The MOST Theological Collection: Our Father's Plan: God's Arrangements and Our Response
"Introduction: To Open: A Lost Dimension"
Why is it that many souls who try hard, even generously, to grow spiritually find spiritual things, even the Mass, mean little or nothing to them, so that they say they "get nothing out of it?" There are several reasons. We plan to explore all of them at various points in this book. But for now it is good to focus our attention on a lost dimension.
A great vista has fallen out of the spiritual life of many, if indeed it was ever there. The early Fathers of the Church will help us get a start. Arnobius, an early apologist for the faith, writing near the end of the age of persecutions, addressed these words to God: "To understand you, we must be silent; and for fallible conjecture to trace you even vaguely, nothing must even be whispered."1 Similarly, an author who calls himself Dionysius the Areopagite, writing near the year 500 A. D. , said that God is best known by "unknowing."2 St. Gregory of Nyssa had expressed the same idea even earlier when in his Life of Moses he said that, "The true vision of the One we seek, the true seeing, consists in this: in not seeing. For the One Sought is beyond all knowledge."3 In his treatise On Christian Doctrine, St. Augustine boldly stated the same fact, with pardonable exaggeration: "He must not even be called inexpressible, for when we say that word, we say something."4
The greatest of all theologians, St. Thomas Aquinas, near the end of his life, felt constrained to leave his monumental Summa of theology unfinished: "Such things have been revealed to me that the things I have written and taught seem slight to me."5 Once he had been given some glimpse of what God really is, Thomas felt his profound Summa so poor that he could not bring himself to touch it again.
Even the pagan Plato wrote that God is "beyond being."6
These writers had entered deeply into the immense dimension that is unknown to sterile souls. They tried to express the inexpressible by seemingly contradictory words. Nor do we blame them. We could try to explain it a little in the following way: When we speak the words red, green, blue, a person who is not color-blind grasps the sense, and gets the image of what we mean. The reason is that both we and our hearer share a common experience. For we have all sensed these colors. But suppose we speak of colors to one who is color-blind. We could of course tell him the frequency of vibration of the light waves-but he would not really get a mental image of those colors such as we have. They are beyond his experience.
Similarly, when we try to speak of God, we use words that normal persons do know. But we have to use them in a sense that is partly, in fact, very much different from the sense to which we are accustomed. That is why Our Lord Himself, when a young man addressed Him as "Good Master", took the occasion to teach this lesson dramatically by replying: "Why do you call me good? One is good: God" (Lk 18:18-19).
Jesus did not of course mean to deny that He Himself was God. Nor did He mean that even as man He was not good. No, He wanted to teach forcefully the truth seen by Arnobius and the other Fathers: the word good, when applied to God, is indeed partly the same as when applied to creatures. Yet there is a difference, a difference so great that we must at once correct our language and understanding by denying certain features that apply to creatures. Hence, God is known by "unknowing", by correcting our notions. And when we have most fully applied all the needed correctives, what positive content we have left is rather small-and yet, beyond that, is God Himself, really inexpressible. So Dionysius wrote: "We pray to see and to know that which is beyond seeing and knowing by our very not-seeing and not-knowing."7
Behind all these efforts to describe God the indescribable lies that fact that He is simply transcendent. That is, He does not fit into our categories or classifications; He is beyond all. We can try to begin to grasp this by a concrete instance. If we try to explain how God knows things, we run quickly into impenetrable mystery.
Now there are two ways in which a creature can know things, the active way, and the passive way. In the passive way, we take in an impression from something outside ourselves, we acquire something new, data we did not have before. Of course, we cannot think of God's knowledge in this way, as if there were a lack in Him needing to be filled: nothing can be lacking in Him.
But if we try to say God can know only in the active way, we meet worse obstacles: a blind man can know a chair is moving because he, actively, is pushing it. But even a blind man can know many things he does not actively cause. Clearly, we cannot make God more limited than a blind man by saying He can know only what He causes.
So neither the active nor the passive explanations can fit Him. The reason is as we said: He is simply beyond all our categories, cannot be contained in the frameworks we set up for created things. The word that expresses this characteristic of His is transcendence.
Hence St. Thomas Aquinas, in trying to explain how God can know the future free decisions of humans, was content merely to say that since God is in eternity-in which all is present, with no past, no future, for they would imply change-He can know the future, as present. St. Thomas was driven to this conclusion by the fact that a future free decision is really unknowable, since it does not yet exist-nor are there any causes lined up outside the man that will make him decide this way. If so, he would not be free. Therefore St. Thomas said that since all things are present to God, He can know them, for in the present, they are decided, and so are knowable.8
But St. Thomas did not dare to ask, beyond this point, just how--in what way--does God know the things present in eternity? For then he would be caught in the active or passive dilemma we have seen. St. Thomas, in proper humility, remained silent, knowing he could penetrate no further. Nor can we understand just how the future can be present to God. We say: Christ will come at the end, using a future expression. But to the divine mind that is present, not future. We say: God made the world, using a past expression. But to the divine mind, that is present too.
An even greater mystery is this: Scripture9 shows various instances in which God knows a different kind of future, not the kind that really will happen-but instead the kind that would happen, e.g., what would happen if I would make this move in these circumstances. (Theologians call these things futuribles.) Not even eternity can make these futuribles present, for they not only do not now exist, they never will exist. Yet, God does know them, as Scripture shows.10
Once we get some glimpse of these truths, we can see that there are two poles in our response to God. (By poles we mean centers around which things are grouped.) They are the pole of love-closeness-warmth, and the pole of a sense of awe, of majesty, of realization of His infinity and our nothingness in comparison.
We cannot, strictly speaking, overdo either of these response attitudes, since God is infinite in all respects. He is both love and infinite majesty. But we can have a distorted, even a sick condition in our souls if we cultivate one pole largely or entirely without the other.
That is what many souls do. They are so preoccupied with God as love, that we fear they have distorted love. Satan gladly helps us to distort, for he knows that people fear to speak against love, and so can be mired in various counterfeits. St. Paul was very right when he wrote (2 Cor 11:14): "Satan transforms himself into an angel of light," that is, he takes on the appearance of good-but a sick, twisted good-so that by getting us enmeshed in it, he may keep us from what really is good.
Suppose someone told me: "Joe Doaks, who lives three blocks from here, loves you." My reaction would probably be: "Ho hum. Who is that? Why should I be interested?" Similarly, if someone is told that God loves him, but lacks a perception of the immense majesty, the infinite otherness of God, he too may be little interested in God's love. He will be spiritually stunted and sick. So we need this perspective of God's infinity vs. our nothingness. Without it we are easily trapped in a lack of humility, the virtue that recognizes what we are in comparison to God. This humility, as we will see fully in chapter 18, is an absolute prerequisite for love: unless we have a humility as deep as our love is to be lofty, that love will be, at least in part, an illusion, a counterfeit.
But it is not enough just to read or hear of this need of spiritual balance. One must also realize it. And so we come to the second need. Cardinal Newman proposed a famous distinction between notional and realized knowledge. Suppose I read in the news that there is a famine in Africa. I will probably believe the account, but it is not likely to move me. I will be apt to quickly turn the page of the newspaper and read another item. I have only notional knowledge. But suppose instead I were to go to the famine area and see people near death or dying, and even to feel hunger myself-then I would also know the very same fact, but in a very different way. I would have realized knowledge. Realized knowledge takes hold of us, makes us not only think deeply, but also makes us act, it transforms us. Of course, there are many degrees of realization possible. What would happen to us if we had as deep a realization of the basic truths of faith as we have of the latest sports event? We would never be the same!
So we are going to try to set out to give a balanced picture of God and our relations to Him. This book can offer that-but for real spiritual profit, the reader needs to deeply meditate on these truths, so as to try to advance many degrees in realization.