By Valson Thampu
April 2, 2019
Jesus’s words are neither unclear nor
confusing. There is no excuse for not understanding any of his teachings. Yet,
we fail woefully to understand his teachings. Why?
Consider this teaching that unless we ‘turn
and become like children’, we shall never enter the kingdom of heaven’
(Mtt.18:3). In two thousand years we have only receded from grasping what it
means to ‘turn’ and ‘become like children’.
Often, we have difficulty in understanding
a spiritual idea not because it is difficult in itself, but because its
implications are unacceptable to us. The word on which we stumble in this teaching
of Jesus is ‘turn’. It is a simple word. Yet it is, in its implications, quite
formidable. It is so because the hardest thing for human beings is to have to
change oneself. We are happy to change others for our sake. But changing
oneself is an unwelcome prospect for us. To ‘turn’ is to change; and that puts
This reluctance, which often works below
the level of our consciousness, prevents us from going deeper into the meaning
of this teaching. So, we never ask, “What does it mean to become like
children?” It is likely that a vast majority of my readers have never
considered this question because I myself did not address this question until I
became aware of the psychology underlying the tendency to dodge it.
Jesus puts the focus on the need to change.
He did so, realizing the extreme difficulty in the sphere of religion in
bringing about any change whatsoever. Effecting change in any sphere is
difficult. It is most difficult in religion. The reason is simple. Religion
functions through habit formation. It is a process that commences from birth.
It goes on for years. As a result, religious patterns and habits are deeply
ingrained in us. They are not like our clothes; they are like our skin.
Changing any of the religious practices and habits is like de-skinning oneself.
It is in this light that we must see the
central paradox of the biblical faith. It is focused on transformation, or
total and radical change. The change envisaged is so radical that its outcome
is denoted as ‘a new creation’. It is because of this that Bonhoeffer wrote in
The Cost of Discipleship, “When Christ calls us, he calls us to come and die”.
To me, the funniest thing in religious life is that people want to be
transformed, but without having to undergo any change.
But, everyone knows, a change is necessary.
There can be no improvement, much less breakthrough, without a radical change.
But we don’t want to change. So, what is the way out of this stalemate?
In the religious equation there are two
parties: God and me. The need for change arises because the relationship
between the two is not right. The scope of the change required is determined by
the need to set this all-important relationship right. This goal can be
attained if one of the two parties changes. We don’t want to change. So, what
is the option left? Well, God must change.
That is indeed the purpose that drives our
religiosity in its entirety. The singular purpose of established religion ~
including Christianity ~ is to change God to suit man’s convenience. Because of
this there is a yawning gulf between spirituality and religion; and it is most
striking in the case of biblical spirituality vis-à-vis Christianity. Biblical
spirituality is about our transformation. Christianity is about maintaining the
status quo without aches and pains. This is sought to be achieved by
manipulating God to fit our convenience. If in the biblical faith, the emphasis
is on seeking the will of God, in popular Christianity the obsession is with
imposing our will on God.
Not convinced? You will be. All you have to
do is to consider the way you pray. Recall all the prayers you have ever heard.
Especially ardent and hysterical prayers. The purpose of each one of them is
clear and unmistakable. It is keenness to change God’s will and to make it subservient
to our own.
How has this perversion come about? This
has happened, clearly, in the wake of the emergence of the priestly class. The
only business of priests is to ‘mediate between’ God and human beings. With a
slight twist this becomes ‘to serve as middlemen’ between God and believers.
Middlemen, to be able to justify their existence at all, need to pretend that
they have special powers, and the right, to influence God. Else, why would you
go to priests or go through them to God? To influence God is to change God’s
will. The need to ‘influence’ God arises only in case God has to be forced to
act contrary to his natural disposition. So, it is a logical necessity that the
more believers depend on priests the less open they become to living according
to godly values. Priestly authority is erected on a dangerous lie: that,
priests have the power, and the authority, to twist the will of God in favour
of this or that person. This superstition, to which we have got used to, is
That is why Jesus introduces the image of
the ‘child’ and insists that we must turn and become like children. What is the
most natural and characteristic aspect of children? Isn’t it that they need no
‘middlemen’ between them and their parents? Have you ever come across a home
anywhere in the world, in which children relate to their parents only through
middlemen? I haven’t. On the other hand, if my children try to relate to me
through middlemen, I’d feel greatly hurt and insulted.
We stay blissfully unaware of this
blasphemous insult to God that we are routinely guilty of. The reason our eyes
and hearts are shut against seeing it for what it is, is that it is encased in
an elaborate and mesmerizing institutional network. That network is not the
church, but the church hierarchy. If you ask, “What is church?” you will get
the answer, “All of you together; the church is you.” But try and act on it;
you will be snubbed or cast out. For all practical purposes, church is only the
hierarchy. This hypocrisy, most people don’t realize, stands rooted deep in the
blasphemy that is institutionalized as the priestly class ~ the blasphemy of
pretending to be able to manipulate the will of God one’s whims and fancies
dictate. Do you want to know if you have turned and become like children, as
Jesus said you should? Well, here is what you can do. Ask yourself a few
Do you feel a need to depend on priests and
bishops? Do you feel an irrational fear about emerging from their tutelage? Do
you fear that they have the power to shut the door of heaven and open the gate
of hell for you? If you do, you have neither ‘turned’ nor ‘become like
The beautiful thing about the world of
children is its spontaneity. Spontaneity denotes a harmony between what is and
what appears to be. That is, there is no margin for hypocrisy in spontaneity.
You can’t be spontaneously hypocritical. You can be habitually hypocritical,
but never spontaneously hypocritical. The moment you become hypocritical your
capacity for spontaneity dies forthwith.
This explains why our adult religious life
is stiff and mechanical. The formal liturgy ~ which never engages the truth of
our life ~ is like a cast in which we place ourselves for a limited period of
time each Sunday. There is no life in it. Old people like me struggle to keep
awake, and not fall asleep, during worship. Young people dream dreams. As for
children, they talk or play among themselves and get pinched and boxed by the
elders in their proximity.
The heartbreak is that this state of affairs
doesn’t bother anyone. The intriguing feature is that, all this
notwithstanding, there are Christians who feel surprised that ‘the fear of God’
has departed from priests and bishops. They astonish me no end.
Have you noticed this one thing? Jesus did
not address his teachings to the priests of his times. He condemned their
hypocrisy; but never addressed them. His teaching ministry was addressed
exclusively to the people. Why? Jesus was realistic. He knew that not even God
could change priests. Ordinary people are open to change. Priests are in the
business of re-formatting God. Who can change them?
It is impossible to improve on the wisdom
of Jesus. If anyone thinks that the church can be reformed and its evils
eradicated, or priests and bishops made less corrupt and more humane, they are
chasing a wild goose. It is utterly futile to unseat a bishop or a hundred
bishops. One bishop will be followed by another, worse than his predecessor. A
High Priest will be followed only by another High Priest. There is no history
of a High Priest having been followed by a prophet or a saint.
If there is any hope, it is only in working
with the people. They are free to ‘turn and become like children’. But between
them and the kingdom of heaven stands an insurmountable hindrance: priests who
insist that the people ~ the children of God ~ should relate to God only
through them. They’ll issue you gate passes to heaven for a price, irrespective
of your spiritual merit. And so long as you want to enter such a heaven, their
tyranny over you will never end.
Valson Thampu, a former Principal of St. Stephen‘s College, is a
theologian committed to social justice and God-centred harmony of all faiths