Category Archives: Christianity

Does God seek me or do I seek God? The Parable of the Prodigal Son sheds some clues

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.

I am reconsidering my religious position

I have been running this blog for almost two years, and have managed to cover quite a range of subjects. I am extremely pleased with some of the feedback I have received, as well as with my own progress as a writer and as a thinker. The input of readers has been invaluable and I feel like my political acumen has been strengthened immensely.

I have, though, made quite the effort not to talk about my religious views on here. This is because, in truth, for the past weeks and months I have found myself trapped in a dizzying spiral of thought. I have been, for the first time in my 21-year long life, reconsidering atheism’s role in my life and whether to pursue faith.

About a year and a half ago, my politics underwent a notable transformation. I abandoned what I now call my period of default liberalism and found comfort and sincerity in political conservatism. As a teenager, I was apolitical and did not put any real thought towards major issues. By default, like so many youngsters now and then, I held liberal views. It reflected the environment I was brought up in: very secular, very anti-Christian and welded together by an educational and media establishment that espoused liberal sentiment. This is, of course, not to say that young liberals never have strong political acumen and do not think seriously about important issues.

It is not surprising that young people are so easily led to believe that to be atheist and liberal is necessarily the way to think. Most do so innocently, and like my younger self, are not consumed by critical thinking and political awareness. But, growing up, I felt that tendencies towards non-belief were so socially accepted that I needn’t worry about giving religion any independent consideration.

I often wonder if my upbringing had anything to do with subconsciously rejecting religion. My siblings are not religious and my mother, despite occasional querying, has never shown any sign of believing in a higher power. My grandparents, too, sometimes claimed to have Christian belief, but never spoke about Christ and only attended Church for ceremonial events, like funerals and weddings.

Entering my teen years, and becoming fairly academic at school, I developed a level of confidence during religious debate that, if I could go back now, I would find repulsive. The family and schooling environments I was raised in enshrined in me the apparent lack of importance or value that religion has to play in modern society. I thought that religious people were stupid, and being militantly atheist, and non-believers not so. My rejection of religion, after years of ignoring it, soon became rather more deliberate. To me, God didn’t exist and I hated Him.

This is a surprisingly common notion amongst modern atheists, and only now do I realise how silly it is. It might be because so many people view atheism as the last station on the line; that there can’t be anything after it because that is the direction that society has travelled in after so many years of rampant religiosity. Atheists often dismiss religions on the grounds that they privilege faith over reason, but I do not necessarily think that is true.

Often, those who are religious, or those who have converted to a religion from a position of non-belief are those who have paid more thoughtful attention to the universe and the meaning of life. The other day I was struck by this powerful C.S. Lewis quote:

“…and out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history—money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery—the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.”

…on the desire of man to fill the void not inhabited by God through other means. It hit me primarily because I feel so detached from those around me; those who subscribe to the described pleasures of hedonism. It is possible that, by pursuing Christianity, I provide my politics with a more solid foundation. Something, if you will, to complete the package.

I used to think that worship was a binary thing; that individuals either worship God or they do not worship. I now realise this is demonstrably untrue. It is in human nature to worship, but it is precisely what we worship that defines (and separates) us. I can see only three options: God, the state and the self. When worship is considered from this perspective, it is much easier to treat it as a more rational characteristic of human behaviour than previously thought. It is possible that God can fill a personal void for me. I won’t worship any state, nor will I worship the individual as do so many liberals around me.

There is a door ahead of me, but one that I am hesitant to open. I don’t know what lies behind it, but increasingly my suspicion is that it is everything that I have been looking for.