I offer my profound thanks to Tim for a document he sent me last week that included a collection of quite fascinating chapters written by the Catholic philosopher Herbert McCabe from his book ‘God still matters’. One of the chapters, entitled ‘The Prodigal Son’, is a homily of Jesus’ ‘Parable of the Prodigal Son’ (sometimes called his ‘Parable of the Lost Son’), was both extremely moving and a wonderfully accurate articulation of my current period of religious reflection.
The parable is told by Jesus to his disciples in Luke, the gospel. Those interested in reading the original version may want to look up chapter 15, verses 11-32. For those who would prefer just a brief synopsis, the story is about a father of enviable wealth, his house and two sons. Both sons grow up in the house of their father and a loving community. The father possesses an estate that he promises will be inherited by his sons, two-thirds for the eldest and a third for the youngest.
One son, the youngest, decides that he wants to cash in on his father’s estate immediately, and enjoy his newfound riches elsewhere. He leaves behind him the community he grew up in, one of love and friendship, and sets off to explore new pastures. After many years of excessive spending and living an extravagant lifestyle, he is out of pocket, and must sell his labour to an employer who uses him to feed swine. The sin, Jesus reminds us, is in loving the gift more than the giver.
The younger son realises that, upon leaving the loving community behind him for one obsessed with self-seeking and individualism, everybody he is surrounded by is motivated by the same kind of personal gain as he is. “Naturally enough”, writes McCabe, “in that kind of society, the employer finds his product much more important than his employee.” The son contrasts the community he abandoned with the community he travelled to and begins to realise that he would be happier, in whatever form, returning home to his father’s house.
In this parable, Jesus is teaching his disciples that when we view ourselves as worthy of worship in and amongst our conflicting interests and we ignore divine intervention we are not liberated but enslaved. He reveals that society cannot be truly fit for human purpose unless it is more than just human. In other words, without the forgiving sanctuary of the father in the parable (analogous of God), the younger son cannot realise how he has fallen and what he is missing. It is this concept, of how one can be ‘lost’, as the parable suggests, that fascinates me most.
McCabe summarises his sermon of the parable (Chapter 25 of God Still Matters) quite beautifully. He writes:
“Luke is saying to them: we make merry and are glad in the Holy Spirit, not because of our virtue, important though it is, but because, more deeply than that, we are all sinners who are forgiven, who have been embraced by the exuberant, impatient love of God, because ‘we have been dead and are alive, because we were lost and have been found’.”
The state of ‘being lost’ particularly interests me because it has been the very foundation of my religious reconsideration. To be clear, as of the time of writing, I am no longer an atheist, but it is too early for me to be pigeonholed elsewhere. The problem with my current lack of a religious position is that, due to the confusion that has seeped into my mind, it is incredibly difficult to write about.
For quite a while, I have not felt any real meaning in the things that non-believers claim embody the purpose and value of life. These things include family relationships, hedonistic encounters and cultural figures or pastimes. I have, for the first time in my life, really started to consider whether I should turn my focus towards something more. Something higher, perhaps. Importantly, I love Christian traditions. I am a huge believer in marriage, having children inside wedlock and of respecting human life over calls for choice and bodily autonomy.
This detached feeling from the outside world is what I would describe as my state of being lost. Unlike the younger son in the parable, I have spent my life in a different house, but as my political transformation (from liberal to conservative, almost two years ago) suggests, I think I had realised subconsciously that this ‘new house’ I was living in, that being my 21 years as an atheist, did not provide me with the kind of purpose and liberation that for years I argued it did.
The parable is also hugely significant as it touches on the question of who seeks whom. Do we seek God, or does He seek us? The parable explains that the younger son needs the experience of leaving his father’s house behind in order to realise what he has lost. During my period as an atheist, I was comforted by the fact that I didn’t just hold my beliefs to fit in with the spirit of the age, but rather they were held sincerely and I did not ever concede that there was a possibility of allowing God into my life. I do not regret this. When the son returns home, his father, we are told, does not wait for forgiveness, he rushes to his son and offers a loving embrace. Though it may not apply to those who have converted to the household of God, it does tend to suggest that the ‘seeking’ is mutual.
I cannot say with any certainty that God is seeking me. Nor can I say that I am actively seeking God. Moreover, it feels, much like it does in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, that the connection that may be developing between me and God is – whilst not yet firmly established – not just mutual, but inevitable.