Holloway on... God the Real: Can we  Know and Love Him? (Part 1)
Holloway on... God the Real: Can we Know and Love Him? (Part 1)

Holloway on... God the Real: Can we Know and Love Him? (Part 1)

The theme of this article is  undertaken, with a sense of hopelessness given its magnitude, through the constant nagging of students, both lay and clerical, who in hallowed halls or Oxbridge cloister are weary of being told that they cannot really know God, even if (which not all their teachers concede) they can demonstrate his existence.

It unsettles their souls, runs counter to their own experience, and in the case of some of their friends, it shatters vocations to the priesthood, and sometimes the life of regular, practising Catholic faith. Even St. Thomas Aquinas, they are told, confessed to the utter nescience of our grasp of God. This must be so they say, because we cannot comprehend the nature of God, and the nature of God is All-Simple; just the One-Thing. You know it or you don’t: no half measures. If they were right, it would follow that St. Thomas must have taught that we cannot love God either, in any personal sense: there is a Thomist cliché nil volitum nisi praecognitum - nothing is wanted, or loved, unless

first it is known. So, if you don’t know God, but only know at Him, you don’t love Him in any warm, personal sense, but only love at Him. This Aquinas certainly did not teach. Moreover, the whole of the Bible, Old Testa- ment and the ‘Good News’ of Christ, would be totally irrational from what we read in the text, if this position were true.

Problems of ‘nature’ and ‘grace’

There is an academic problem about knowing God, given that we cannot know his nature as it is in itself. There is only one perfect name for God. The one He himself taught: I AM WHO AM. To penetrate it in possession, as we would know and love a dear friend, is not possible for basic, unaided human nature. God is the incomprehensible, the one beyond the finite limits of our nature, or even of an angel’s nature. From the powers of human nature unaided and alone, concedes St. Thomas, we can only say what God is, by applying to Him superlatively and eminently the spiritual attributes we find in ourselves, and by denying of God all the limitations which proceed first from matter, and then from the contingency, or nature limits of even the spiritual creature. The First Vatican Council, when it defines the power of unaided human reason to know God ‘from the things that are made’ does both these things and mixes the attribution of eminence and the negation of creaturely limits, when for example it says of God (DS. 3001): ‘the Life, the Truth, the Good, the creator, the omnipotent, the eternal, the infinite, the incomprehensible, the blessed in itself, the All-High beyond the words and concepts of man...’

According to ‘purely natural powers’, Aquinas, and we think the whole of Christian theology with him, and probably before him, held that you could know God by the projection into Him of all that our nature has, at its most noble, and ‘thrill’ to its fulness predicated without created limitations. Likewise, you could love in God, from the very nature of your soul to love such a Thing, the goodness and blessedness of God, source of all created good... but from that alone, you did not enter into a personal communion with Him. You did, in the end, know at God and love at God, rather as an athletic teenager,  member  of a good running club, might, present at the Olympics, know, thrill, and love at the person and achievement of the ‘gold’ winner whom he ‘adored’. But it is not personal fulfilment in the real.

When you read either the Scholastics, who wrote ‘scientifically’, or the Greek Fathers of the Church who, with the exception of St. John Damascene, certainly did not, you do have one large complication. The discussion of the powers of pure, unaided human nature, in its relationship to God is so very, very academic. Because at no time whatever, in original justice, after the fall, or since the Redemption of Christ, has humankind ever existed in a ‘state of pure nature’. We have always been in the state of ‘supernature’  of the call, vocation, and gift in the order of grace, to be made ‘co-sharers of the divine

Infiltration of inadequate philosophies

We are never going to find anyone in a ‘state of unaided nature’ to work from. Even before the birth of Christ, even when the pagans were outside the law of Moses, it was still true that: ‘And God made of one all mankind to dwell upon the whole face of the earth... that they should seek God, and it might be, touch and find Him; though indeed ‘he is not far from each one of us, for in Him we live, and move, and have our being. Some of your own poets have said “we are his offspring” ... and as for the times of ignorance, God has overlooked them, etc.’ (Acts 17:26, 30). God has always gone before the ‘natural desire’ of fallen men to know Him. He has always prompted us to seek after Him, that perchance we may find Him! Yet, even in the order of grace, directed to the possession of God in the beatific vision, we do not know and possess God as He is in his own nature. Through grace, however, we do know him in faith and wisdom, we do love Him, we ‘home in’ on Him really and for real. Our intellect thrills to Him, seeks in wonder more of Him, loves Him in a partial, but real possession, and is on its way, in a straight line, unless we deliberately care to lose this relationship, to the complete knowing and loving of God, as He is (1 John 3:1-3).

The full reasons behind the present heavy emphasis upon our nescience (inevitable ignorance) of God from the limitations of our nature are too complex for this article, at least if any room is to be left for saying anything positive, and perhaps useful, about acquiring an actual love of God. It derives mostly from theories of knowledge, dating say from Occam through Kant and Hegel, to Wittgenstein (except maybe in his last years) some of which are called Nominalism, others empirical Pragmatism. These systems deny any knowledge of an Absolute, or of anything in its inner self, from the fact that our knowledge comes through sense impressions, is limited through them, and is valid only of the sensory impression and the categories into which our mind processes it. The student must look it all up. Anyone who has access to a complete set of the Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, would, with cross-references, find enough work to fill out an industrious sabbatical year. The follow up of the references to philosophers and the Fathers of the Church will, starting young, require a generous lifetime. Many people now teaching have never pursued either an adequate or a sympathetic course in Thomism or the Scholastics in general. They found Aquinas ‘out’ in the mid-sixties. They think and argue in terms of a deficient theory of knowledge. It is no fault of theirs, but Nominalism and its later developments lead, as in Hume, Locke, and Kant, to a paralysed denial of our power to form true concepts about reality, and about God.

The etiquette of St. Thomas’ deference

In the medieval period, all the Scholastics suffered from undue deference to the writings of one now known as the pseudo-Areopagite because he was mis-identified with the ‘Dionysius’ who was converted by St. Paul in his famous address to the men of Athens recently quoted. The pseudo-Dionysius is a writer of genius, insight, and for the most part of truth, though he does exaggerate, and in matters of the heavenly life of the angelic hierarchy he romanticizes as well. St. Thomas would not perhaps have twisted himself so much in knots to agree with or ‘interpret’ the said Dionysius, if he had known that he was in fact a disciple of the late Platonist thinker Proclus and can be dated as certainly no earlier than about 450 AD. Nobody in those humble and pious days, before theologians thought so much about their ‘fulfilment’ and ‘identity’, liked to disagree with a saint who walked, as they thought, with St. Paul the apostle (The Divine Names: 1, Q 13). In much the same way, Aquinas will contort himself at times to agree with St. Augustine of Hippo, when it would have been better to say ‘I don’t think we quite agree’ because, while their broad outlook and philosophy is the same, their systems differ in important detail. In the analysis of the knowledge of God by grace, your humble servant much prefers the general approach and thought of Augustine and the Franciscan school, to that of St. Thomas - a comment which is neither here nor there! The pseudo-Denis, as he is called, is a mystic in thought and in writing. He emphasizes too heavily our ‘nescience’ of God, even in the order of grace, but he does not deny that somehow or other we do truly know Him, and love Him for real. As for St. Thomas, however polite he may be in making revered authorities agree with him, he is himself the clearest of teachers.’ Most rarely is there any doubt about what he means to say.

By their fruits you shall know men

If anyone has a doubt of the actual opinion of St. Thomas concerning whether God can be truly known and loved for real, and as person, let them read him on ‘love’ and ‘delight in the loved’ (dilectio), and on our relationship to God in contemplation, and the contemplative state (The Loving of God. 2.2. QQ 24 and 28). Let them read the Mass of Corpus Christi, most of which he composed, and if available the magnificent readings for the suppressed octave of that feast. Then there are his hymns, noblest of all perhaps the ‘Lauda Sion Salvatorem’. Men don’t, as a matter of psychology, write like that, unless they have experienced the majesty, love and joy which inspires their muse as Him, not as ‘something way up there’.

Theology is not a science, not in a primary sense; theology is the knowledge of God in the communion of true wisdom and the possession of God in the love that cleaves to the good. A condition of this love, but not the experience itself, lies in Christ’s admonition ‘he that loves me, keeps my commandments’ (John 14:23). That is why one is so fond of St. Augustine (The Confessions; De Trinitate,; In Joannem tract. 13). The Confessions are the easily available title of his search for God in love, and his finding of him, but it breathes in comments and asides in all his works. For him, greatest doctor of the Western Church, his theology of Christ is so obviously a relationship learned as person from person.

The ‘analogy of being’

The most important principle in scholastic and especially in  St.  Thomas’  philosophy is that of the analogia entis, that reality or being is recognised and spoken, not in a univocal meaning, nor in an equivocal meaning, but in an analogous (more correctly an analogical) meaning. If ‘being’ has exactly the same sense and meaning whenever we use the word, we end up at pantheism. We are all self-conscious expressions of God, and God in us and in the creation is still ‘becoming’ and formalising himself. No clear knowledge of such a Godly ‘nature’ is possible.    If being or ‘the real’ is an equivocal notion, then there is no relation between what it means in us and God. The gap is too great to bridge. To this position we come if we accept too literally the statement that ‘God is the totally other’. The concept of the analogy of ‘being’ or existence, recognises that there are degrees of being, of reality, in itself. Even when we say the word ‘being’ or ‘thing’ and apply it to an atom, a stone, a worm, an ape, a man, an angel, to GOD, we recognise differing degrees of proportion, and differing degrees of intrinsic greatness in existence of all these things. All that is made by God is one ‘family’ if you like.

The most magnificent expression of this teaching is in St. Paul to the Colossians (Col 15-20) in which he names Christ as holding the primacy in all the degrees of being and over all the works of God and of man, and in which he states that in Christ, God and Man, all things do cohere together. In this recognition, all things have come out from a transcendent and  personal  God,  and all go back to Him, in differing degrees of recognition and of service, according to their different and intrinsic degrees of likeness to the Divine Being, through which their own is known and conceived.’ That ‘divine being’ or nature is God in the Person of The Eternal Word: all things were made by Him, through Him, and for Him. The purely material creation can respond to God not by personal knowing and loving in possession, but only by the very process of being what they are, and in the round of their sinless, material life, in which they witness to the reality of God, and the ordered wisdom of God, and of which they are the most humble manifestation. It is written in the wisdom of Solomon: ‘The Spirit of the Lord has filled the orb of  the earth, and that (earth) which contains all things, has knowledge of His voice’ (Wisdom. 1:7). Here too, is the basis for that notion of a Unity-Law of Control and Direction, in all the works of God. It is the recognition that in God all degrees of creation and being do ‘cohere together’ in the communion of one harmonious whole.

Personal and public revelation of God

In the spiritual creation, that of angels and men, this recognition of the analogy or similitude in the natures of beings means that there is between us and God, a real, an intrinsic link. We are really and formally made ‘in his image and likeness’, we are indeed ‘his offspring’, and we can, if He wills it, know Him as He is, and in his own nature. It means that here on earth, we can know him in possession. We call the knowledge ‘faith’: it has an external aspect in public revelation, and an internal aspect in which it relates to a degree of ‘understanding’ of the nature of God, and of the truth and right expression of his works. In this sense it is the virtue of wisdom, the interior savouring, in the intellect enlightened by grace, of both the mind of God, and the coherence or ‘orthodoxy’ of divine truth. The relationship to God, in the real, historic order in which we men have always been related to him, means that faith, savoured as wisdom, prompts in us through the will, the love of God in truth and in possession. This is love of God as person, real love and experience. The very first degree of it is a most basic sense of peace in the meaning of life, and the certainty of purpose in human existence. It means a lot more than a basic peace of conscience. In the sense in which Christ used it to the apostles, ‘My peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world gives do I give unto you ...’ (John 14.27), the Hebrew expression and its meaning conveys also love with joy, and joy in belonging. It can grow into the love of God which spills over from the experience of the soul into a strange effect upon the body - the ecstasies of the saints, the stigmata of St. Francis and, one thinks, of Padre Pio.

I believe or ‘one does feel?’

When St. Thomas Aquinas insists that the concept ‘being’ or ‘the real’ is spoken and thought in degrees of depth of nature, but always with an intrinsic proportion and linkage one degree to another, all the way up to GOD, who is known as HE WHO IS, the saint is certainly right from the evidence of all history (Aquinas, Analogy of Being, 1, Q13, art 5; De Veritate, Ql, art 1; De Potentia, Q 7 art 7; Gilson, Philosophy of St. Bonaventure ch.7). GOD has dominated history as the principle of ultimate truth, goodness, moral harmony and sheer beauty. It is the temple which has been the centre of beauty and the expression of the wonderful in human social life and belonging. It is the divine which has inspired the most noble in art, literature, music and drama. In this respect liturgy is, and should be in all its aspects, the most beautiful and sacral representation of the communion between the human and the divine. It is, especially in the Mass, the highest form of drama in the communion of the divine and the human. Can we always say that it is so? Even in children’s Masses and in youth Masses it should be Christ-centred, and not ‘us’ centred; can we say it always is so?

If St. Thomas were not right in his teaching that being differs by intrinsic proportions of depth, and also is linked by the same proportionality to each other and to God, then demonstrating the existence of God would depend in us, not on the intelligence, but only on the inner feeling, on a merely subjective ‘faith’ or fideism. This approach is very popular today. Religious teaching in schools presumes ‘The Father’; it does not prove first that He exists. This subjectivism has ruined Catholic catechetics for a quarter of a century now. It comes about when soul and body are identified as one energy, or one process, as by Teilhard de Chardin, and this writer would say, also Karl Rahner. This approach inevitably leads to agnosticism, and whatever qualifications are made, in the end, to quote the late Mgr Ronnie Knox, we ‘have changed the I believe to One does feel.’

Fr Edward Holloway was the Editor of FAITH for 22 years. This is a slightly abridged version of the first part of the Editorial for the July/August 1989 issue. It will be concluded in our next issue.




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May - June 2021