Thursday, January 17, 2013

Holy Art Thou, Almighty!

The inhabitants of heaven remain united and act in harmony because they believe that God alone is almighty. We, the inhabitants of the earth, can get united if we are willing to believe so. What follows is an explanation of how our belief in God's omnipotence can result in our unity.

The angels in Isaiah's vision assert that God is Almighty.
Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty, by whose glory the heaven and earth are filled!
A congregation in a house of prayer joins the heavenly choir, and sings:
Holy Art Thou Almighty!

As the church fathers assert, no affirmative statement can be true about God. Thus the statement "God is almighty" does not give us an objective description of God. This Kataphatic (positive) statement must be true about all beings other than God. The statement "God is Almighty" means that no other being is almighty. Since God is the only one who is all-powerful, no human being can claim to have all the possible abilities and skills.

What is its relevance? How does this affirmation affect human life on this planet? In order to answer these questions, we need to consider some other questions first: What is a disability? Who are disabled? What causes disabilities? How can disabilities be overcome?

What is a disability?
Most of the societies in the world operate with the understanding that some people are disabled. Blindness and lameness are what come to our mind first when we think of disabilities. Chronic illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes are also often accepted as disabilities. In many societies people with such disabilities are ignored and are left to their fate. The civilized societies identify the people with disabilities and work out ways to help them. Even in such places the term disabilities stand for physical disabilities. Mental disabilities are not considered disabilities. The truth is that mental disabilities are much more complex and much more severe than physical ones. Mental disabilities include not only schizophrenia and bipolar disorder but also all the disabilities of the various aspects of human mind.

It seems that our disabilities are more mental than physical. It is common knowledge that a human being is made of body and mind, which are like the hardware and software of a computer. The software is the real stuff of a computer. The hardware serves as a body to the software by making it accessible to our senses. This is true about the human mind and body too. The body is simply an expression of the mind. To use another metaphor, the body is a vehicle for the mind just like we use a car. The mind, which is invisible, becomes visible through the body. The disabilities of the body are easy to detect and identify, but the disabilities of the mind are not so easy to detect or identify. A human mind has so many different parts and departments. Mental abilities may be broadly classified into the abilities to think, remember, imagine, feel, will, be aware, and pay attention. A mental disability may refer to the disability of any one of those parts.

There are also social disabilities and economic disability. Those with economic disability are usually called poor, and they have a lack or shortage of the basic necessities of life-- food, clothing, and shelter. Social disabilities include disabilities imposed on people based on their race, color, gender, and nationality. Some of these disabilities are very much visible, but there are many more that are not that visible. Mental disabilities are not as visible as the physical ones.

Who are disabled?
Because of the limited meaning ascribed to the term "disability," it is often believed that most of the people in the world are fully able, and only a small percentage of people are disabled. If only a few are disabled, they feel shame about their disability, and they will be looked down upon by others. When a class of people is created based on their disability, and when they are looked down upon by the others, a secondary social disability (stigma) is added on top of their original one. Most often such a social stigma is much more severe and hard to bear than the original disabilities.

Metropolitan Paulos Mar Gregorios, writing his autobiography at the age of 70, narrates his most painful experience as a teenager—his mother becoming mentally ill. Some days, his mother would go and stand on the roadside verandah of their house, doing all kinds of pranks and talking all kinds of nonsense particularly when the road was full of children going to school. They were his classmates and schoolmates, and he was filled with shame that they watched his mother in this condition. Reading about this heartbreaking story, the one question that may surface in our mind is this: Why does an illness or a disability cause shame? Why does a disabled person feel inferior, and why do others look down upon them?

There was a well-known poet in Kerala called Kunjan Nambiar. He sang that out of one hundred thousand (laksham) people there would be only one or two without any defects or disabilities.
Laksham manushar koodumbol athil
Lakshanamothavar onno rando

He was countering the popular notion that the majority are able and only a few are disabled. He turned it around and argued that the majority are disabled, and only a few are able. He was trying` to save the disabled people from the imposed social stigma.

Jesus Christ seems to have held a view that is even more radical, according to which, all people in the world are disabled. All people are disabled because God alone is perfect and free from all infirmities and disabilities. Christianity affirms that God alone is almighty (omnipotent), which means that God alone has all the abilities. No human being can claim to have all the possible abilities.

St. Paul speaks about the gifts of the holy Spirit. If I have a certain ability, it has been given to me by the Holy Spirit of God, and so I can't feel superior because of it. An ability is given to me for the common good; not just for my own good. This idea affirms that all the abilities of all the people in the world are originally from God, and no one has any ability in him/herself.

The story of Jesus cleaning the temple at Jerusalem is meaningful in this context. Jesus expected the temple to be a house of God, but he found it to be a den of robbers. Once he had the robbers out, the people who truly belonged there came in. Matthew tells us that the blind and the lame came into the temple to the presence of Jesus. When the robbers were inside they were outside. Once the robbers were out, they could come inside the House of God. (Matthew 21:12-15) We see two different approaches and attitudes toward disabilities in this story. The blind and the lame were marginalized in that society, and Jesus brought them to the mainstream. All the disabled people were social outcasts in Jesus’ world. It was believed that they were cursed of God because of the sins committed by their forefathers. They were seen as good-for-nothing people. They were considered less human than others. They were haunted by shame, which was strong enough to make them take their own life. When someone takes away his/her own life in such a situation, it is really a murder committed by the community around him/her. Jesus’ view of disability was radically different from the popular view. The popular view of disability was very negative, dishonest, naïve, and unhealthy, and in the place of that, Jesus developed a view which is positive, honest, informed, and healthy.

This situation is very similar to our world today. We have a market economy in our world. Only those who keep on buying and selling have a place in our world. The disabled ones are looked down upon as a burden to the earth. In place of this market-like world we need a home-like world-- a world in which all people feel at home and feel cared for and  supported.

What causes disability?
It was commonly believed in Jesus’ world that disability is a curse, and it is caused by sins. Jesus acknowledged the connection between sin and disability, but contrary to the popular notion, Jesus held that all people are sinners, and God alone is without any sins. If it is human to err, it is human to be disabled as well. In a conversation with his disciples in the context of healing a blind person, Jesus acknowledged that his blindness was not caused specifically by the sin of anyone in particular. Because all are sinners and all are disabled, disability is not the result of any curse. Jesus would even say that disability is a blessing.

The cause of the original (natural) disabilities is not our concern here. Let us leave the question to the experts in those fields. Here we are concerned about the secondary disability-- a man-made social disability (stigma). A negative approach to the original disabilities is the cause of the secondary disability. People often see the natural disabilities as a curse. Such a negative view imposes a massive social disability on the naturally disabled people.

How can disabilities be overcome?
We may not be able to do much about the natural disabilities, but we will be able to overcome fully the man-made social stigma. The man-made stigma is caused by a misunderstanding, and it can be rooted out by the right understanding. 

The understanding that God is the only one with all the abilities has the power to root out this man-made disability imposed on the disabled people. Once we realize that all people are disabled, we can be fully honest about our disabilities. We don’t need to hide our disabilities or feel shame about them. No one will look down upon others for their disabilities. We need to identify what exactly our disabilities are so that we can be very careful in situations that involve our disabilities. We also need to identify our own abilities so that we can make the maximum use of them to serve others. We can stand together as communities so that we can help each other with our disabilities. There is a well-known story of a blind man and a lame man living together. The blind man carries the lame man around. The eyes of one become useful for both and the legs of one become useful for both. Thus living together in a community, we can overcome our disabilities to a great extent.

While children grow up, they need to identify their abilities and disabilities with the help of their parents, teachers and other adults. They will need help from career counselors to choose a means of living according to their abilities and disabilities. Careers need to be chosen according to their abilities and disabilities, not according to their social status or the status of the careers.

In spite of all the inconvenience and sufferings due to our disabilities, they give us the opportunity to reach higher and evolve further. In this sense, disabilities are not a curse but a blessing. It is up to us to make them a curse or a blessing.

A human body was the model of an ideal community for Paul. Each organ in the body has its abilities and disabilities. The eyes can see, but cannot do anything else. The ears have the ability to hear, but are disabled in every other way. We all have our abilities and disabilities. If we stand together as a community, as organs of a body, we can move on successfully supporting one another.

A family was the model of an ideal community for Jesus. In a family no one is marginalized; everyone supports each other. In a den of robbers, some people are marginalized in the name of their disabilities. But in the house of God, all people are valued. Christianity began as a community of disabled people supporting one another. Eventually it became very much other-worldly and failed to provide any meaningful guidance to human life in the present world. Christianity needs to regain its original meaning and create a new meaningful foundation for a new civilization. Our world with its market economy is currently a den of robbers, where a lot of people are marginalized. It needs to become the house of God, in which all people support and take care of one another.

We are living in a world in which people are stigmatized based on their color, race, gender, nationality, illness, and disabilities. Stigmatization due to disabilities is yet to be widely recognized. Such stigmatization is the one primary thing that prevents humanity from enjoying unity. Our forefathers included the affirmation, Holy art thou almighty, in our liturgy for us to understand that all people are disabled. The repetition of this affirmation can help this idea sink deep down into our unconscious so that we may stand united as one body and overcome our disabilities to a great extent..


Tony Daniel said...

Once again a wonderful thesis, packed with ideas and arguments that are at times breathtaking. Such arguments can be put together only by someone who has a deep understanding of the scripture and how the church has interpreted them. Thank you for this brilliant work.

I shall try to pose some questions in light of my understanding of the Christian scripture and its history.

1. The concept of God as an ‘almighty’ being is a direct by-product of how the people of antiquity saw their oppressors and rulers. God was seen as someone up there whose sole purpose was to keep the subjects in check with punishment. A lot of harm had been done by this view. The almighty was just a step above the rulers of the times. The rulers 'lorded' over their subjects in God’s place. (If triangles had a god, it would have four sides)

Jesus (the iconoclast) effectively dismantled this view of God. For Jesus, God was a Father, someone who picked us up when we fell, was besides us when we were sick, and held us up when we stumbled. He was likened to a shepherd, a gardener and a protector. He was the Father. (Note: the Lord's Prayer)

As a consequence we become the co-host of the banquet that He has created. We then have the responsibility to preserve the world and be on the look out for each other that live in it. If we saw God as a Father, which in my opinion we should, we then see the rest of the world as our brothers and sisters and co-passengers of spaceship Earth. We can then get rid of the concept of the "I", dethrone the self and put 'others' in its place (yoga). In this manner we extend and join ourselves with the eternal.

Would it not be better to see God in this light rather than to see Him in a military or martial guise?

Do we live in the world of Gordon Gekko, whose sole purpose is to amass wealth and diminish one self by plundering the earth? This will result in, unequal distribution of wealth and stepping on the weak and disabled, to create wealth and fame for one self.

In my opinion such language and vocabulary that pictures God as a ruler, military figure and an oppressor given to punitive actions must be eradicated from the liturgies and any theological discourses. The younger generation of our church has a massive problem with the current ‘Language of our religion’.

2. If we see God as a Father, we can then believe (in) Him. As you may already know, the word ‘believe’ originally meant, “to hold dear to ones heart”. It is only later that it took the meaning of “to accept” with an implied ‘or else’. I think I can hold the image of a God as a Father closer to my heart than that of an almighty being. I would hesitate to call my Father “almighty” because it implies that He is capable of doing bad things without being questioned. If this were so, to whom would we appeal to?

[belief (n.) late 12c., bileave, replacing Old English geleafa "belief, faith," from West Germanic *ga-laubon "to hold dear, esteem, trust"]

3. Religion, especially Christianity is becoming less popular by the day in western societies, due to obvious reasons, some of which are implied above. The government and organisations in developed societies have built in to their systems Christian ethics, such as charity, compassion, equity, access and inclusiveness. There are systems and checks in place to improve on it and change it if required. There are entire departments devoted to welfare where people can seek help while still maintaining their dignity. I cannot conceive of any organisation in Kerala where we can get things done without being obsequious to a despotic official. This martinet attitude of the people in power must change. It must have its impetus in our churches, temples, synagogues schools and Sunday schools. Paraphrasing Robert Browning: “This world is strange and harsh, there needeth a change”.

John Kunnathu said...

Thank you very much for taking time to read and respond.
I agree with you that for Jesus God is father. However, I don't see any contradiction between father and almighty. God can be both-- almighty father. Father (n) almigthy (adj). We begin the Nicene creed so.

By the word almighty I mean "having all the possible abilities".

I don't see any contradition between God being father and king either. As it is affirmed in the Lord's prayer, God is father to human beings, but a king to the world. "Our father.... let thy kingdom come!" This makes us princes and princesses.

susan said...

Hi John & Tony,
God Almighty- it means as the song says, there's nothing my God cannot do. The mountains are His, the rivers are His, the starts are His handiwork too.' It implies also a self -limitation of His might-Jesus could have vanquished his oppressors through His Father's might but he does not. When we do wrong or something goes wrong because of our wrongdoings, God does not step in like the Super Hero. That is because He is the Father and a Father nurtures the children so that they learn from experience.
This is our belief.
The Hindus say when evil abounds and the good are so persecuted that they are tempted to join with the evil, then God steps in. (as an Avtar).
yada yada hi dharmasya
glanir bhavati bharata
abhyutthanam adharmasya
tadatmanam srjamy aham

paritranaya sadhunam
vinasaya ca duskrtam
sambhavami yuge yuge
For the up-liftment of the good and virtuous,
For the destruction of evil,
For the re-establishment of the natural law,
I will come, in every age.

That is a father stepping in when the play gets too rough.

Tony Daniel said...

Language and words are tools with which we try to understand and interpret the world.

My view is that the images words project will have a telling influence on how people see things. Seeing God in a martial context creates a hierarchical master-subject classification.

Christ has given us the freedom to address God as "Our Father". This immediately eliminates the hierarchy. Thus we are one family with God as our father, at the head of the table.

The adjective 'Almighty' implies the ability to do good and bad. May I not reconcile with this idea?

Seeing ourselves as Princes and Princesses is just one hop-skip-and-jump away from behaving like one. This may be the cause of all ills that we see.(Watch our Princes and Princesses speeding on the motorways, like they own it)

There must be a better way in which we picture God, there need be a paradigm shift.

We need to encapsulate religious ethics and have it built into various political, business and administrative machinery.

It would be an honour and of great interest to know how the rest of the group see this.

Jaise's said...

Thanks John sir for sharing this... For many days I was searching for the meaning of trisagion and I was really stuck with the words "Holy" and "almighty"(doesn't I understood all other words.).Your articles introduce me into first steps of learning. I like to read and learn more. Please can u suggest some source?

Waiting for "Holy art Thou, Immortal"

John Kunnathu said...

Dear Jaise's,
Thank you very much for taking time to read and comment. You found it interesting because you have been searching for knowldge.
As you guessed, "Holy art thou, Immortal" will soon follow.
You might find my other posts also interesting. Please encourage your friends to read this.
Please feel free to write more about the ideas expressed here.