One of the Scripture commentaries that I use regularly had an interesting perspective on today’s first reading. The commentator mentioned the lush, verdant landscape that the prophet Isaiah spoke about, “The desert and the parched land will exult; the steppe will rejoice and bloom. They will bloom with abundant flowers, and rejoice with joyful song.” (Isa 35:1-2) The commentator observed that Isaiah used this idealized physical landscape as a metaphor to describe how God’s Grace transforms the inner landscape of our personality and consciousness.
This passage of Isaiah is prophetic encouragement addressed to the Israelites who had been taken as captives to Babylon. The prophet tries to keep the people’s attention focused on God’s promised deliverance, even while they suffered a bitter life in exile. The prophet told his people, “Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God, he comes with vindication; With divine recompense he comes to save you.” (Isa 35:4) Then he described the miraculous nature of God’s saving actions, that the blind, the deaf, the lame and the mute would be healed, and that the righteous would be restored to peaceful and happy lives.
The prophet certainly wasn’t describing the landscape in which we live. There was another school shooting this week. This one happened in a suburb of Denver, a place not unaccustomed to such events. An eighteen year old boy walked into his high school carrying a shotgun. He intended to kill one of his teachers. The teacher was not harmed, but two students were shot; one was seriously wounded. The eighteen year old shooter then killed himself.
I’m sure there are people today asking questions like, “Why does God allow such tragedies to happen?” Although this is an obvious question to ask, it’s the wrong question to ask. I think that instead of trying to discern God’s motivations for the things God does, we should probably be investigating our own motivations for what we do. God’s motivations are explained in the Scriptures, and are easily discerned in God’s actions. The same is true of us; our motivations are easily discernible in our actions, such as the violence we do to one another.
We cannot know the thoughts of the young man responsible for this tragedy, but it’s easy enough to see the general contours of his inner landscape. This was a person with inadequate coping skills, little or no empathy for his fellow human beings, and probably, too much concern for his personal problems. He placed very little value on human life, both his own and that of others, and he probably held unrealistic expectations of the world and human existence. The visible contours of his inner landscape depict not only a broken person, but a person who was very much alone in the world, a person whose whole existence was focused on himself to the exclusion of others.
The prevailing model of education theory in this country teaches children that they should be very focused on their personal satisfaction and their unique individuality. The prevailing theory tells classroom teachers that their primary responsibility is to develop self-esteem in their students. All of this sounds, not only reasonable, but virtuous. Unfortunately, all of this is nonsense. Constant praise and doting does not develop self-esteem; it develops emotional dependence. Constant attention does not develop strong personalities; it develops narcissists. Giving every child rewards and recognitions, making certain that every child feels “special,” does not develop self-worth; it develops unrealistic expectations of achieving success without effort.
Educators and Colleges of Education will disagree with my assessment of the central doctrine of education theory in this country. I would ask them to consider the following question. When people are taught, from a very young age, that their classroom teacher will be, and should be, a source of constant praise, recognition and approval, what do you think will happen when the teacher withholds (or is perceived to withhold), the appreciation and admiration the child has been taught are personal entitlements? Little children and toddlers throw temper tantrums when they don’t get what they want. Older children and adolescents who have been treated as emotional infants will also have tantrums in such situations, but their tantrums will be more violent and destructive. Sound familiar?
The question that we should be asking about this tragedy is not about how God was involved. It’s fairly obvious that God was given no involvement in the events of that young man’s life. The question we should be asking is about how such a beautiful locale as the foothills of the Rocky Mountains can spawn repeated horrible human tragedies. Surrounded by a beautiful landscape, we might expect people to develop a peaceful inner landscape; obviously, that doesn’t necessarily happen. The reason for this is, again, fairly obvious: God has been allowed no involvement in the lives of people who turn their frustrations and disappointments into violent actions.
It is a grave disservice to any child to convince her or him that the most important thing in life, the greatest good, is self. This popular doctrine of self-absorption is merely an attractive lie. Every person is a mixture of strength and weakness, good and bad, virtue and vice; putting limited good in the place that is deserved only by ultimate good is foolish, futile, and ultimately, destructive. Eventually, all of us disappoint ourselves; lacking a place to turn as an alternative to self, there is no escape, no redemption, no hope. The violence we do to one another is testimony to the tyranny of the self and a lack of attention to God.
It is no better an idea to replace the current standard of narcissistic self-absorption with a previous generation’s doctrine of enlightened humanism. It is true, that considering the needs of others before considering the needs of oneself is less destructive than pure egotism. This might avoid the pitfall of one’s own limitations, but it does so by substituting for them the limitations of others. Eventually, someone else will disappoint us, and we are faced with the same dilemma: the thing to which we have assigned ultimate value has proven itself unworthy of our trust.
It could be accurate to say that God is absent at those times when people inflict horrible suffering and injustice on one another, but it is accurate only if we understand “absent” as meaning “unacknowledged and unheeded.” While there are many people and things to which we might want to give our unconditional trust, there is only One who is deserving of it and unconditionally trustworthy. There might be many people and things (including ourselves), to which we are inclined to assign ultimate value, there is only One who will not disappoint.
Believers know and understand the importance of religious faith and church attendance: it focuses our attention on something other than ourselves – this is of great importance at all times, but especially at times when life is difficult and challenging. We know the value of faith in God, but we shouldn’t expect non-believers to change their thinking based solely on our claims. Telling people what to do is a waste of time and effort; everyone has the right and responsibility to choose a life for themselves, and to do so freely. While there is little value to lecturing non-believers, there is a great service that believers owe to the world; we owe the world the opportunity to see an alternative to self-destruction.
Given the state of contemporary culture, words might have less impact than actions; our best witness to the world about the value of faith in God might be given in the lives we lead. Specifically, our best witness might be the example of a commitment to a greater good than ourselves. You and I can’t change the world by our own efforts; salvation is God’s work. We can, however, offer the world an alternative to what is an obvious failure, we can be models of attention to ultimate good, we can be examples of inner landscapes reshaped and renewed by God’s Grace.
Not all will take notice of our good example. Today’s Gospel portrays John the Baptist as uncertain about the identity of Jesus. John sent some of his own disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” (Matthew 11:3) If John found Jesus difficult to understand, we should not be surprised if many of our contemporaries fail to grasp the meaning of Jesus’ life and death. However, to those who are disposed to see the truth about God, we have a sacred duty: to give credible witness to the fact that it matters greatly where we focus our attention.