It struck me, as I watched the superstorm Sandy hit New York City, that millions of people suddenly found themselves thrown down Maslow’s hierarchy and face to face with basic security needs. Probably most of these people were used to operating at the mid-level of social and esteem needs, with a few (according to Maslow) operating at the level of self-actualization. It is a shock, I’m sure, to return to basic survival after spending all your life not worrying about such needs.
My experience is that, at times of great stress or chaos, another need emerges. People instinctively utter prayers like “God please help me” even if they are agnostics or haven’t been in a church for many years. Maslow’s hierarchy ignores such needs. In fact, many Psychologists now criticize Maslow’s concept of a “needs hierarchy” finding that self-esteem and self-actualization needs are present no matter what the circumstances are — whether a person is homeless or a millionaire. Arguing from that position, I would say that when someone utters a prayer in dire circumstances, they are only fulfilling a pervasive (although largely hidden) need for God.
Dependence on God
If human beings have this deep need for God, doesn’t that indicate that we are dependent on God? The word ‘dependence’ is an ugly word in our society. The ideal is independence. Dependence means we aren’t self-sufficient, self-reliant, self-determining and all those seemingly good things we teach our children. It’s hard to image teaching our children to be dependent. Yet, in reality, we are all dependent on each other. As the storm in the Eastern USA showed, the complex web of modern society is easily disrupted. We turn to our neighbors in these times, and depend on them. So why is it so hard to believe we are truly dependent on God too — and live that way, and teach our children they too are dependent on God?
To me, why it’s hard to admit that we are dependent on God is connected not only with modern culture but with who we are. One of the first questions in the old Catechism was “Why did God make me?” “God made me to know him, love him and serve him in this world and the next.” God made us free, and didn’t tie us to his “apron strings.” The beauty (and perhaps tragedy) of human life is that we freely get to make ourselves and our eternal destiny. Our natural thrust toward independence matches each individual’s profound responsibility for themselves.
Communion — The other side of being human
If you consider the story arc of the Old Testament, however, you can easily see that there are two basic themes– the great individual heros like Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, and others — and the people of God. The great hero of the New Testament is Jesus of course. But the theme of communion is also there — “I am the vine, you are the branches” and Paul’s metaphor of the “Body of Christ all working together for the whole.” The question in our modern time, is how do we experience communion? Unfortunately we equate it with “church,” I say unfortunately because being in communion is far deeper than belonging to a church. It is a mystical reality not an organizational phenomenum. And that is what we have lost — the sense that, alone, we are actually nothing. Communion is an exchange between our soul and God and all other human souls in a manner that we can hardly imagine let alone understand. If we begin to see dependence in that way, perhaps we will begin to love differently.