From one ancestor [God] made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him 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.”2
It has been about three weeks since we last took up the Catechism on the blog, and by way of refreshing the memory we had last looked at Paragraph 27, which established the anthropological question: what is a man? The Catechism defined the human being as created with a drive for and a capacity to know and love God. Para. 27 is a statement of faith, since human sciences cannot prove from observation and experience that (1) God exists, or (2) that the human psyche is disposed to God. The Catechism is probably wise here to make this claim in the realm of faith; for centuries, particularly in the medieval and scholastic ages, Catholic scholarship—including the great Thomas Aquinas himself—believed that God’s existence was naturally and logically observable, using such constructs as Aristotle’s “first cause.” And, given the belief of many centuries that the Scriptures were literally true, theologians maintained that the Bible itself was proof of God’s loving intent and man’s free choice to accept Baptism.
Speaking as a catechist, I think it is important to convey to serious students of faith that there are multiple ways of knowing. The post Renaissance and Enlightenment times were divided: there were those who tenaciously maintained the scholastic tradition that God and his basic teachings were knowable in a factual way through logic and history; this population included strong papal loyalists or ultramontanists and Jesuits. We have seen that during Vatican II the curial forces battled to maintain Thomism/scholasticism as the paradigm for classroom seminary instruction. Enlightenment thinkers did not believe that God—or at least his “entourage”—stood the test of the new sciences.
There was, however, a “third way” that would have considerable influence from the 1600’s and even in our present day. This segment of European and eventually American Colonial religious experience would agree with Enlightenment thinking that God cannot be proved by the everyday knowledge of books and observation. On the other hand, it recognized a kind of two sphere universe: the metaphysical divine and the objective scientific. For many thoughtful men, then, it was quite possible to embrace the reality of a data-driven world of scientific and self-sustaining principle while at the same time paying service of varying degrees to an inexpressible religious knowledge that defied easy definition.
Two figures come immediately to mind. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) put forth a philosophical theory of how the mind works in an internal system of management of outside stimuli and influences. On the other hand, he coined the principle of the “categorical imperative” to describe how living rationally is equivalent to living ethically. A clearer and more intriguing character—and a Catholic to boot—is Blaise Pascal (1623-1662). Pascal was one of the greatest mathematicians of all time: he invented new formulas along with the roulette wheel and a very primitive computer-like device. In fact, the computer programming language Pascal is named in his honor. But the precise, analytic, data-driven Pascal is also remembered for his religious/mystical writing. It is Pascal who coined the phrase “the heart has reasons that reason knows nothing about.” This is hardly the language of the blackboard, but it was the language of Pascal’s association with a borderline heretical Catholic movement known as Jansenism. Jansenists were alienated from what they saw as an overly complex Catholic system, and sought a highly pietistic, passive and dependent experience of God. The religious experience of Jansenism shied away from excessive reason and engagement in external good works, particularly in matters of penance and redemption.
It is noteworthy that during the twentieth century Catholic theologians such as Karl Rahner attempted to find new formulations and build new bridges between faith and reason. But the relationship of God to his creation, most notably his human creations, will always struggle for some kind of articulation, and in fact will probably never be found in this world. Even the evangelists struggled for a language to describe the place of God in Pontius Pilate’s world.
Paragraph 28, of which I have said nothing yet, is built upon the assumption that God can speak and men can hear: it proclaims as a matter of faith a communication from God that began long before Abraham. Curiously para. 28 works from the bottom up: the prevalence of divine consciousness among so many ancient peoples that the hunger for God (or a god) must be universal. The recognition of a real if incomplete religious experience in all quarters of the world is certainly indicative of Vatican II’s influence. The God described in para. 28 is surprisingly universal; there is no specific mention of a “revealed tradition” as God works diligently among all. So we have here not just an anthropology but a cosmology as well: a hands-on description of God as the power over all. It would seem that God has his reasons that reason knows nothing about.