Problematizing the Sacred

By Fred Laceda
The recent talks of President Duterte interestingly has ventured in the realm of religion by making invective remarks about God. This made theological pundits defend or provide justifications for the president’s latest tirades. I take these incidental God-talks, however, as an opportunity to present Penuel’s distinct theological pedagogy.

The common presentation of God as a subject matter of theology is either by focusing on his supposed attributes or creating through conjectures a divine image that resembles more a non-biblical deity. Penuel’s starting point, however, is different. Because of the school’s emphasis on a grounded theological method, it does not naively borrow ready-made theological packages. Penuel’s method is similar in the spirit of critique as espoused by Kant or more closely, the problematization embodied in the works of Michel Foucault. It problematizes what seemingly are non-controversial beliefs including our cherished projections and convictions about God.

Take for example the common portrait of God. From simple to sophisticated they usually agree with God as loving, just, and so on. Lurking beneath this picture are problems with passages that directly or otherwise implicate God with acts of killings for instance in the conquest episodes in the Old Testament. Coming to grips with this seeming contradiction is at the heart of the problem of the Sacred. One way to move forward is to grapple with the diversity, development and growth of the collective wisdom in the reflection on God. To problematize God is to ask questions, however difficult. It means taking head on problematic passages and portrayals of God rather than sweeping it under the proverbial rug.

One problematic area in the reflection on God is the connection or disconnect of justice and mercy within the deity itself. Exodus 34: 6–7 crystallizes this tension. This passage talks of God’s abundance in forgiving inequities while at the same breath punishing the guilty up to the fourth generation. One key motif in the Bible is the balancing act between justice and mercy. There are attempts to mitigate the tension as seen in later texts such as Ezekiel 18:1–20 by revoking the transgenerational punishment. Thus, simple generalizations about God will not do. There is perhaps an inherent ambivalence within the Sacred. Moreover, Jesus himself saw the gulf that separates justice and mercy. One of the goals then of theological reflection is to find the gaps, tensions and problems in our ongoing quest to understand God.

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