at the same time. A lot of it is based on this notion that all we have to do is ask and we will receive. The film The Secret packages all of this in a very slick "new age"-style presentation suggesting that all we have to do to find abundance in our lives is to learn this "secret" that was known to the ancients.
Televangelists hold out the allure and promise that if you want to be happy, successful and prosperous in life all you have to do is believe in Jesus Christ and follow him.
The story is not all bad. I honestly do think Catholicism could learn something from the style of presentation used by the people who have put this film together. At the same time I think Catholicism has much that it might teach the world if it could rid itself of much of the baggage that prevents it getting its message through.
What's wrong with "abundance theology"?
At heart I think "abundance theology" holds out a false promise. It fundamentally misunderstands what God is saying to us in such passages as "ask and you shall receive" or the sort of story we read this morning in 1 Kings. Self-evidently not every person who wants to be can become the President of the United States, or the Prime Minister of Australia. In any of our working lifetimes there might perhaps be somewhere between 10 and 20 presidents or prime ministers. There cannot be any more. So if a thousand, or ten thousand people believe they have what it takes to be president or prime minister there have to be an awful lot of failures.
Many of the presenters in this film provide personal testimonies of how they were failures of one kind or another until they discovered "the secret" and that turned their lives around. The promise is held out that we can all do that. But can we?
Before I go on to outline what I think might be a more holistic, and Divinely-centred, understanding of all this stuff, let me pause a moment to briefly outline what is good about "abundance theology"...
What's good about "abundance theology"?
In short, I think "abundance theology" contains a heck of a lot of good psychology. What I question is its theology. Many may remember the psychology that was made popular back in the 1950s and 1960s by Norman Vincent Peale in his book "The Power of Positive Thinking". In many ways it seems to me that the film The Secret is an adaptation, and updating, of that. The truth is that all of us operate under psychological limits. Some of these are unintentionally imposed on us by our parents. Others develop in our lives through the negative experiences we have in life.
As we have come to better understand the human mind and pysche, especially in the second half of the twentieth century through medical research, we have learned that many of these barriers to our personal development and happiness are artificial. We can break out of the emotional cages that imprison us, and our potential, by developing a healthy and positive self-image of ourselves. It is not necessarily always easy to do this but it can be done. The film, The Secret, documents many instances of people who are limited by what are basically limitations within their own minds and emotions. By working on those limitations, which is often primarily a mental exercise of getting our minds to tell our emotions what to do, we can grow as individuals and become happier and/or more prosperous.
Is there an alternative theology to all of this?
I think there is. I think it is found in what I would label "the authentic Catholic vision" or "Way of Christ". The trouble we all face though is that just as there is much wrong with "Abundance Theology" there are also many "inauthentic" presentations of what Catholicism is. One sees many people trying to proselytise versions of Catholicism which, if the truth were really faced, are an abomination of what Jesus Christ is about.
For example we often see an abomination in the understandings some people take away from today's Gospel story — the Parable of the Widow's mite. Some people seem to develop this enormous pride in their humbleness, their lack of material resources, their lack of success in life, how dumb and stupid they are, believing in some way that it is all those qualities that make them like the widow — and different from the rich almsgivers who Jesus seems to be criticising in the story. In Church teaching this behaviour has actually been given a name and label. It is called "false pride". These people have managed somehow to miss the central lesson and latched on to the wrong part of the message.
What is the alternative to both "Abundance Theology" and the abominations of "Catholic Theology"?
One of the significant developments in human self-insight I think came through Abraham Maslow's insights into the hierarchy of our personal psychological needs. At the lowest level we have needs that have to be satisfied. We all need food and shelter to survive each day. If we don't have those, and many in the world don't, we cannot even begin to access the higher needs. Maslow designated these needs in this pyramid of the hierarchy of human needs.
Diagram of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, represented as a pyramid with more primitive needs at the bottom. Image sourced from Wikipedia
Being saved, achieving salvation, getting to heaven, or however one defines the end objective of Catholic belief and practice is not, as some Protestants believe, simply a matter of being "justified" or "saved" by our expressions of belief alone. Neither is it simply some business of social conformism and expression of "undying loyalty and obedience" as some immature Catholics seem to believe. It is ultimately, I believe, a process of the maturation of the entire, or whole, human person. It's a maturation of the physical, the emotional, the intellectual and ultimately the spiritual sides of our human nature. There are no other dimensions in the human nature. They are all contained within those four dimensions.
Abraham Maslow gave us a rich tool within which to understand this maturation process. It is not something that is accomplished at school, nor even by undertaking tertiary education studies. It is not even something that we have achieved by the time of middle age and the maturity that comes through having had the responsibility of bringing children of our own through to adulthood. It is literally a process and "whole WAY of life — of thinking, acting and feeling" that takes an entire lifetime to master. At the very highest level it is about learning how to make moral decisions in the way that God invites us to make the most important decisions in our lives by modelling our behaviours on Jesus Christ. This is not a process of mimicking Jesus Christ, or of trying to suck up to Jesus Christ as we might suck up to a teacher, our parents or some pop star or politician. It is a process only slowly, slowly learned in being able "to think, act, feel and intuit" as Jesus Christ would do if he were the one facing the decisions we have to make moment-to-moment in our lives.
The process of how we do this is literally paradoxical — or contradictory. It doesn't seem to make rational sense. As Alex Caughey is constantly reminding us, based on the insights of Jesus himself, to do this we have to literally "empty" ourselves. I honestly do believe, as Alex does, that when we can learn to do this in the fullest meaning of the words, that God literally does provide for all our needs. The paradox though is that we are not actually engaged in the process for that end — i.e. we are not engaging in the process to become "successful", "abundant", "prosperous", "healthy", "humble", "obedient" or however we define "success" in our lives. Those things, in a sense, are the by-product of the process — the secondary benefit. If we pursue them as the primary benefit we put the cart before the horse and we actually end up placing ourselves back in the two-up stakes odds of a game of chance as to whether we succeed or fail.
Our prime objective always has to be the one of seeking to literally "become like God". In Churchy language, to become holy. To do that the pathway is by emplying ourselves of our own lower emotional and egotistical needs and open ourselves up to "the Way (of thinking and acting)" as Jesus Christ would act were he to be the one having to make the decisions we are having to make.
I honestly do think this is why, in its deep wisdom, the Catholic Church has given us the deeply insightful teachings it has given us about the Primacy of Conscience. Many of the neaderthal elements in the Church seem to confuse Primacy of Conscience with Primacy of Feelings, or Primacy of Ego. That is not what authentic Catholic insight is pointing us towards.
Where I believe "Abundance Theology" primarily fails is that it holds out the promise of "abudance without pain" — "happiness simply by flipping some mental or psychological switch in our brains". Abandoning ourselves totally to the Divine Will is not some mystical abandonment of reality and those limitations that are set by our own ego and emotions. They remain in place but somehow we learn to transcend them. In his or her own wisdom, God may very well take us to places, or allow us to travel to places where there seems to be a total absence of "abundance". The "Gesthemane moment or experience" is a very real and important part of the authentic Catholic insight. But, I suggest, it is not there — as some who follow inauthentic Catholic theologies might suggest — as some form of Divine publishment or retribution. Those Gesthemane moments and experiences are "part of the package". I liken them to the "testing" a coach has to put the very best athletes through if they are to ultimately perform and compete at Olympic level. In God's perview though, we are all Olympians. The ultimate promise God holds out to all of us is something like the equivalence of the abundance that flows into the life of an Olympic athlete if they win gold. It isn't the "gold medal" which is the objective. It is all those things which lie beyond the gold medal. To get to those though "the Way is often narrow and the climb is often steep".
Tom Scott is the pen name of the editor of Catholica, Brian Coyne.
©2006 Tom Scott
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