| Fr. James V. Schall, S. J. | July 26, 2011 | Ignatius Insight
"This is a constant temptation on the journey of faith to avoid the divine mystery by constructing a comprehensible god who corresponds with one's own plans, one's own projects."
-- Pope Benedict XVI, Audience, June 1, 2011.
The notion of a "comprehensible god" is an intriguing one: to only admit a god we can understand. The Catholic view of God is not that we can know nothing about God, but that what we know is remarkably less than what is to be known. The mystery of the Christian God is not how little we know of Him but how much more there is to know—even when we know a lot, including what He has revealed to us. We are not skeptics, but we are careful. We consider the question of whether God has revealed anything of Himself to us over and above what we might know by our own reasonings. We find that a rather considerable amount of what God is and is like has been made known to us. Yet, we must put this knowledge in place and proper order. The relatively little that we do know of God, as Aristotle said, is worth all our efforts.
God did not reveal everything we need to know about everything. He expected us to figure out many things by ourselves. Indeed, what in addition, beyond our own reflections, was made known to us was designed for our own good. We were told things about God that were helpful to reach Him. The reaching of God was itself the purpose of our creation and subsequent redemption; it was the purpose of the Resurrection and the gift of eternal life.
Aquinas stated we were given a more clear idea of God's inner being with divine revelation. Beyond what we could figure out by ourselves, we were provided with further insight into what was right and wrong in our lives. We were told of the relation of our thoughts to our actions. And we were explicitly told of further rewards and punishments so that we could grasp the importance of our own lives and what we do with them. None of what were told about God coerced us or removed our freedom to reject Him. But it did give us reasons why it might well be God who was addressing Himself to us.
As Benedict XVI tells us, however, whatever God indicates about Himself, either in reason or revelation, we have an abiding or constant temptation to "avoid" it. We can ignore what we know of God in reason and revelation. We give excuses. We think that revelation is unimportant or insignificant. We can get along without it. We don't need God to be good. We can set up our own good. Yet, we cannot leave it at that. We cannot just live on a negative theory of our own making. We must find something more to our liking.
We want a "comprehensible god." We want a God who does not make us think too much or who does not ask us to do much. It has often been remarked that the Christian God is too "complicated." He requires too much thought of us. The Muslim god is much simpler: four or five basic rules and acts do it for everybody; God as Trinity and Incarnate is specifically rejected. And yet, as we see from Christianity's earliest days, it is precisely in thinking about the Trinity and the Incarnation that we learn most about ourselves and our world. Indeed, thinking of them, paradoxically, enables us to philosophize better. It makes us suspect reason and revelation have the same origin.
Yet, if we reject the information of our reason and what is also revealed to us, this rejection does not leave us alone. We can't just walk away. We seek to put in its place something "better," something we concoct by ourselves. We think we can improve on both our being and our destiny. We do not put it this way perhaps, but this is what we are about. We come up with theories and technologies that, we insist, are better than what is promised to us. In so doing, however, we are implicitly left to ourselves. We have nothing left but ourselves. We think that we can come up with a better explanation of why and what we are. We do not notice that what we are doing is substituting a divine plan for a human one. We declare the latter to be the more important one. We can "create" ourselves. Men will be like gods.
If a real order of things does exist, however, the human enterprise consists in discovering what this order means and where the human being fits into it. Logically, this approach will mean that we find a correspondence between our mind and existing things, almost as if the two things, mind and being, belonged together. Thus, we begin with a capacity to know which capacity we do not give ourselves. It is already there. It is not something we can set aside.
But we do not actually know anything until we begin either haphazardly or systematically to observe, reason, and reflect on things that are really there before us. We realize that many things are there whether we like it or not. We did not put them there, just as we did not give ourselves our own existence or our own capacity to know and do things. We find ourselves coming to be in a world that already exists. We are not the causes of what it is to be human beings. This seems odd to us.
Our desire to know things is already there within us, moving us on. We did not give this desire to ourselves either. We find it constantly provoking us, prodding us to find things out. We become aware that we did not give or make ourselves what we are. We can look on this fact as a restriction or as a freedom. It is a restriction if we insist that nothing out there has any relation to us. We can act as nothing but ourselves exists and we have no meaning or structure except what we give ourselves.
On this supposition, freedom will mean not following what is right or proper as already inherent in our being. Rather, it will mean doing whatever we want because nothing out there binds us. We even have to deny that we have a "nature," human or otherwise, as that would imply some reason why we are human beings and not something else.
The second and more classic form of freedom acknowledges that our freedom is not based on anything but on what we are. We are already a certain kind of being. We are only free if we know what we are and what we are intended to do. We are thus free to obey the law or reason. We are not free to make up whatever we want. From the beginning, as we see in Genesis, we are tempted to make our own rules.
In Salt of the Earth, Joseph Ratzinger remarked: "Truth and reality belong together. Truth without reality would be a pure abstraction ... Man is degraded if he can't know truth, if everything, in the final analysis, is just the product of an individual or collective decision" (66-67). A freedom not based on truth can and will degrade us.
The "constant temptation" is that there is no truth because there is no reality that makes any difference to us. If truth is just a "decision," it can always be changed by another decision. Nothing is stable. We usually do not call what we substitute for God another god. We recall the warnings in scripture about idols. We are not tempted by graven images or by stone poles or by golden calves. But we are tempted by ideologies, by fancy explanations of things that are supposedly easier to understand—evolution, or progress, or utopias.
In Jesus of Nazareth (Vol. 2), Benedict brings up the question of the learned and their unbelief. Contrary to what we might expect, the more many scholars know, the less they know about the important things. "This combination of expert knowledge and deep ignorance certainly causes us to ponder. It reveals that the whole problem of knowledge that remains self-sufficient and so does not arrive at Truth itself, which ought to transform man" (207). We can have a view of our own knowledge that makes it "self-sufficient." It admits no limits outside of itself.
"What Jesus says about ignorance, and the examples that can be found in the various passages from scripture, is bound to be upsetting for the supposedly learned today. Are we not blind precisely as people with knowledge? Is it not on account of our knowledge that we are incapable of recognizing Truth itself, which tries to reach us through what we know?" (208). The Pope here brings up a question that goes against the grain. We like to think that the more degrees we have, the higher our "intelligence," the more likely we are to know the truth.
But, in practice, it does not always work this way. It is the humble and the simple who enter the Kingdom of God first. The learned are tempted by their own self-worship. It has long been recognized that the most intellectual of the vices—the origin of the vices—is pride, the one vice that is simply thought. Lucifer, after all, was not tempted by anything but himself.
Irenaeus of Lyons, the great bishop of the second century, had already encountered this Gnosticism in the early church. The Gnostic temptation is an abiding one. It has its own doctrine that rises above anything that normal men could understand. Eric Voegelin characterized our age as Gnostic. That is, it is an age in which revelation is rejected in favor of philosophical constructions of the learned, constructions that do not conform to reality or revelation but to the intellectual's own mind.
"Do not look for anything above the Creator, for you will not find it; your maker is without limits," Irenaeus advised the learned of his time.
And do not dream up some other Father above God, as if you had taken all His measurements, as if you had explored His entire creation, as if you had considered His whole depth and length and height. Your dreaming will come to nothing. Thinking against nature, you will become foolish. And if you persist you will fall into insanity, regarding yourself as loftier and better than your own Creator, imagining that you can pass through and beyond the realm of God (Against Heresies, #68, Ignatius, 1990).
This is the "constant temptation." It is as present in our time as it was in the time of Irenaeus. It will be formulated differently, but its essence is the same. It wants a "comprehensible god" who is pretty much one's own projects and understandings, not that of reason or revelation.