Every Saturday evening when I am not sick or out of town, I drive thirty miles up to Toledo and bring back from a restaurant there at closing-time a load of left-over bread and pastry which is divided between the local home for battered women and their children, and the liberal Protestant campus ministry, where the bread is a staple of student dinners. At the Toledo end, I usually deal with a petite bright-eyed brown-haired young woman named Stephanie who looks forward to being a professor of English literature some day. That is an unwise ambition, but I have never said so to her; she might make it work, and I have no wish to discourage her. Occasionally we chat about aspects of academic life; my philological qualifications are strong enough to intrigue her (she is happily married, I hasten to say). Once, after taking the evening’s gleanings out to my station wagon, I thanked her for her help, as I always do. She answered “I do it for the same reason that you do, for the greater glory of God.” Actually, I do it so that women and children whom life has betrayed will not be hungry, but I managed to acknowledge her statement somehow and went on my way.
“For the greater glory of God”, or in the original Latin “ad majorem Dei gloriam” is one of the fixed motifs of Western European religion. From Bartlett’s “Familiar Quotations”, where the phrase is attributed to Pope Gregory XIII, I learn that the phrase appears in the Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent (1545-1563), and it is somewhat better known as the motto of the Jesuits, founded in 1540. The Council of Trent was the embodiment of the Counter-Reformation, of which the Jesuits were an instrument. When a phrase appears in two sources so close together in time and place, there is no way to be certain what was its ultimate origin, although it can be seen to have been in the air.
Is there any ultimate difference in meaning between my view of my Saturday evening activity and hers? I doubt it very much. Her expression is more general, and refers to a broader class of acts; perhaps it would also include the rainbow, which also surely may be seen as one of the glorious gifts of God. Stephanie’s background is certainly Christian, and reflects one stream of a broader point of view in Judeo-Christian tradition. In my copy of the Babylonian Talmud, the discussion of the requirements of communal charity is joined to the treatment of the laws of partnership. That is, what is economic fairness in respect to two or a few partners is generalized to the whole community. This provides a different but important perspective.
I cannot attribute much importance to the series of recent books declaring the failure of religious concepts of God. Within my lifetime, they have been preceded by another series declaring the death of God. The concept is hardly new: in the eighteenth century, the advent of the scientific world view removed the need to call upon the hypothesis of a divinity to explain mechanical phenomena. From the other side of the abyss between religious and scientific world-views, Albert Einstein would talk of the laws of the universe as the workings of God, a metaphor which the physicist Paul Davies has taken up in a rewarding way in our own days (“The Mind of God”, 1992). This sort of metaphor is congenial to me. For the rest, when I was about seven years old, I realized that noone in a long robe was in view playing a harp when our DC-3 aircraft emerged above the clouds; that view of God has never had much hold on me, and its failure does not trouble me.
I belong to a UU congregation in which some 70% of the members were originally Catholic, and many of them are so bitterly reactive that they wish to hear nothing of organized religion. This is an obstacle both to the development of the congregation as an organization and to possibilities of constructive interaction between our congregation and other congregations whose members respond to the world in terms which are different theologically, but with little practical difference in action. The solutions to hunger, pain, disease, and ignorance rarely differ depending on the religion of those who suffer from them. Although I have never been a member of a Christian church or a Jewish synagogue, and I do not expect that I ever will be, neither do I feel that their core religious conceptions, so far as they are important in practice, obstruct constructive ecumenical interaction which embodies the values of our respective religions. On this generalized level, I do not hesitate to join my theistic colleagues and say “Heis theos, God is one”. This was not always possible, and is not always possible; even today, these same colleagues will not always reciprocate in attributing value to my religious views. It was not true for those who burnt Servetus, but in terms of our daily life today it has broad truth, and the expectation of reciprocity is my working assumption when I advocate or participate in ecumenical work.