In the last few days, we’ve had some passionate discussion about the roots of Christianity, the nature of faith, and the nature of truth. Perhaps the best expression of the (perhaps interim) conclusion opposite to my (perhaps interim) conclusion was:
I asked myself, how can I justify a loving, omniscient god who wishes all to know him through his son, with this haphazard, confusing clutter of self-verifying texts? How inefficient and ineffective is that?
I promised a response. It may not satisfy. But it is what I have.
To me, it seems that we are caught in a creative tension between our need to comprehend, and our inability to comprehend. We cannot comprehend the smells that dog smells, or the colours that birds can see in the ultraviolet spectrum. We can know that there is something to comprehend, but we are barred by our nature from sharing the sensations.
It seems to me both logical and obvious that if there is a prime Cause of time and space – not just of what we comprehend and all that we know about and cannot comprehend but of mysteries we don’t know even exist – then such a prime Cause must also be beyond our comprehension.
As I see it, the history of humankind is the history of the revelation of God in various ways, times, and places, in terms that we can understand. These terms must necessarily be incomplete and misleading. We being limited created beings made to exist within the space-time continuum we imperfectly know, and God being an unlimited uncreated being existing in a state beyond imagining, it could not be otherwise.
So, on the one hand, we (and I include all of humankind throughout history as part of we) have our stories and traditions about God, and what God is; and on the other hand we are, as pseudo-Dionysius said 1500 years ago, trying to comprehend something that is:
…not soul or mind, nor does it possess imagination, conviction, speech, or understanding. . . It cannot be spoken of and it
cannot be grasped by understanding . . It does not live nor is it life. It is not a substance, nor is it eternity or time. It cannot be grasped by the understanding . . It is neither one nor oneness, divinity nor goodness . . It is not sonship or fatherhood . . There is no speaking of it, nor name nor knowledge of it . . It is beyond assertion and denial. (The Mystical Theology)
Pseudo-Dionysius isn’t simply saying that God is not these things – his is not a negative assertion. Rather, he is saying that God is beyond all categories; that none of our categories make sense when applied to God. Thus, we can approach God through metaphor, analogy, and narrative. But all of this is a stumbling in the dark. If you do it for long enough, you’ll figure out where the bed is, but you still won’t know the colour of the duvet, the size of the house the room is in, or which continent you are on.
There is a further complication in that our minds are imperfect instruments for understanding anything, as modern neuro-science tells us – easily misled and subject to interference by hormones, illness, articial stimulants and personal desires. St Paul said that we see only an imperfect and clouded reflection of God. The incarnation of Jesus was a self-revelation of God; a face-to-face meeting, to be sure, but with God rendered human-sized. What we learned about God through Jesus is true, but necessarily limited. The history of the Jewish people followed by the history of the Church is a history of stumbling around, trying out various theories and ideas, discarding the ones that don’t take us forward, and arguing about the ones that are left.
By itself [the ineffable One] generously reveals a firm, transcendent beam, granting enlightenments proportionate to each being, and thereby draws sacred minds upward to its permitted contemplation, to participation and to the state of becoming like it. (The Divine Names)
Thus, we need to draw a distinction between what we know about God through our human traditions and the real, but unknowable, God. I say ‘through our human traditions’ deliberately. Indeed, this concept of a transcategorical God (who none-the-less can in some sense be known in the world through metaphor and narrative) is found in mystical traditions of Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Judaism, as well as Christianity.
I think that the Catholic Church doesn’t know everything that there is to know – but it has (in 2000 years of discussion and practice) figured out a few things. It works best as an instrument for discovering God, but frequently gets sidetracked into politics and power. I think other religious traditions are better than the Church at understanding some aspects of God, and that the Catholic Church has an edge on others. Overall, I put the Catholic Church slightly ahead – but that doesn’t mean it is always right, or that what it teaches now won’t change over time.
To speak about finding God in all things is to admit that no doctrine, no tradition and no Scripture can exhaust the mystery that is God. It is to remember that our theology, our prayer and our teaching are limited in their ability to convey this mystery, and that as a result we must ultimately stand in awe before God. We who have grown up in a pluralistic world have seen good things in people of varied backgrounds; we know that any talk of ultimate truth must be humble before the vastness of human experience and of creation.
On the flip side, to speak of God in all things is to remind us that ours is a sacramental understanding of God—God among us in the faces, the words and the gestures that make present the reality of grace. It is to emphasize that God is not distant and “other,” but present and intimate with us. It is to underscore a belief that our lives are not beyond the scope of God’s love, but rather they are already the objects of God’s care. (Timothy Muldoon)
So what of the narratives? Are they ‘true’? If you mean are they historically factual, I can’t know and neither can anyone else. All we can do is argue theories. Which is interesting, and also useful to better understanding of the narratives. But historical fact is not the point. Do they help me to better understand the God I sense in my ordinary religious experience? Because if they do, they are true.
Ordinary religious experience – the sense of the presence of God, the occasional “I-Thou” moments, the true mystical experiences at whatever levels – these are what religion is about. Without these, it is just an arid intellectual exercise. In another post, I’ll address why I take these seriously (given my earlier comments about neuro-psychology). For the moment, suffice it to say that the reality of at least some of these religious experiences, as reported in all religions down through time, is a basic axiom in my choice to be Catholic.
Indeed, Fr. Andrew Greeley, a sociologist who has studied fidelity to the church, writes: “Catholics stay in their church because of loyalty to the imagery of the Catholic imagination, because of the spiritual vision of Catholics that they absorb in their childhood along with and often despite all the rules and regulations that were drummed into their heads.”
Which brings us to the question of narrow box or big window. Many people define Catholics in terms of what we oppose: abortion, gay marriage, the death penalty, to name a few controversies. While those are important pieces, they don’t create the whole picture. Nor is Catholicism simply cerebral. While study forms the strong spine of our theology, a larger dimension is accessible to those who may not be academically inclined. What, then, are we?
Being Catholic means being steeped in a way of life. It means finding God at every turn: in candlelight or conversation, night sky or green meadow. No matter how small or even oppressive our environment may seem, we can look beyond or within it for a hidden dimension: the elusive, mysterious presence of God.
All around us are signs, gifts from God. To read them aright, we need to interpret the language of symbol.
Or, to stay with the metaphor, we need to open the windows for a larger perspective on human life: its divine element.
How do we best prepare children for this way of life, teaching its language, sensitizing to its nuances?
As St. Ignatius directed, we go in through their door. Children are naturally attuned to the small miracles of creation: an intriguing insect, a puddle made for mirroring and splashing, an unusual cloudscape. They are concrete-minded, so abstractions have far less meaning than teachings grounded in sensate reality.
As the botanist Luther Burbank says: “Every child should have mud pies, grasshoppers, water bugs, tadpoles, frogs and mud turtles, elderberries, wild strawberries, acorns, chestnuts, trees to climb, brooks to wade in … bats, bees, butterflies … sand, snakes … and any child who has been deprived of these has been deprived of the best part of education.” Lucky the child who knows the next level: that the grasshopper is a symbol of John the Baptist and the beehive of the Christian community.
The best of Catholic worship accords with that.
As the Book of Wisdom says, our delight in natural beauties guides us to their source, the author of all beauty. So the Advent fragrance of candles nestled in evergreen, the blaze of bonfire at the Easter Vigil, the splash of holy water, or the story of Jesus’ post-Resurrection barbecue beside the lake open the window through our senses to our eternal heritage. (Kathy Coffey)