From the editor’s desk
Gravity of God’s love23 April 2011
Scientific metaphors to explain religious or spiritual ideas can go horribly wrong. So it is good to note how sure-footedly Pope Benedict XVI navigated his way through one such minefield, to adapt a wartime nautical metaphor, in his Passion Sunday sermon in St Peter’s Square. His inspired idea was to use gravity as a metaphor for the working of grace. There was a hint of translation, in accordance with post-Newtonian or even post-Einsteinian insights, of the belief of the early Christians, when he said: “The Fathers of the Church maintained that human beings stand at the point of intersection between two gravitational fields.” But it enabled him to show that the gravity metaphor has ancient and orthodox credentials, rather than something dreamed up to sound modern and pseudo-scientific.
The Pope has grasped the fact that the modern mind needs help in grappling with religious concepts that seem far removed from everyday experience. Grace is a familiar term in religious worship, but it sorely needs new ways of capturing the imagination. There is of course need here for a health warning – in a culture awash with scientific scepticism where religion is concerned, it must not be suggested that the force fields the Pope is talking about could be detected in the laboratory. They are neither literal nor imaginary – they are metaphorical and metaphysical; they refer to another reality.
One gravitational field pulls us down, distancing us from God; the other is the gravitational force of God’s love, drawing us towards him. “Man finds himself betwixt this twofold gravitational force,” said the Pope. “Everything depends on our escaping the gravitational field of evil and becoming free to be attracted completely by the gravitational force of God.”
Humanity tries to become God-like, elevating itself by its own efforts, but the more it tries, the further it slips back. The gravitational force of God cannot be felt by one’s unaided efforts. God himself has to intervene, said the Pope, and this intervention, through Christ, is recalled at Easter.
Statistics recording the decline in religious belief and practice in the West, such as the latest research by Dr Peter Brierley predicting a fall of one quarter in church attendance in Britain in the next decade, do nevertheless fail to show an equivalent rise in any alternative to religion. This suggests that the real problem is not outright hostility but indifference, a sense that religion has nothing to say that is useful or interesting.
Yet people grapple daily with deep problems affecting their own well-being – their relationships, their security, their own happiness and prosperity. It is here that they encounter the two force fields that Pope Benedict conjured up by analogy with gravity, one pulling them towards the better, one towards the worse. Here the Pope alludes to a mystery taught by life itself. Attempts to move towards the better by one’s own efforts can easily prove counter-productive. People caught in quicksand sink faster under their own gravity the more they struggle to get out of it – unless the grace of God is also with them: the upwards pull from outside.
This “gravitational” understanding of the message of Holy Week and Easter is entirely relevant to real people’s real lives. They need it. Indeed, they would drown without it.
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