The Possibility of Knowing and Loving God
Editorial FAITH Magazine September – October 2011
With the arrival of the new translation of the Roman Missal there is, as one would expect, much talk about the kind of language we use to express our relationship with God. This is a cause for hope and we welcome the liturgical reforms. Embedded in the debate about what register of language and what kind of words we might use in the Mass is a more fundamental, and vital, question: how valid is it to use any kind of human language to talk to, and about, God? And behind this question stands another, still more fundamental, question: can we human beings know God at all?
Many Catholics today are, perhaps in most cases unwittingly victims of a crisis in confidence as to whether God can in any meaningful sense be known. Not infrequently one encounters a deep-rooted scepticism in this regard. Notwithstanding the welcome rise of new communities emphasising the personal relationship with Our Lord Jesus through his Church, many modern theologians still lay great emphasis on the total otherness of God and our corresponding utter nescience, or ignorance, of God. Often God is presented as such a vague, abstract reality - in many cases no more than a hypothesis - that the notion that such a God could be truly known and loved, let alone be our personal fulfilment, is risible. If we cannot know God, then it is understandable that good people who yearn for asustaining relationship with Him turn in desperation to weird, and frankly kooky, forms of spirituality in order to fill the void left, so they imagine, by God's unattainability. We note with great sadness that numerous Catholic retreat houses that should be havens of peace, places where people can find time and space to reflect and be guided authentically towards God, continue to offer new-age spiritualities, such as the Enneagram personality categorisation, that have been condemned by the Church as harmful to an authentic relationship with God.
Against this trend we would assert that God is not some abstract entity towards whom we fire off prayers in the vague hope that they might land somewhere near him. God is our fulfilment and He offers to us the possibility of entering into a personal communion with Him. God, trendy theology and bizarre new-age musings aside, wishes us to know Him in wisdom and possess Him in love. It is the deepest purpose of our lives to engage in this endeavour.
What has brought us to our present impasse? First, we should not underestimate how much sin and our moral failings, both collective and individual, have alienated us from God. St. Augustine referred to this earthly life, marked as it now is by sin, as a regio dissimilitudinis, a region, or state, of dissimilarity or remoteness from God, and the more we allow our hearts and minds to be claimed by this dissimilarity the less capable we become of contemplating God. Moreover, our own sins alienate us from God. It is hardly surprising then that a society sunk in vice and cynicism, like our own, is less than conducive to the contemplation of our God, before whom the angels fall down in adoration.
The effects of Original Sin apply to all, so we should not imagine that our particular cultural malaise stops at the door of the Church and is only to be found "out there". Many within the Church lost their way in the turmoil that followed the Second Vatican Council. It might even be supposed that some of those who were meant to guide us failed to do so because they had lost their own prayer life and personal communion with God. As Fr Edward Holloway wrote in this space in 1989: "If you spend your life in a position of constant and deliberate dissent from the solemn doctrine of the Church, and if in private conversation you teach the young to dissent and to sneer at the person of the vicar of Christ, you are certainly not going to know God in wisdom and possess him in love: you are goingsimply to be an empty old husk." Sadly the forces of dissent would still seem to be widespread in the Church. They encourage the belief that the true God cannot be known personally.
A Problem of Ideas
But the more proximate cause of nescience in Catholic culture relates to an aspect of that culture's intellectual milieu.
In the years after the Council Transcendental Thomism became the ascendant theology in the Church. In many respects this was a valiant attempt to address many of the issues that modernity had thrown up, but despite its strengths it also presented problems. Broadly speaking, Transcendental Thomists would argue that all our experiences have two dimensions: the categorical and the transcendental. The categorical is the objective and finite, that which we can conceptualise. The transcendental concerns our experience of the infinite and that which escapes human concepts. God is the ultimate transcendental reality. In this system, pushed to its logical conclusion, it becomes impossible to say or know anything about God because God is a transcendental reality and therefore beyond words orconcepts. The reality of God is thus ultimately emptied of any content and so one finds God described as the infinite horizon against which individual finite realities are distinguished. Or God is described as "naked being" against which particular beings are distinguished.
The problem with this is that it leaves us with nothing to love or build our lives upon. The infinite horizon of being is hardly likely to inspire a martyr to lay down his life. In what possible sense is "naked being" a personal God?
While Transcendental Thomism dominated the curriculum in continental theology faculties, back in Britain analytical philosophy held sway. The basic point, that God escapes our concepts, remained the same, but here the emphasis was laid upon the incapacity of human words to express the reality of God. Wittgenstein's famous dictum "whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent" seemed to apply with a particular aptness to the reality of God. Through an almost mathematical use of the concept of infinity this dissimilarity between finite and infinite was perceived to smother any positive affirmation.
If we can say nothing meaningful about God, then every statement we make is equally absurd. Yet this is not the case. We know that there are certain statements we can make about God that are less inadequate than others. Anyone who wishes to call himself a Christian must hold that the statements "God is good" or "God is our Father" are more adequate to the reality of God than is the statement "God is made of Tupperware." And if we can discern between more or less meaningful statements about God, it follows that we do have some knowledge of what God is like. And this is just at the natural level, without consideration of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
It would certainly be wrong to claim that we human beings know God if by that we meant that we have an exhaustive knowledge of God. For as Scripture tells us, "my thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways are not your ways - it is Yahweh who speaks" (Isa 55:8). Or as St. Augustine wrote concerning definitive knowledge, "si comprehendis non est Deus": if you have understood it, it is not God. However, even though our knowledge of God is not exhaustive we do have a real natural knowledge of God.
Traditionally our capacity to speak of, or apply our concepts to, God has found its foundation in the medieval concept of analogia entis, or analogy of being. Analogy is simply a way of holding similarity and difference together. It means that no word or concept is applied univocally to Creator and created reality; that is, as if it had precisely the same meaning in both cases. Nor is any term applied equivocally to both Creator and created reality; that is, as if there were no similarity at all in the two applications of the term. Any term that is applied to both God and created reality is used analogically.
The analogy of being is the articulation of the teaching of the Fourth Lateran Council: "For between creator and creature there can be noted no similarity so great that a greater dissimilarity cannot be seen between them." This means that when a term is used of both God and creature encompassed within that usage there is both likeness within a greater dissimilarity.
The analogy of being has particular applications in the discipline of natural theology; however, it is also the condition of possibility for any discourse whatsoever about God. If one takes into account the whole of the New Testament one finds abundant statements pointing towards the ineffability of God and our relationship with Him. We read: "Beloved, we are God's children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed." (1 Jn 3:2). Or we hear of St. Paul "caught up to Paradise" where he heard "things that cannot be expressed in words, things that no human being has a right even to mention" (2Cor 12:4). But at the same time Jesus himself is constantly using created realities to describe our relationship with God. We find on his lips phrases such as "to what shall I compare the Kingdomof God..." (Lk13:20). And so from the pages of the New Testament there emerges this pattern of similarity within the transcendent dissimilarity of God, who is semper maior, always greater than what we know of Him.
The Root of the Analogy of Being
The analogy of being is not the invention of theologians. It is rather a recognition of the fundamental structure of reality. The analogy of being is based upon the fact that there are degrees of being. As Aquinas acknowledged this truth is written into physical being. The deeper understanding of the physical realm offered by modern science has confirmed this insight and, as Holloway argued, deepened it. In this issue's Cutting Edge column we offer some extracts from the introduction to a philosopher-physicist's paper at the 2009 Vatican-sponsored conference on the philosophy of evolution which clearly lays the foundation for such development.
At the beginning of his paper William Stoeger SJ of the Vatican Observatory and Arizona University argues:
"All novelty and emergence is really due to the constitutive relationships at lower levels which enable and effect the emergence of novel systems and organisms at higher levels. Along with the importance of these relationships are several other key features: the nested hierarchies of organisation at hundreds - if not thousands - of different levels on this planet... the same laws of physics and chemistry function throughout the universe, and everything is related to everything else ... as any system or organism is always a part of some larger system, organism or ecology, it in turn fulfils a certain function, or set of functions - which is often interpreted as having a certain 'purpose' within that larger system. And natural selection itself supplies the preference for the organisms whichare more fit and functionally adapted relative to a given environment."
Science has clearly shown the link between the being of something and its functional relationship with its environment. This functionality becomes more sophisticated the "higher up" the hierarchy of physical complexity and organisation, and thus very being, that the structure of something is. Such relationships of parts integrate higher unities, ultimately making up the existential unity of the whole cosmos. In our May 2011 Cutting Edge column and our November 2005 editorial we applied this insight to low-level, or subatomic, physics, using De Broglie's interpretation of quantum mechanics. Because intelligible relationships and individuality seem to become less clear at this level, we should talk of things having even "less" being.
In our vision the specific, meaningful relationships by which things exist find their source of existence, as well as their intelligibility, in the creative Mind of God. It is because He knows the cosmos as this specific unity of unities that it exists with all its interconnected specificities. Human beings, who are the unification of physical matter and spiritual mind in one personality, are at the top of this cosmic pyramid in which we, uniquely, and primarily in our spiritual souls, are made in the image and likeness of God.
Words About God
If we already observe that cosmic reality itself embraces different degrees of being, there is no problem in holding that the way God exists, as the ultimate spiritual Mind, is simply richer and fuller than the way in which we exist. Thus there is some similarity between God and us: we exist, though not as fully as God. But the similarity of our existence to God's does not prescind from the "infinite" distance between necessary Creator and contingent creature, our existence being but a pale shadow of His. Hence when we apply a term to God such as "good", we do so in light of the full richness of His existence. When we apply that same term to ourselves we do so meaningfully, but in the knowledge that our goodness has only a flicker of the richness and fullness of God'sgoodness. The term is used not to mean the same thing, univocally, nor yet to mean something completely different, equivocally. Analogy walks a tightrope between total dissimilarity and total similarity.
In these few pages we have been able to offer only a cursory glance at the analogy of being, a reality that lies at the heart of theology. This editorial is not the forum for a specialised discussion of all the subtleties of the analogy of being. We would, however, note with optimism the renewal of interest in the work of Erich Pryzwara SJ. Pryzwara's is not a name that is on the lips even of those who are theologically educated. He was, nonetheless, a great proponent - perhaps the great proponent - of the analogia entis and is one of the great forgotten theologians of the 20th century. His major works are being translated into English, and he and his controversy with Karl Barth have been the subject of a recent conference in the United States. We hope that this renewed interestwill bear much fruit and that a deeper and more widespread appreciation of his contribution to theology will inspire renewed confidence in our ability to know, and discourse about, God. We hope that this in turn will deepen our love for God and give us confidence to live our Catholic faith joyfully.
We cannot conclude this editorial without a final word on the mystery of God. Although the Church can, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, formulate true dogmas, the Divine majesty of God is always greater than anything we can say. We must acknowledge that God is simply more than we can grasp and so there is a place for silence before the mystery of God. The saints and mystics all bear witness to this truth. Moreover apophatic theology, based on the supposition that God can be known to us only in terms of what He is not, is an integral part of the Church's heritage. And yet even mystics, such as Teresa of Avila, used metaphor liberally to describe their growth into the very life of God by Grace.
Our purpose in writing this editorial is to highlight an alternative to the path taken by those who use this necessary silence as a pretext to undermine and question the dogmas of our faith and the related experience of the personal love of God. Such theology of nescience scandalises and shakes the faith of many in the Church, subverting the renewal of devotion fostered in new communities and movements. We cannot know God exhaustively: our concepts are not the measure of God. But we can talk meaningfully about God using analogy and metaphor, and we can know and love God. And God invites us to do this "with all [our] heart, with all [our] soul and with all [our] might."