Monday, June 7, 2010

Why We Can Pray: the Uniqueness of our Trinitarian God

I am in the process of reading a collection of writings and speeches by Joseph Ratzinger from his years as a university professor to his present position as pope of the Catholic Church. I recommend this book to anyone interested in Benedict XVI; it’s called The Essential Pope Benedict XVI and is edited by John F. Thornton and Susan B. Varenne.

In an excerpt from his book The Feast of Faith: Essays in the Theology of Worship, Joseph Ratzinger discusses the importance of prayer in an era which has come to replace faith in a Trinitarian God with self-transcendence which is the essence of most Asiatic religions. In the latter religions like Hinduism and Buddhism, the ultimate goal of man is to become united with the Creator; to accomplish this, individuality is abandoned and replaced with collectivism. In other words, each person must see his/herself as united with all others, with all of creation in fact. In Hinduism, the ultimate goal is for man to escape samsara (the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth) and achieve moksha (complete unity with the Brahman who is God). Thus, nirvana (eternal bliss) is gained only when a person denies his/her individuality and become one with God. This concept of the afterlife is not Heaven, and the relationship Hindus have with the Brahman is different from the relationship Christians have with their God. At first glance, Hinduism and Christianity may seem very similar. In Christianity, there was on incarnation, Jesus Christ. In Hinduism, there have been many incarnations; these are the many deities worshipped by Hindus. Both religions believe in one God. A Hindu priest I interviewed told me that God is “form-full and formless.” In a sense, Christians believe this as well. But Ratzinger points out well the great difference between the two religions.

Ratzinger writes, “In a nutshell one could say that the goal of Asiatic contemplation is the escape from personality, whereas biblical prayer is essentially a relation between persons and hence ultimately the affirmation of the person.” Let’s look at the Trinity for a moment. Christians believe that God who is One is present in three Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. These three Persons retain their individuality in that they have their own distinct personalities, but they are all One God. In the upper room Jesus prayed, “that all of them may be one Father, just as you are in me and I am in you…May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:21a, 23b). A Christian’s relationship with God and with other fellow Christians parallels the Father’s relationship with the Son. There is in fact a relationship. When we pray to God, He answers us individually. Yet, the universal Church is the body of Christ. Thus, there is a harmony between the individual and fellow believers because there is a perfect harmony between each Being of the Trinity and the One God whom they make up. In Hinduism, there is not much dialogue between the Creator and His creation; there is no such thing as a personal relationship with God because that is precisely the opposite of the goal.

Joseph Ratzinger beautifully shows the uniqueness of our faith. Even in religions like Islam and Judaism there can never be a personal relationship with God because He is so transcendent. But Jesus came as a human and thus has a unique relationship with His people. It is because of this relationship that we can pray and have a conversation with Him. We must pray together though. Ratzinger stresses the importance of Church because Christians must be united as the Father, Son, and Spirit are united. The Our Father requires Christians to say, “Our Father” and “give us our daily bread” because the Church is the one body of Christ. In Christianity, unlike any other religion, neither individualism nor collectivism sums up the faith. Both are mysteriously present in the Godhead and are present in Christians and their relationship with each other and with God.

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